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A win for polygyny

A federal judge in Utah struck down part of the state’s ban on polygamy as unconstitutional yesterday.

US district judge Clark Waddoups ruled in December that a section of Utah law that prohibits “cohabitation” violates the Constitution’s religious freedom and privacy protections. He reaffirmed this decision in his Wednesday ruling, in which he also provided attorney’s fees to the plaintiff, Kody Brown, a star of TLC reality show Sister Wives.

A law against cohabitation does sound very intrusive. On the other hand what if it’s just a euphemism for a certain kind of exploitation?

“The decision brings closure for our family and further reaffirms the right of all families to be free from government abuse,” Brown said in a statement on his lawyer’s website. “While we know that many people do not approve of plural families, it is our family and based on our religious beliefs. Just as we respect the personal and religious choices of other families, we hope that in time all of our neighbors and fellow citizens will come to respect our own choices as part of this wonderful country of different faiths and beliefs.”

“Plural families” is an interesting euphemism. They’re not just generally plural; they’re one man with several women, never the other way around.

The Guardian talked to Marci Hamilton.

“The decision is unfortunate in that the judge did not take seriously the ramifications of polygamy, which are the the oppression of women and children – it’s just the way the system works,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law. “Partly, Utah is to blame because they did a lousy job of presenting the evidence of the effects of polygamy and the way that the system operates.”

Hamilton said she believes it is unlikely that Waddoups’ ruling will be upheld if it is brought to an appeals court. Utah attorney general Sean Reyes had said earlier that the state would appeal the decision.

I think polygyny is generally very bad for women and children, but I’m not sure what should be done to address that.

Comments

  1. Blanche Quizno says

    I heard an argument for monogamy, specifically against polygyny, one summer while driving through Utah, of all the ironic places. Here’s how it goes: If polygyny is allowed, then, in time, a few particularly elite men will end up with ALL the women. There will not be enough women to go around for the rest of the men, who will become grumpy and irritable. In fact, such a scenario is dangerously primed for revolution. By limiting any man’s “take” to a single woman, that maximizes the number of men who can be paired up, resulting in a more peaceful, tranquil, and enduring social structure.

    I’m sure that, if there were as many examples of women with multiple husbands as there are of men with multiple wives, the argument wouldn’t sound so one-sided, but the reality that this plural thing IS one-sided. And it tends to overwhelmingly result in child abuse and the subjection of women.

    The more children in a family, the greater the risks of child abuse – the research is clear on that. From a personal anecdote, I used to associate to some degree with some Mormons. Within this small group, who all had at least 4 children (typically 6, sometimes more), I knew of 3 children who had drowned (two had been revived, still small at this point) and one child who had been killed by being run over by a car. Among the other families I know who have three or fewer children, I do not know of a single similar accident. Coincidence? Perhaps. Or perhaps it simply illustrates the danger of having so many young children at a time.

  2. quixote says

    Where is all this religion-uber-alles BS going to stop? As far as I know, they won’t let believers in voudoun (aka voodoo) perform the animal sacrifices their belief requires. In the light of — or, more precisely, in the darkness of this ruling, why not? It’s their religion. They’re not stopping anyone else from practicing other religions. Right?

    Gag. Just gag.

    And as to how to address the whole polygamy crap, how about this idea: If you have to respect religious anti-human rights BS and allow “plural families,” then in order to preserve the principle of equality before the law, they’re allowed in balanced numbers. So, if there’s one family with four men to one woman, you can have one family with four women to one man. If there’s a second family with 3 men to one woman, then there can be a second family with 3 women to one man. And so on. Utah would have to start hosting hippie communes so they could practice their disgusting religion. /*in case it’s not obvious, this idea is supposed to be total snark*/

  3. screechymonkey says

    On the other hand what if it’s just a euphemism for a certain kind of exploitation?

    Then it would be unconstitutionally vague. (For anyone wondering: yes, that’s a thing. Due process requires that laws give people reasonably clear notice of what conduct is criminal. )

    I think polygyny is generally very bad for women and children, but I’m not sure what should be done to address that.

