*Since writing this essay more than 10 years ago, there have been several high-profile polygamy cases involving people like Warren Jeffs et al. The details of each case, past or future, deal with the same issues and so I have decided to let the original essay remain
On May 18,2001, in Provo, Utah, a man named Tom Green was convicted of four counts of felony bigamy, a crime that carries a potential sentence of five years in jail for each count. It took the jury less than three hours to deliver the verdict, something Green maintains was inspired by emotion alone. The charges, Green claims, were brought about by the prosecutor's desire to punish him for being outspoken about his chosen lifestyle to anyone willing to listen.
Green is a polygamist, a religious man who openly flouts the laws of his state and lives with his five wives and twenty-nine children in the Utah desert. He has publicized his lifestyle in documentaries, on the internet, and even on television shows like Dateline and Jerry Springer. He defends his lifestyle vehemently, and from the outset has maintained that the constitution of the United States gives him the freedom to practice his religion as he sees fit. According to testimony from the trial, his "religion" involves marrying, then divorcing, a series of wives and then entering into "spiritual" marriages with them while they collect welfare. He claims to be legally single, although according to Utah law, living with someone constitutes common law marriage, and living with more than one person constitutes bigamy, whether the parties are legally married or not. It is also what allowed the prosecutor to charge him with four counts of bigamy, for each of the four wives taken after he married his first spouse - then fourteen years old - some years ago.
Utah, it seems, is finally trying to do something about its reputation as a Mormon-inspired polygamists' heaven. The estimated number of polygamist families living in Utah ranges from 50 000 to more than double that, although since many attempt to hide their lifestyle the number could be even greater. Polygamy in the United States comes from the belief system of Mormon founders Brigham Young (himself a man with 56 wives, though modern historians try to pretend he had only one) and Joseph Smith, who took the biblical stories of the old testament prophets literally and declared that God wants each man to marry as many wives as possible. Even though the Mormon church officially denounces polygamy these days, there are always the fundamentalists, as there are in every religion, who secretly adhere to the old ways and believe their path is the only one that will lead to heavenly reward.
The hallmarks of polygamy are abject poverty - most polygamist families live in groups of motor homes on patches of Utah desert, isolated from the rest of the "corrupted" world where even bar codes on supermarket products are said to be the mark of the beast, home schooling their countless children, and professing utter devotion to the idea that women ought to be humbled before God and take their place as part of a collection of wives whose only purpose in life is to serve one man. Mothers and daughters often marry the same man, becoming "sister-wives" to each other, as in Tom Green's case, who also chose as his most recent "fiance" the sixteen year old sweetheart of his thirteen year old son.
So what kind of man is this Tom Green? He is soft-spoken, a man who appears to be devout and dedicated to his concept of morality. When questioned about the appropriateness of marrying young wives - many of whom are minors - he counters, sincerely, it seems, with the argument that most of medieval Europe was founded on marriages between older men and pubescent girls. When asked why he feels it necessary to marry six women, he answers the way any devoutly religious person would - God told him to. He is convinced his religion is the only right one; anyone who has ventured into an argument with devoutly religious people, be they Catholics or Muslims, Buddhists or Jehovahs' Witnesses, will understand that it is impossible to argue against that kind of unshakable, if misguided, faith. Tom Green is just following God's will, trying to a live a peaceful, harmless life of piety and morality, or so he claims.
Yet former polygamous husbands, those who have left their previous lifestyles and have come forward to talk about it, are the first to claim that polygamists have anything but religion on their minds when they seek out prospective wives. They enjoy living out their sexual fantasy of having more than one woman, and better yet, having more than one woman come to them, willingly, for sex. They talk about the ego boost some men get from having a half a dozen women looking up to them and thinking that they're something special. They talk about the feeling of power, of potency, the thrill of sanctioned promiscuity, and how polygamy elevates them from simple, poor, unambitious guys to sultans presiding over a vast harem of adoring, subservient women.
