Obama and Romney both have grandparents who practiced polygamy, yet both have said (and one’s still saying) that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Some think it odd that they both reject the practice when they’ve each got a family history. But I, too, have grandparents who practiced polygamy yet I don’t like the practice, either. This brings me to the concern that marriage equality is a slippery slope to polygamy.
If you hold marriage to “two consenting adults” the problem goes away.
At the same time, while I have a personal distaste for polygamy, I’m not sure that decriminalization would be a bad thing.
First, the problems with the practice.
Gender inequality can be created by simple supply and demand, with “the one” having more power, whether polygyny (one man, many wives) or polyandry (one wife, many husbands). In the polyandrous Lahaul Valley of the Himalayas women have great say over matters. As one young man in this community explained, “The wife’s voice is the dominant voice in the household.”
Typically, polygamy is practiced under patriarchy (as polygyny) so the power of “the one” man becomes intensified. As one New York Times letter writer observed in response to Jonathan Turley’s insistence that polygamous families should be free to live their religion and values:
(In highly patriarchal families) this is not ‘the right to live your life.’ The men have rights, but not the girls (who are) brainwashed, uneducated and mothers while in their teens.
In polygyny it can seem that women make all the sacrifices so that men may take unlimited pleasure. A Sufi who agreed to be a third wife of her teacher (the article title “My Husband, My Teacher” suggests additional inequality of relationship) described her experience this way:
I went through, as did the other wives, all of the usual feelings of jealousy, fear, and insecurity.
She had to learn to let go of attachment, or seeing her spouse as property. Yet her husband didn’t need to learn any of these lessons, enjoying greater freedom and sexual variety than any of his wives ever will.
The addition of a new wife may even be used as a threat in polygamous cultures. Not surprisingly, 86 percent of Afghani women are against the practice.
Moving to larger societal problems, at marriageable age women and men are in equal number so girls in polygamous communities must be married at younger and younger ages, and are often forced into marriage. Their youth further disempowers them. Meanwhile, teenaged boys may be thrown out of these communities via trivial charges like watching “inappropriate” movies.
Joseph Henrich, a University of British Columbia professor whose expertise lies in psychology, anthropology and economics says higher levels of polygamy are tied to higher crime rates, lower GDP per capita, and worse outcomes for children.
And, fewer available women may mean more frustrated bachelors who support the sex trafficking of girls and women. These young men are also vulnerable to recruitment by extremists in some parts of the world.
There is plenty that is not pretty. So why legalize polygamy?
When the practice is illegal and stigmatized, those who live it end up isolated from the rest of society. That means its practitioners hear few alternate voices, and are less aware of the possibility of living differently. Or, choices become limited as others ostracize them and reject their friendship. In other words, they’re more stuck.
Oddly, adherence to “plural marriage” might actually decrease if it were made legal and destigmatized.
I don’t know if legalization will ever destigmatize polygamy, which is an important step in freeing people to hear different voices and to help them to have more options.
Regardless, I doubt legalization will bring people flocking to the practice. The notion of sharing your husband or wife while being forced to be monogamous, yourself, just isn’t that appealing to most people. In the U.S. polygamy is pretty much only practiced for religious reasons, so it’s not likely to catch on. And where it does, it would be more likely voluntary and not coerced.
If you fear gay marriage because polygamy might come next, I doubt there’s really much to worry about.
Now that polygamist and FLDS Prophet, Warren Jeffs, has been handed a life sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls (“wives”) I wonder what will happen to his fold. Will they question? Will any leave? I wonder, because if fate had gone differently, I could have wound up living among them. Which seems horrifying.
I come from a long line of Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains to live in what was then Utah Territory – far from U.S. law. Some of my ancestors practiced polygamy. When Utah eventually sought to become a state, and the U.S. government declined because of “plural marriage,” the Mormon Church deemed the practice no longer necessary. My family went along with the new teaching, but others escaped to the Utah/Arizona border, and parts beyond, feeling they must follow God’s true law.
