Why not polygamy?

Is the legalization of polygamy inevitable in America? From 1965 to 2005, American courts struck down the traditional sex crimes … Continued

Is the legalization of polygamy inevitable in America? From 1965 to 2005, American courts struck down the traditional sex crimes of contraception, adultery, fornication, abortion, and sodomy as violations of modern constitutional norms of liberty, autonomy, and privacy. Traditional criminal laws against polygamy seem vulnerable to this same constitutional logic. If you add the religious freedom claims of Muslims, fundamentalist Mormons and others, the case for polygamy seems especially ripe –whether we like it or not.

Many liberals praise the nation’s rise to enlightened sexual liberty. The anti-polygamists of today, they argue, are like the patriarchs, anti-abortionists, and homophobes of the past, clutching their traditional Christian morals at the cost of true liberty for all.

Many conservatives lament the nation’s slide down the slippery slope of sexual libertinism. “State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution … bestiality, and obscenity are all now called into question,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote dissenting in the Lawrence v. Texas case that protected sodomy.

Sorting out the case for and against polygamy is complicated. But it’s not just a dialectic of modern liberty versus traditional morality. I argue that polygamy is dangerous because it harms women, children, and men alike, and will allow some religious communities to become a law unto themselves.

That’s what Western history tells us. The West’s prohibition of polygamy — unlike many other traditional sex crimes — is both pre-Christian and post-Christian. “Pagan” Roman emperors first made polygamy an “infamous” crime in 258, more than a century before they established Christianity. Enlightenment liberals disestablished Christianity, but still regarded polygamy as a betrayal of nature, utility, and fairness. Polygamy was a capital crime till the nineteenth century, and it remains a crime throughout the West today.

Western writers have long argued, and modern studies now document, that polygamy is unjust to women and children – a violation of their fundamental rights and dignity, we now say. Young women are harmed because they are often coerced into early marriages with older men. Once pushed aside for a rival co-wife, women are reduced to rival slaves within the household. They are then exploited periodically for sex and procreation by emotionally detached husbands. They are forced to make do for themselves and their children with dwindling resources as still other women and children are added to the household against their wishes. If they protest their plight, if they resort to self-help, if they lose their youthful figure and vigor, they are often cast out of their homes — impoverished, undereducated, and often incapable of survival without serious help from others.

Children are harmed because they are often set in perennial rivalry with other children and mothers for the affection and attention of the family patriarch. They are deprived of healthy models of authority and liberty, equality and charity, marital love and fidelity, which are essential to their development as future spouses, citizens, and community leaders. And they are harmed by too few resources to support their nurture, education, care, and preparation for a full and healthy life as an adult.

Men, too, are harmed by polygamy. Polygamy promotes marriage by the richest not necessarily the fittest men in body, mind, or virtue. In isolated communities, polygamy often leads to ostracism of rival younger men. Polygamy inflames a man’s lust, for once he adds a second wife, he will inevitably desire more, even the wife of another. And polygamy deprives men of that essential organic bond of exclusive marital companionship, which ancients and moderns alike say is critical to most men’s physical, psychological, moral, and even spiritual health.

The Western legal tradition has thus long called polygamy a “malum in se” offense (“bad it inself”). That category of offenses now also includes slavery, indentured servitude, obscenity, bestiality, incest, sex with children, self-mutilation, organ-selling, and more. These are activities that are just wrong — or too often foster wrongdoing. That someone wants to engage in these activities voluntarily for reasons of religion, bravery, custom, liberty, or autonomy makes no difference. That other cultures past and present allow such activities also makes no difference.

While some religious communities and their members might well thrive with the freedom to practice polygamy, it is inevitable that closed, repressive, and isolated regimes will also emerge. And this, in turn, will lead to under-aged girls being duped into sex and marriages with older men, and to women and children trapped in sectarian communities with no access to protection from the state and with no real legal recourse against a church, temple, or mosque that is just following its own rules.

We prize liberty and equality in America too highly to court such a risk.


John Witte Jr.

, is director of the

Center for the Study of Law and Religion

at

Emory University

, and author of a forthcoming title, “Why Two in One Flesh: The Western Case for Monogamy over Polygamy.”

  • UpperLeftCorner1

    Actually, its after a good pizza and beer that the lust and debauchery really begins!

  • UpperLeftCorner1

    I never was particularly interested in trying out polygamy, but after reading this . . .
    “Polygamy inflames a man’s lust, for once he adds a second wife, he will inevitably desire more, even the wife of another.”

  • EthelredtheUnready

    Polygamy is entirely proper and legal if undertaken in a serial fashion.

  • WinstonDixon

    Because it would threaten women’s sexual power over men.

  • WashingtonDame

    You can also argue that monogamy and divorce are harmful to women, men, and children. The fact is that once you depart from the one man-one woman paradigm, there is no valid reason to legally prohibit polygamy, any more than there is a valid reason to legally prohibit same sex marriage. Virtually every single argument made in favor of gay marriage applies to polygamy; in fact, polygamy has, in addition, a history of legality. Millions of men and women have happily lived in polygamous marriages since the advent of marriage. Just because YOU personally think that women shouldn’t be plural wives doesn’t mean that YOU can prohibit others from legally becoming plural wives. Why do you get to impose your moral and social choices on others?