It will probably come as a surprise, then, given the one-sided and ultimately male-oriented nature of polygamy, that some of the staunchest, or perhaps simply the most vocal, advocates of plural marriage are women themselves. They put forth the baffling argument that sharing a husband with several wives is a good career move, allowing women to have jobs and families without the stress of trying to "have it all" or risking day care for their children. Plural marriage means a "skilled husband" they claim, a man who by virtue of his many wives, has "several hundred years of marital experience". Tom Green's shy, rosy-cheeked young wives claim they would feel "selfish" if they were his only wife. Just because your husband already has five wives doesn't mean you can't have a great marriage with him, they insist; everyone can get along and help each other, jealousy need never enter into it.
None of which, apparently, is true for polyandry, or one wife with many husbands.
Polygamists universally denounce polyandry, which doesn't make sense if you follow their logic about the practicality of plural marriage. If more than one wife benefits a man because his supper is on the table and the kids are always looked after, then surely more than one husband would benefit a woman financially; with three or four husbands out working, she could stay home with the kids full time and care for them all by herself, provide for all their material and future educational needs and then some, and still have time to make a huge dinner when her husbands come home. If a woman had more than one husband, one or two of them could stay home with the kids while she pursued her career, solving the problem of day care. If a woman had more than one husband, she could limit the number of children she had and therefore be better able to care for them instead of bringing two dozen of them into the world to be brought up in a confusing free-for-all of aunts and sisters and cousins and step mothers.
I forward these arguments not because I advocate polyandry, but merely to illustrate that polygamists do not follow the "common sense" logic that they so often use to justify their lifestyle. What is left then, is the truth behind their lifestyle - it is not sensible, or practical, or beneficial for those involved, it is merely the product of a so-called prophet's delusions about what God wants men's marriages to be like, because God likes men, it seems, and thinks very little of women indeed.
I object to polygamy because, ultimately, I object to anything that sets men and women apart morally. There is no moral difference between men and women - one sex is not "good" while the other is "bad", no one is "evil" or "commanded by God" to suffer for their "sins". Men are not pigs, women are not whores, neither one has the moral high ground over the other, no matter what religion or society tries to make us believe. And when it comes to polygamy, both sexes must share the blame.
Polygamy is dependent on the idea that a man has the divine right to a position of superiority over women, that he may take as many women as he wants as "wives" and guide them as a spiritual father might guide his flock. Polygamy is dependent on women agreeing with this assessment, and embarking on "marriages" in which they are subservient and expected to be loyal to a faithless "husband" who thinks so little of her or their relationship that he will invite many, many others into it. Plural marriages are the direct result of two things - arrogant men who use an obscure religion to justify their desire for a harem, and hapless women who believe that being female is a sin for which atonement must be made.
And by atonement, I do mean atonement. One aspect of polygamy that is rarely discussed is the issue of "blood atonement", that is, the slaughtering of women who dare to leave plural marriages. Many women have been killed by zealous husbands - or zealous sister-wives - for the sin of abandoning what God has supposedly ordained, and many more live in fear for their lives once they summon the courage to seek refuge in shelters or homes. In this way, the "peaceful, harmless" lifestyle of plural marriages in Utah is remarkably similar to the polygamous practices of many other world cultures, who easily kill dissenters and raise fearful daughters to follow this tradition or risk their own lives. In fact, it is no co-incidence that those cultures and religions that are particularly brutal to women are also those that actively encourage or condone polygamy. Sadly, it is largely the women, the so-called sisters, who are the most brutal, and who are the most accepting of plural marriages, in other world cultures and in the sand swept plains of Utah, as well.
I maintain that plural marriages are not marriages at all. Marriage, in it's only true, moral form, consists of two adults who maintain a sexually exclusive and intimate love relationship based on shared values, and so there is no possible way any person can consider him or herself "married" when five other people are sexually involved. Polygamists can congratulate themselves all they want for their morality and piousness, but in truth they have neither the self-esteem, personal pride, or self-respect to sustain a successful marriage. Their relationships are fragments of a marriage, the root of marriage gone wrong, a perversion of a person's natural desire to fall in love exclusively, marry, and create children with the one person they love.