I am eternally grateful that my own family chose as they did.
That said, in my youth I did not feel entirely free from the threat, as I was taught that polygamy was the way of Heaven (a notion deemphasized today). Contemplating that not-so-heavenly reward, I could only envision my husband’s dalliances dissipating all the energy from our so-called “relationship.” How could I experience the strong love, bonding and connection that I deeply desired?
And according to Mormon prophets, polygamy did not seem to have much to do with love. As Brigham Young taught:
(Men), never love you wives one hair’s breath further than they adorn the Gospel, never love them so but that you can leave them at a moment’s warning without shedding a tear.
Wives should put aside all desire for the exclusive and romantic company of their husbands. Rather, they should simply “receive, conceive, bear, and bring forth” in the name of Israel’s God. They should not be concerned with whether they were loved ‘a particle’ by their companions. That was not what the principle was about.
Mormon past and Fundamentalist Mormon present claim polygamy a higher form of marriage. Really? The Bible says the greatest commandment is love, so wouldn’t a higher form of anything include it? So you see why I’d prefer a different sort of life.
Unlike the isolated FLDS, I had friends and schoolmates with different views from those I’d been taught. Television and movies conceived the world differently. I read books and listened to radio. I have long hoped that FLDS members might one day hear alternate voices, and consider alternate choices, too. If you don’t even think to question, do you really have any choice?
Doubt entered Kathy Jo Nicholson’s mind when her polygamous prophet (Jeffs’ father) died – despite prophesying he would live until Christ’s second coming. Most stayed true to their beliefs. But Kathy Jo began to wonder. Later she met a questioning man, fell in love, eloped, and left the fold.
Today Kathy Jo worries about family left behind, trapped in a world they don’t think to question.
During his trial, Jeffs threatened that God would bring “sickness and death”
to prosecutors. According to the Salt Lake Tribune:
After Judge Barbara Walther dismissed the jury, Jeffs began reading from a piece of paper that he claimed contained “Jesus Christ’s own words.”
“I will wrest your power. I shall judge you. I shall let all peoples know your unjust ways,” he said. “I will send a scourge upon the counties of prosecutorial zeal to be humbled by sickness and death.”
Didn’t happen. Jeffs asked his fold not to read news accounts. But did some read anyway? He prophesied he’d be freed before trial took place… so his flock built him
Sometimes prophetic failure brings questions. Sometimes it does not. I can only hope that at least a few minds will open, and that if I had lived among them, my mind would have been one of those.
For more on this topic, see “What’s Love Got to Do with It: Earthly Experience of Celestial Marriage, Past and Present,” in Modern Polygamy in the United States by Cardel Jacobs with Lara Burton, Oxford University Press, 2011. Also see The Redemption of Love: Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality from the Economics of a World (Brazos Press, 2006) and New Man, New Woman, New Life both by Carrie Miles, Ph.D., University of Chicago and senior scholar in residence at Chapman University. And check out her Empower website (www.EmpowerInternational.org),
and blog. http://carriemiles.wordpress.com/
Warren Jeffs, 55-year-old “Prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), has been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he had recently added to his harem of nearly 90 “plural wives.”
When Texas Rangers raided his compound in 2008, many were outraged at the infringement on his sect’s religious rights. And Jeffs repeatedly insisted his religious freedom was violated at trial.
Yet the raid, prompted by a prank call to an abuse hotline, provided evidence that more than one-quarter of Jeffs’ “wives” were underage. And in several journal entries, Jeffs said God told him to take more and more young girls as brides “who can be worked with and easily taught.” And, since 105 males are born for every 100 females, you do have to marry younger to do polygamy.
Yet Jeffs claims it the highest form of marriage, bringing exaltation in heaven.
As if pedophilia weren’t problem enough, there’s more trouble in paradise.