    Yeah, that’s pretty much where I am, too. I don’t think the law is the right tool for the job. Not sure what the answer is, though part of it has to be making sure help is available for women and children who want to escape that life.

  4. says

    The dynamic described by Quizno is controlling. A man with multiple wives has an enormous reproductive advantage. In any society that permits this, the men will fight with each other for control of the women. The winners reproduce, the losers don’t, and Darwin takes care of the rest.

    What you end up with is a repressive, authoritarian society, with a small elite, a large underclass of unmarriageable men, and endemic social unrest, occasionally breaking out into civil war or revolution.

    The men at the top also have to keep control of the women: they have to keep them from having sex with other men. Women attract men by appearing in community, and–especially–displaying their bodies. So the men keep the women indoors, and out of community, and covered in burkas. And if a women does have unsanctioned sex, they kill her.

    It’s a really wretched way to run your society, and we don’t want to have anything to do with it.

  5. says

    Polygamy is something I think it’s fine in principle and there’s no reason it couldn’t work in fact, but almost every actual example in the world is fucked up due to being tied in to weird religions that don’t respect the principle of consent. Simply refusing everyone the option to make their own living arrangements is not good as a solution though; the problem is in the abuse and lack of consent, not in plural marriages per se. Certainly if polygyny is acceptable polyandry must also be acceptable.

  6. says

    There’s a difference between cohabitation and polygyny.

    Cohabitation is just who you live with, and I think there’s a case that it’s none (or at least not much) of the state’s business. I do know that laws against cohabitation have been used in ways that many would find objectionable. Chicago (?) had one that prohibited more than two generations in a household; it was enforced against a grandmother who was raising her grandson.

    Polygyny is a man actually marrying more than one woman. It is highly undesirable (see above), not currently legal anywhere in the U.S., and not going to be legal in the foreseeable future.

  7. says

    Here is a pretty thorough summary of the issues with polygyny: http://www.marriagedebate.com/pdf/iMAPP.Nov2011.Polygamy.pdf

    There are some differences between sororal and non-sororal polygyny. Like in non-sororal polygyny there are higher levels of co-wives killing each other’s children to advantage their own. Also there’s a dynamic, at least in non-sororal polygyny, where the first wife resents the second and uses her as a skivvy – sometimes recruiting subsequent wives into the abuse.

  8. Sogg says

    The kind of sexism that rises with the mention of polygamy is odd. Most only stop to think that polygamy is one men and multiple women, but the other way around is also possible, one women with multiple men. In any case the social constructs in most societies these days is the desired form monogamy.
    Even though there are issues with several forms of polygamy, some forms may be benificial. A true polygamy in my opinion is many to many. serveral men have serveral wives, none bound to one, raising a bunch of kids where it doesn’t matter which ones which, where love is mutual.
    In short, I wouldn’t condemn polygamy as a whole, but when it leads to an environment of fear, rivalry and submission, then I would damn it.
    I post this comment before consulting the summary posted by galloise, so my point of view may be influenced by that summary.

  9. John Crown says

    “Plural families” is an interesting euphemism. They’re not just generally plural; they’re one man with several women, never the other way around.

    As a man who was in a male/male/female relationship I have to take issue with “Never the other way around.” Maybe not in these fundamentalist communities, but often enough in other polyamorous relationships.

  10. Kevin Kehres says

    Doesn’t matter to me. Marry all the consenting adults you want.

    …oh wait. You want to marry 14-year-olds wearing “Little House on the Prairie” dresses.

    Sorry, no.

  11. says

    I think polygyny is generally very bad for women and children, but I’m not sure what should be done to address that.

    Well, not legalizing it is a good first step.

    Partly, Utah is to blame because they did a lousy job of presenting the evidence of the effects of polygamy and the way that the system operates.

    I suspect there are three reasons for that: a) they’re right-wing idiots who really didn’t care enough to read up on how bad polygyny is for women; b) they didn’t have the guts to stand up against something a lot of Mormons still support, openly or not; and c) perhaps they wanted to show that legalizing gay marriage really does lead to legalizing polygamy and pedophilia after all.