But here is where the argument becomes more complicated. While I certainly don't condone or respect polygamy, there are other, more far-reaching issues to be considered in this case.
I grant that polygamy is an immoral lifestyle, immoral not in a religious sense but in the sense that it prevents the participants from enjoying the best in life, love, and romance. But even so, even if I and everyone else around me pronounces it an immoral thing, there is an inescapable truth that everyone who respects individual rights must come to: no one has the right to legislate someone's morality when no real crime, meaning no one is being forced or coerced or harmed against their will - is taking place. This is an important point to consider in this and any other issue surrounding morality and individual rights.
If a group of people want to set up a trailer park in the middle of the Utah desert, call each other husband and wife and wife and wife, have three baseball teams' worth of kids and praise themselves as good proponents of some strange religion, the state should let them be. It may be odd to the rest of us, we may shake our heads at the stupidity of some people, but as a free society we don't have the right to throw every kook out there in jail just because we don't like his morality. There are strange things, strange relationships, strange people in every corner of the world, doing things that the rest of us drop our jaws at or would never comprehend in a million years - should we lock all of them up? We may feel for their children, we may curse these people for raising children in this pitiful way, but if we allowed the state to determine what constituted "good parenting", what would stop them from locking up parents who let their kids stay up til midnight or let them swear if they want or refuse to cover their eyes when nudity appears on tv?
Morality simply can't be legislated, and neither, unfortunately, can a person's definition of marriage. The best we can do is refuse to change existing laws regarding what constitutes legal marriage. There will always be lifestyles that flount legal, proper marriage; as a free society, we must let them exist if the rest of us hope to enjoy our freedoms as well.
It's clear that the prosecutor in this case was just pursuing Tom Green to remove an embarrassing little blight from Utah before the world arrives for the Olympics next year - but truthfully, in most people's rational estimation, he has no real reason to do so. Most rational people consider bigamy a crime of betrayal, where someone registers more than one legal marriage without the knowledge or consent of the other parties, usually for the purposes of fraud. Most rational people understand that if three or more people choose to live together, voluntarily, and do not attempt to register a legal marriage among them, a charge of bigamy is stretching the statute thin.
Even in Utah there must be cases of a not-yet-divorced person co-habitating with their new lover - are these people to be thrown in jail for bigamy as well? The truth is, no matter how personally offensive the idea of polygamy may be to the government (a condition of statehood for Utah was that the Mormon church officially ban the practice and excommunicate anyone engaging in it), there is no rational justification for imprisoning those who choose that lifestyle. The only real crime that Tom Green has committed is that of statutory rape, since his first and many subsequent wives were minors - he has been charged with first degree felony rape, although a trial date has not yet been set.
That is the only concrete objection anyone can have against polygamists. Among consenting adults there's nothing anyone can or should do to stop it, but when it comes to religious zealots arranging for their pubescent daughters - some as young as thirteen - to marry a man triple their age or more who already has a bevy of wives and children, every adult involved should be put in jail. The stories of such practices are as gripping as their are horrifying, how brainwashed some people have become and how little regard they have for their own daughters. No God ever ordained this kind of behavior - this is strictly the work of medieval, thoughtless minds who delight in ruining their daughter's pride, self-respect, autonomy and future chance at an exclusive adult relationship.
This is what opponents of polygamy should be focusing on. No one should waste their time trying to appeal to women with lowered eyes who are one step away from voluntarily wearing a dour black hijab to cover the sin of being female. No one should waste their time trying to knock the halo off the heads of sharp-eyed men who grin with delight at having pulled one over on half a dozen women. Let them live out their misery in the dryness of Deseret if they choose, but don't prosecute them for immorality. Prosecute them for statutory rape, instead. Get the little girls out of there before they grow up believing that the best place for a woman is in a lengthy line of sister-wives, waiting for their turn in their master's court.