Girls and women are basically property. Jeffs writes of summoning the parents of one 14-year-old and informing them “of their girl belonging to me.” He describes wives as “honorable vessels, property of your husband’s kingdom and the Kingdom of God on Earth.” Fathers gave their daughters to him and were rewarded with young brides of their own.
Wives were expected to serve him. Much evidence against Jeffs came from a wife-training tape instructing girls how to please him sexually and win favor with the Lord. He quoted revelations from God as he instructed wives on becoming comfortable nude, grooming their body hair, and group sex.
You have to know how to be excited sexually and to be excited to administer that comfort and strength. And you have to be able to assist each other. No one sits around, everyone assists each other.
On assisting each other, it might help if roughly ninety-five percent of women weren’t straight.
While Jeffs was “appointed” by God to engage in this behavior, other FLDS men were not. “If another man, not appointed, were to do this,” he said, “they would lose priesthood.” He warned his wives to tell no one of this “higher order.”
The wife-training tape seems to include sounds of sobbing. Were the girls less pleased at their call to sexual service than their husband was?
Girls reluctant to have sex with Jeffs were sent away.
But young men were driven out of the community, as well, on trivial charges like watching “inappropriate movies.” If you’re going to be polygamous in a world with equal numbers of women and men, you’ve got to subtract a few men.
Jeffs also reassigned the property and families of men he found threatening, breaking up around 300 families. Ross Chatwin had been fine with polygamy, until this happened to him. “Polygamy is not the problem here,” Chatwin insisted, “It’s the dictatorship.”
Interesting that Chatwin had no problem so long as he had plenty of wives and possessions. He remains blind to the troubles of girls, women, and boys sent away.
Here we find patriarchy in the old sense: older, powerful men wielding control over women and younger and more powerless males.
All-powerful and living without limits, Jeffs seems never satisfied. On the wife-training
tape he says, “OK, six ladies. I wish I had a seventh.” At another point he exclaims, “I need more than one wife to be with me at a time.” Ninety wives and counting… Monogamous men may wish they had more. Apparently, nothing’s enough for polygamous men, either.
Meanwhile, his wives must share just one man, and not one they’re necessarily attracted
to. His pleasure at their expense. A friend of mine wrote a book on 19th century Mormon polygamy. Any wonder he titled it In Sacred Loneliness?
Jeffs indulges his ravenous appetite, ultimately unquenchable, as his wives gain little gratification.
Is polygamy really so heavenly, Mr. Jeffs?
Below are comments on how women and men experience themselves, and how they think sex is best, based on earlier posts: “Are Women Naturally Monogamous?” and “Are Women Culturally Monogamous?” They’re edited for brevity and clarity. I’ve organized comments and added my own in italics. The comments typically revolve around the advantages of casual pleasures versus deep connection.
- Divorced at age 33, I experienced a natural heightening of sexual interest and there were a number of men with whom I had sex during the next 7-8 years. I enjoyed it all tremendously and learned a lot about men and about myself. During that time, I met only one man I would have considered as a life partner. Now I realize that the relationship was great because the sex was great.
- If women were paid equally and had equal opportunity in the job market, I think that monogamy would be weakened. When I earned more than my husband, and could survive financially on my own, my sexual behavior changed as well.
- I seem to be different than the study (enjoying a variety of partners), but then so are most males I know (more monogamous).
- Sex is so pleasurable. Why limit yourself from pleasure so long as everyone knows the ground rules – that this is about pleasure and not about commitment or love.
- Sex is magical. I would like to have sex with as many women as possible. But I always thought women experienced sex the same as I do. It hadn’t occurred to me that they might not.
Research suggests that women, on average, don’t enjoy sex as much as men do. U.S. women enjoy sex less than women in some cultures, but more than women in others. I’ll explore why later. The difference in enjoyment is not based on biology, but culture.
