Alternate Family ArrangementsFeminismHouseholdPoly FamiliesReligion

Polygamy: What Makes Him a Criminal?

I’m turning on my idea of a gossipy voice for this one.

Me: “So, okay.  Have you heard of this guy I know?  He can be such a jerk.  Did you know that one of his earliest memories of his wife is utter disgust at how she ate chili cheese fries?  No joke.  Also, I’m pretty sure he barely ever cooks.  He even insists that his wife learn to perfect his mother’s caramel recipe for the holidays.  To top it all off, he probably spends more time on his hair than I do, and he seems to be losing more of it every day.  He’s so vain.  Could I roll my eyes any harder?”

One of my best girlfriends: “Girl?  Are you serious?!”

Okay, exiting gossipy voice.  Some of you may have caught on, most of you likely haven’t.  I’m referring to none other than Kody Brown, whose family shot to fame when TLC’s Sister Wives first aired in 2010.  And not only can he be a jerk to his wife, but to his other wife, his other wife, and his other wife.  Then again, his wives can be jerks to him, too.  Often, they are kind, fair, and witty with each other, too.  Kinda sounds like most married couples I know.

Yes, I’m talking polygamy (or in this case, polygyny).  When you think polygamy in the United States, you probably think FLDS, Warren Jeffs, and these poor, abused women and girls. Warren Jeffs wives The treatment of women and boys in the Warren Jeffs and other similar communities is deplorable, and damnable if you believe in hell.  I don’t believe in hell, nor do I believe in the death penalty, but I certainly think Warren Jeffs deserves punishments that I prefer not to delve into.  For one, in this community, underage girls are married to men sometimes decades older, often already with one or more wives.  Furthermore, even boys are sexually abused and/or cast out of the community without enough women to go around.  Technically single mothers, many of these wives are compelled by the community to commit welfare fraud.

That said, I think polygamy in the US should be legalized.  Yes, I said it, polygamy should be legalized and regulated the same way marriage is regulated.  In theory, this will lead to more people like the Browns having the freedom to live without fear, more beasts like Warren Jeffs being incarcerated, and less poor souls like FLDS women and children being born into a lifelong trap.  I’m not interested in hashing out the reasons why, but it’s essentially analogous to the prohibition of alcohol leading to dangerous, bootlegged, toxic moonshine.

Fundamentalist Mormons like the Browns principally practice polygamy for religious reasons.  The true, fundamental reason (pun wasn’t initially intended) I think polygamy should be legalized is the beauty and pursuit of altruism I see in the essence of this type of relationship.  I admit I don’t know them personally, but as an occasional voyeur into their lives and having read their book, “Becoming Sister Wives,” there is something intangible and powerful in the delicate and compassionate, meticulous and chaotic manner in which they balance their jealousies, resources, and time as a family.  I can genuinely see how polygamy, in essence, aims to raise an individual to a higher spiritual level the way some religions may use dietary restrictions.  Their children love their half-siblings as true sisters and brothers, and are free to choose or reject polygamy for themselves, and the only thing they are obliged to do is get a college education.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d honestly be heartbroken if any of my children or family members practiced this type of lifestyle. Furthermore, I could never share my husband and he would never share me.  He’s such an encyclopedic, funny, resourceful guy, I want the entirety of that goodness all to myself and my children.  Even better, he barely spends any time on his hair.  That said, who are we to morally judge whether arguably normal people like the Browns should be together in a lifelong committed relationship?  Who is our government to say that consenting adults cannot legally enter into a contractual agreement of marriage, whether it’s between one man and one woman, one wo/man and one wo/man, or any permutation thereof?  (Disclaimer:  I know homosexuality is inherent and not a choice, whereas polygamy is a choice).  It’s somehow fine for a parent to have biological offspring with multiple partners who then must share resources, time, and affection, but it’s not okay for consenting polygamists to live in a community or household, and strive perpetually to create a harmonious family?

