After my last post on Chris Brown and women's rights, a friend of mine asked me to dedicate a post to the current legal dispute regarding a polygamist community in Bountiful, an area in British Columbia, Canada. Long ago I formed an opinion on this, but in the interest of being thorough and at least a little unbiased I looked up some newspaper articles and some research papers (I wasn't expecting to be so grateful that my access to my Uni library hasn't lapsed yet!).
First, I think it's important to be clear about terminology. Polygamy refers to the practice of having multiple wives or multiple husbands at one time. Polygyny refers specifically to one man having multiple wives; this is also known in the Mormon community as plural marriage or patriarchal marriage. Polyamory is the practice of being in love/romantically involved with more than one person at one time. Bigamy is the actual act of marrying someone while already married to someone else.
The situation in Bountiful is a complex one. Under Section 293 of Canada's Criminal Code polygamy is illegal. To be clear, it also outlaws practicing polyamory, as it criminalizes polyamorists who cohabitate (live together in a sexual relationship without being married). The two men in Bountiful who are currently being prosecuted are members of a fundamentalist Christian sect that supports polygyny (not polygamy) as one of its major tenets. While this would seem to be a fairly cut-and-dry case - they broke the law, therefore they go to jail - it has gradually become more bizarre and far-reaching. The community is currently claiming that the law should not interfere with their religious beliefs, and many polyamorists have joined to support them in their quest for sexual and marital freedom.
So what is the right answer here? Where do we draw the line of government intervention in our private lives?
Well, from what I can tell, polygamy is archaic, prejudiced, and harmful, and it should stay illegal. The problem is that polygamy occurs almost exclusively in fundamentalist religious communities, the majority of which are patriarchal. So, they call it polygamy when in fact they are practicing polygyny. And polygyny is awful. There really is no way around that. Polygyny manages to compound and exacerbate the existing inequality in patriarchal cultures exponentially. For example, some of you may have recently seen ads for or episodes of the new TLC series Sister Wives, a "reality" TV program that follows the day-to-day lives of a man, his four wives, and their children (I can't seem to find out how many kids there are now that he has his latest fourth wife, but it's at the very least thirteen kids). My morbid curiosity has yet to compel me to watch an episode, but the ads play when I watch Say Yes To The Dress. During these little promos, the husband tells the invisible interviewer, "Of course they're jealous of my attention..." Even in this show that attempts to (to a degree) normalize polygyny, it cannot escape the truth that there is a distinct inequality when a husband may have as many wives as he chooses, but the wives may only have one husband. In another promo he says, "Love should be multiplied, not divided." While the sentiment is fine, its application is mightily flawed: you may be able to multiply your love, but you cannot multiply your time, and when you have four wives and thirteen kids there is no way you have the time to commit the kind of attention to each of them that they need.
Now you may argue that polygynous households are not the only families that cannot provide enough attention to members of the family. After all, there are many single-parent families and families in which members have to work long hours often at multiple jobs. And this is true. But the reality is that this isn't the only thing wrong with polygyny. These aren't relationships in which all members are treated as equal partners within a group where everyone has a say. Because polygyny is most often a product of patriarchal religion, the wives in the marriage are brought up to believe in their inferiority to men and are taught that submission is absolutely necessary. Husbands in turn feel pressure to be the "ruler of the household", which combined with the conviction that women are a lower being often culminates in abusive situations where domestic violence is committed against both women and children.
To further add to the horror, polygyny in many ways encourages human trafficking, specifically child trafficking. It's breaks down like this: more wives translates to more property; more wives also means more children, and more children means a greater financial stress upon a household; so, the sooner a father marries off his daughters, the more capable he will be of supporting his remaining family. There is also a long running precedent where much older men will slowly accumulate child brides. This is really one of the saddest aspects, because these women are never able to learn and grow out from underneath the oppressive shadow of male domination. This recent CTV article explains how young girls from Bountiful were transported into the United States to be married: in one case a twelve year old became yet another wife to a forty-eight year old man. This is the reality of polygyny (and in most cases polygamy, which functions only as a euphemism for the former): not more love, more moms, and a better life, but instead no education, domestic violence, child rape, forced marriage, brainwashing, and human trafficking. And the law cannot support this.
My stance is that freedom of religious belief stops as soon as it becomes a matter of infringing upon basic human rights of another person. If it is your religious belief that everyone from Winnipeg is an unrepentant sinner and your doctrine orders you to stone them to death on sight, that doesn't mean you can commit murder with impunity. Similarly, if you believe that women amount to property that you may do whatever you want with, that doesn't make it okay for you to beat, rape, and traffic those women under your "protection". Because polygyny so often comes hand-in-hand with these crimes I feel it would be a huge mistake to legalize polygamy.
But what about polyamory, you ask? Well, polyamory is something I can be a little more supportive of. Polyamory is traditionally the territory of non-cisgender groups. [Cisgender refers to people who identify with their "conventional" sex role, ie heterosexuals who do not cross-dress, are not transgendered, etcetera]. Polyamory almost always means that all the partners involved may have as many other partners of whatever sexual persuasion they choose. These relationships are heavily based upon equality, and child-brides and anything of that sort is a non-issue. It is this sort of relationship that I feel the government has no say in. Ultimately participants are informed and willing, and crime associated with these groups is to my knowledge non-existent (in contrast to polygynous religious groups). The problem we run into here is more relegated to legal rights relating to spousal privilege and issues of that sort, which I'm afraid I've run out of patience to address.
In sum, religion cannot be used as an excuse for blatant practices of inequality and violations of Human Rights law. Polygamy (read polygyny) belongs in the past, never to be revisited. Polyamory, in contrast, has a future as an alternative lifestyle more in keeping with the fluidity of gender and sexuality that is slowly coming to be accepted in the Western world.
Hopefully this has been clear and informative. If you would like to do a little reading of your own, the following links are articles regarding Bountiful:
I also recommend Joan Iversen's article "Feminist Implications of Mormon Polygyny", and Ken MacQueen's article from The National, "Making Their Bed".