  12. qwints says

    Here’s how the decision changed the law:

    A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.

    The deleted language is almost hilariously unconstitutional under, among other cases, Lawrence v. Texas 539 U.S. 558 578 (2003) (see e.g ” The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”)

  13. says

    Here’s how it goes: If polygyny is allowed, then, in time, a few particularly elite men will end up with ALL the women. There will not be enough women to go around for the rest of the men, who will become grumpy and irritable. In fact, such a scenario is dangerously primed for revolution.

    In communities where polygyny is allowed, the men at the top of the heap prevent such unrest, and eliminate competition for the younger women they want, by expelling “surplus” young men. Which proves that polygyny is a lame idea — a society that has to forcibly expel people, and take no responsibility for them, is a society that doesn’t serve its purpose and needs to be replaced.

  14. qwints says

    Can I just say how awful it is to see analysis of the harms of polygyny primarily focus on the harm to men</i?

  15. says

    The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.

    This isn’t just about private sexual conduct — it’s about a form of relationship creating abuse, oppression and dependency; and whether the state should be enabling or ratifying such relationships. If you want to have sex with multiple women, and it’s really okay with those women, that’s fine — just don’t expect the state to enforce it.

  16. qwints says

    The court didn’t strike down the language about purporting to marry someone else, just the language about cohabitation. Under Lawrence et seq, Utah can’t criminalize private sexual relationships between consenting adults. If they’re not adults or they’re not consenting, then Utah can and should criminalize the abuse and oppression while providing resources to prevent dependency.

  17. qwints says

    @Raging Bee, the argument Blanche Quizno heard about monogamy maximizing the number of men who get women.

  18. johnthedrunkard says

    Polygamy isn’t an occasional thing that might arise out of unexpected, individual circumstances. It is an institution organized from the top down, with a tiny elite of older men at the top. A sort of reproductive and sexual 1%.

    Such cultures depend on discarding or subjugating the vast majority of men to exclusion from what THEY consider ‘normal’ family. The social repercussions are catastrophic.

    During the Tai Ping Rebellion in China (which Guiness used to list as the deadliest war in human history) There was a secondary ‘rebellion’ nicknamed the ‘Bare Branch’ rebellion. Across China, the aftermath of famine and war brought a sharp drop in the female population (thanks to routine infanticide) which produced a vast population of young men without any possible family. These ‘bare branches’ were drawn into every violent social movement going…

    Valerie Hudson has a book on the ‘bare branch’ effect in China. I haven’t read it, but I just checked and golly if she isn’t a Mormon…

  19. neuroguy says

    The “arguments” here really aren’t any different than the “arguments” against homosexuality and gay marriage (e.g. it’s bad for the children, etc.). The proscriptions against polygamy simply have no place in a secular society. It is their Constitutionally-protected right to have this lifestyle if they want without government interference. The fact that oppression of women and children occurs is due to the fact that polygamy is being practiced in a religious context which wishes to use “religious freedom” to justify that oppression; but standard monogamous marriage has ALSO been used to oppress women and children in a religious context. THAT is the problem. It is no justification to attempt to proscribe it from the population at large. There is, in fact, a visible secular polyamorous community – and yes, AFAICT there is as much polyandry there as polygyny.

    And yes, the attempt to ban cohabitation is laughably un-Constitutional and will get laughed out of the U.S. Court of Appeals if Utah wants to go there. Professor Hamilton’s arguments http://verdict.justia.com/2011/07/20/sister-wives-an-illustration-of-why-polygamy-is-and-should-be-illegal are REALLY bad.

  20. says

    There are also social/political implications. Without a robust social safety net (not the “gauntlet of suspicion and shame” we currently have, which is supposedly backed by “faith based charity”) that a sister wife woman can count upon should she decide to take her kids and leave a plural family an abusive situation, we (as a society) bear responsibility for the continued abuse. It’s all the more heightened if we think these situations should be illegal, where we (the government) use force to break them up.

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