Jealousy and not loving equally
Women who are interested in polygamous sex can discover difficulties:
- As a lesbian I have a perspective that is completely woman oriented. I personally have had more than one lover at a time and found it difficult since I was always trying to explain why I was leaving to visit someone else. One always seems to love one more than the other.
Having sex because you’re expected to
- Here is my confession – two or three times I allowed myself to be picked up at a party or a bar. I am still so ashamed of those incidents. Remembering them makes me feel so dirty! I thought it was expected. You know – times were changing. Everybody did it. I now believe I let myself be used by men who were only after a little fun and had no serious intentions.
- I let myself be used by men who were only looking for fun… then I felt ashamed! Many women were brainwashed into believing they would enjoy it as much as men only to realize they were no more than a toilet bowl or conquest. I am sorry to disappoint but sex ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Many may hide the shame and humiliation they feel by saying they liked it.
Women are punished for sex
Some women may feel pressured to have sex, but women are also punished when they have it, labeled “sluts”:
- The stigma attached to women likely keeps the number (of lovers they report) low
- (At least men) seem to have each others’ backs. Women don’t. They’re often quick to stab each other in the back.
Meeting social expectations: Men
- Men might be lying too since the cultural expectation for them seems to be quantity rather than quality.
- Men also have cultural expectations to live up to: amass notches on their belts.
- I wanted to have threesomes for the longest time. Then I realized it was largely about feeling left out of something I thought everyone else was doing.
Agreed. There are plenty of pressures on men, too. Women claim 5 lovers and men claim 12. Women must be underestimating and men exaggerating. The real number for both is likely in between: 8 or 9. Men also watch porn, think it’s an accurate portrayal of womens sexuality, and end up thinking they are missing out on a lot of action (that no one else is getting, either).
Meeting social expectations: Women and men
- I think you hit the nail on the head when you stated “Western women are much more monogamous than our Tahitian or American Indian sisters were before European contact.” I don’t think any of us are pre-wired to remain with one person all 80 plus years that we walk this earth. Man or woman. As humans we make that CHOICE to do so. What it comes down to is one having their own mind. Neither man nor woman should continue to be concerned with what current society dictates.
Women desiring depth, connection
- Women prefer depth, romance, quality in a relationship. They know that the closer one is in spirituality, emotions, the better the sex. Women need that depth to be fulfilled.
- A purely physical relationship requires little work. You don’t have to concern yourself with messy thoughts or feelings beyond the immediate moment. It’s shallow and one dimensional. Real relationship takes depth: looking at someone’s worth beyond pretty eyes, nice butt, and teeth.
- I have heard some women say they enjoy casual sex – but in 62 years I have heard far more say they haven’t enjoyed any sex let alone casual – meaningless sex. It’s intimacy we want! But I am still waiting for the rush of women who can honestly tell us about all the hot meaningless sex we have been missing! I’m all ears?
Men desiring depth, connection
A woman’s perspective
- I met both kinds of guys when I was dating. I met guys who seemed downright anxious to connect on a deeper level and guys who would lie in a NY minute if they thought it would get them into my pants faster.
A man’s perspective
- Our sexuality and the expression of it before and during (and after) marriage is, I am convinced, one of the more complicated aspects of what it means to be human. One could argue that God created men and women different sexually (in all the ways!) because to come together in meaningful intimacy (erotic or sexual) requires the development and expression of our deepest and highest virtues—sacrifice, humility, and kindness (even long-suffering at times!), and especially love. It is among the most meaningful and challenging dances we do.
And, don’t forget the men in men’s studies. Both Michael Kimmel and John Stoltenberg recommend men do sex from a place of love and commitment, and they say that is where they come from, themselves.
A version of this post was originally published August 23, 2010 as “Readers Discuss: Are Women Polygamous?”
We know that women aren’t destined to be monogamous by nature. Culture affects our sexual psyches.
Polygamist inclinations vary from person to person, but today’s Western women are much more monogamous than our Tahitian or American Indian sisters were before European contact. We are now also much more monogamous in our inclinations than men.