I fully comprehend that this issue is far more complex than what I can hash out while both of my kids are napping and my husband recovers from snowblowing.  I know that polygamy more often than not leads naturally to polygyny, because of inherent biological differences between women and men (although as a self-defined agnostic femin-ish, I think polyandry should be legal too).  I know that the Browns are probably not the typical polygamist family, and that their union may seem more perfect than it appears.  Then again, the Kardashians aren’t a typical non-polygamist family, and they’re on TV, too.  I understand that divorce between two adults is complicated; I can’t imagine the legalities of divorce between multiple adults.  Fiscally, defining the benefits of marriage between two adults is pretty straightforward; defining these benefits between multiple adults is anything but.  The complexities of federally legalizing such unions are so huge and daunting, it probably boggles the minds of the best economists and lawyers; I can barely fathom them.

Most people in my life happen to be fairly liberal, left wing types.  We liberals love to think we’re as open-minded as can be.  But sometimes, we can be as rigid as this wall welcoming travelers to Liberal, Kansas. Liberal Wall The idea of even being okay with polygamy is usually rejected without thought when I bring it up.  Those of you with the same notion as most of my friends, do you ever stop to think why?  Why should a marriage or marriage-like agreement between multiple individuals be a criminal act?  How is it bad for children to have multiple parents who (ideally) love and support them?  How can that be illegal while it’s perfectly normal for men to have mistresses with children that he doesn’t support financially or emotionally?  The most I can hope for with this post is to open even a few minds to less judgment about legalizing or even decriminalizing polygamy.  Please let me know in the comments or on twitter whether or not I’ve been successful.  Now excuse me while I get myself some chili cheese fries.

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy is a mom of two, co-Executive Director of March Against Myths, public speaker, Forbes contributor and author in Madison, WI. She is also co-author of "The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari's Glass House". Follow her on Facebook and twitter @ksenapathy

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  1. I heard a woman on NPR defend the anti-polygamy laws because the girls are groomed by their religion to be married off to a patriarch at an early age and that’s explitative. What baffled me is that she considered this to be an argument against polygamy, rather than against religious patriarchy.

  2. In South Africa, polygamous marriages are recognised in customary law but not civil law (our president, for example has four wives). The practical issues around inheritance, health insurance, financial stability etc are daunting if you look at extending civil protection to the wives. But without these practical legal consequences of marriage, the women and children involved are left very vulnerable sometimes.

  3. My main issues with polygamy is (I believe) mostly a public relations issue. We hear about the religious versions, and the abused girls, but we rarely hear about the non-Mormon or fundamental practitioners. You say “I’d honestly be heartbroken if any of my children or family members practiced this type of lifestyle”, and I wonder, would that still be true if it was a daughter with 2 husbands, rather than a daughter becoming a sister-wife? When I hear “daughter with 2 husbands” I think of a very modern type of woman in a loft in New York. When I hear “sister-wives” I think of down-trodden Mormon girls. I think polygamy really needs a PR boost. I know the families exist where this lifestyle isn’t abusive, and even where it isn’t religious.

    1. Thanks for the comments, everyone. @Anneholland, you make an excellent point on an issue I didn’t include in the article. I agree that there are families out there practicing various versions of this, daughters with multiple husbands, non-religious polygynous familes, and other permutations. I don’t personally know any families like this, but would be interested to meet them. I still would feel sad if my son or my daughter were to practice any form of polygamy. I love them unconditionally, but reserve the right to be disappointed.

      1. I know this is an old post, but I’m new to the site. I’m an atheist, feminist, skeptical woman with two husbands, neither of whom has other partners (right now), two children, and another on the way. We live a delightfully boring domestic life together, and we are very happy. If happen to read this and you PM me I would be open to sharing our experiences with you. I think if you knew just how much good communication, trust, love, fun, and support goes into building a functioning family like this, you might not feel so sad for your child, should they ever choose a family structure like this. Or you still might! But I’d like to try to change your mind. 🙂

  4. “I know that polygamy more often than not leads naturally to polygyny, because of inherent biological differences between women and men”

    I don’t know if that’s true, based on all the research on multiple relationships I’ve read. Plus, if we’re going to go all gender-biological-essentialist on this, why not point out that most cis men are one-and-done while most cis women can have multiple orgasms or at least desire a longer duration for sex sessions?

    1. Following up on Heina… can we please stop assuming that committed relationships are primarily motivated by orgasm optimization, as though everything else contributing to a sustainable relationship (romance, friendship, economic support, children [if any] etc) were merely incidental?

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