In surveys, men say they would prefer to have 14 partners over a lifetime. Over that same lifetime, women prefer to have only one or two.
A friend suggested that women were lying because they feared seeing themselves as sluts. Yet women admit to five real-life partners. (Here they are certainly underestimating. The real number is likely 8 or 9 for both men and women, given men’s estimate of 12.) But if they’re so worried, why not say they’ve had only 1 or 2 partners?
I was surprised by the low number of “one or two” as the preference, but I doubt women feel the need to go that low just to feel socially acceptable.
Younger women’s preferences may be higher. During the first year of college many willingly experiment with sex – and freely admit to it. But they quickly tire of random sexual contacts. Most drop out of the casual sex scene by sophomore year.
Men, on the other hand, don’t tire of the casual hook up, and want to continue even after college.
When it comes to open marriage or swinging, men are usually more enthusiastic, and more often initiate the idea.
So women seem less interested in casual sex than men. Quite likely because they are more repressed.
I feel that women are more repressed than is healthy. But I’m not sure that limits are all bad, for women or men.
When I read women’s studies literature, women are often advised to have sex more the way men do: have fun without guilt.
Yet men’s studies, which comes from a feminist perspective, often advises men to have sex more the way women do it. Don’t follow the 4 F’s: Find ‘em, Feel ‘em, F- ‘em, and Forget ‘em. Do not use women as a means of gaining a notch on your belt. Have sex in a context of love and care.
What do you think? How would you describe women’s ways and men’s ways of having sex? What are the positives and negatives of each approach? Is one way better than the other? Is there an optimal in-between? Do men and women tend to have different views on this issue?
I’m interested in exploring the matter. I’d like to year your thoughts, too.
Children have the best shot at surviving if their mothers mate with only one man, who sticks around to provide support and resources. Thus, women prefer men who are older and richer. Moms put a lot into their kids because they have a small number of eggs compared with the millions of sperm that men produce. And all this is genetic, so says evolutionary psychology.
On the other hand, men will have more children (and reproduce their genes) if they are promiscuous because of their large sperm count. Again, the behavior is in the genes.
This premise seems to contradict the prior point that children are more likely to survive if their fathers are around to support them. Maybe more survive than don’t. Or perhaps it’s a survival of the fittest worldview: Babies who can survive without resources improve the gene pool?
The bigger dilemma: How do men manage to enjoy many partners when women are monogamous?
Men also value beauty above all else because attractiveness indicates health and an ability to reproduce. Oddly, supermodels are the most sought-out, yet they’re often so thin that they no longer menstruate. And I hadn’t known that so-called unattractive women were infertile. But never mind.
Returning to Darwin’s concern – and it doesn’t take a genius like him to make this observation – while evolutionary psychology had fit nicely with British middle-class behavior, where women sought resources and men sought beauty, Darwin pointed out that the theory did not fit with the British upper class. There, men were more concerned with wealth than good looks.
Now that Western women are able to make their own money, they have become more concerned with looks than in the past. And men now like to marry women who can earn some money – it’s a plus.
Other cultures don’t fit the theory so well, either.
Gauguin’s infatuation with Tahiti likely came in part from the women’s desire for many sex partners (prior to European influence).
Meanwhile, Europeans who were among the first to arrive in the Americas were shocked by similar behavior among the native women.
In these Tahitian and Native American societies the entire community cared for children, and property passed through women, so men’s resources weren’t an issue. These women weren’t called sluts, either.
Once Europeans transformed the cultures, things quickly turned around.
It appears that social structure and culture trump biology in explaining women’s monogamy.
There is more to discuss, but I’ll leave that for later.
For now I must ask: Are evolutionary psychologists unfamiliar with this information, or do they simply ignore it because the theory so well justifies a status quo in which women are told to stay monogamous, but understand men’s need for many partners, aka the double standard?
After all, it’s in men’s genes – or was that jeans?
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