  • yellowbirdstands

    What is overlooked in all this is that for many thousands of years we lived in clans and the custom of Polygamy was part of the social welfare of the clan. If a woman lost her husband or one was unavailable to her because of the loss of men through warfare, hunting accidents or disease she went and lived with her sister or other married relative and became second wife. This welfare system provided for the children as well as they then did have elders who could teach them and take care of them. In these days if some of you took in a relative who is on hard times who here is to say that is wrong. It seems that many here have their minds in the gutter..

  • stan83

    Polygamy would bolster the economy. Every wife would want their own bedroom and kitchen making for a tremendous housing boom. Definitely increase the cosmetic business, however, the divorce lawyers might suffer.Today it would work both ways. A woman would be able to have several husbands too, now the household fixes might get done and she might have one who didn’t like sports on TV etc.

  • stan83

    Great thought. Boost the housing industry as every wife should have her own bedroom and kitchen. She too could have several husbands, perhaps even one who did not like sports on TV and maybe the household fixing would get done with four guys to do it. The divorce lawyers might suffer, it would be cheaper to keep her/him than pay alimony. Yet let the games begin, but don’t show this to my wife.

  • ndelange74

    WashingtonDame, your reasoning makes no sense whatsoever.

    You obviously object to gay marriage, but instead of actually positing any factual evidence in support of your argument that gay marriage & polygamous marriage are equally ‘bad’, you do what opponents of gay marriage always do when they cannot in fact offer such evidence: you make a sweeping, unsupported & inflammatory claim that depends on the unthinking ignorance of a particular segment of society for its efficacy.

    Here are the facts:

    1. Numerous studies over the years have demonstrated that children do not in fact need a mother-and-father kind of nuclear family in order to become stable, productive & happy members of society. They simply need love, care &, when necessary, discipline.

    2. Children who grow up with same-sex parents are no less likely to become stable, productive & happy members of society than those with opposite-sex parents – this is, however, conditional on whether the COMMUNITY within which they grow up extends their family the same dignity & respect it shows opposite-sex families.

    3. Gay men (& women) are no more likely than straight individuals to be abusive towards their partners, or to engage in adultery, rape or other societal ills or criminal behaviours &/or activities.

    4. In recent years, a number of studies have actually shown that same-sex relationships last LONGER, by a considerable margin, than heterosexual relationships.

    5. The norm for the formation of a same-sex relationship, as with contemporary heterosexual relationships, is based on consensuality – in other words, agreement between BOTH partners. Moreover, the public record clearly shows that no one has EVER been forced into a same-sex marriage.

    Now, if polygamous marriages are truly similar to same-sex marriages – given the above facts – then surely no one could argue against the former.

    However, since polygamous marriages clearly are NOT, your claim is clearly baseless, homophobic & ignorant.

  • rurik

    I say legalize polygamy just to see the conservative and religious nuts have an aneurism. It’ll be fun to watch them froth.

  • wag_dog_69

    Actually, it’s the libs that will boil over. Most religions have no big issue with this. It’s just precedent.

  • wag_dog_69

    Everyone else’s claims are baseless, homophobic and ignorant. But MY claims are valid and just.

    Hard to argue with such irrefutable logic.

  • wag_dog_69

    Anyone ever watched the show “Big Love”? Those women didn’t appear to be abused, subjected or marginalized. If you buy the argument that gay marriage is between consenting adults, then so too is polygamy. I can buy forcible sex, but forcible marriage? As to women being somehow too young, and naive to make sensible decisions, that’s pretty sexist and demeaning. What’s the difference between an 18 year old marrying her boyfriend and an 18 year old marrying a man who is already married?

  • Old Abe

    Polygamy is in the Bible. I was listening to a lecture from the Teaching Company on Fundamentals of Judaism and the professor said it has never been officially banned.
    But you should also allow polyandry. Some women need more than one man just as the opposite is true.

  • Catken1

    Polygamous marriages as they tend to exist now tend to be sponsored by members of patriarchal, fundamentalist religions, and are almost always limited as a privilege for males alone.
    Wouldn’t be the case for legal polygamy in the US – we’d have to open it to both sexes, meaning that women could have multiple husbands, and that there could be single-sex or mixed-sex group marriages as well, with everyone married to everyone else. Would take a lot more tweaking of the basic contract than same-sex couple marriage, but it could work.

  • commenter5

    No, actually, it wouldn’t “take a lot more tweaking” – it’s very easy to change American law to legally provide polyamorous marriage.

    The legal theory of multiple marriage (including the divorce process) has already been developed. To see it for yourself, Google “john ince dyadic networks”, click on the first result, and then read the commentary at the bottom of that web page.

  • commenter5

    It’s not just polyandry. Multiple males could marry each other, or multiple females could marry each other, or multiple males and multiple females could marry each other. What is being created in these situations is called a “dyadic network”.

    The legal theory of multiple marriage (including the divorce process) has already been developed. To see it for yourself, Google “john ince dyadic networks”, click on the first result, and then read the commentary at the bottom of that web page.

  • careaboutit

    Polygamy was never sanctioned by God in the Bible. The men and women of those days went ahead and did what they wanted for their own reasons. Plurality of partnership is crazy-making for all involved – men or women.

    I’d say Bills’ role as husband, bossy man, sexual deviant, rule maker, demanding leader was quite real. But the sister-wives roles were a little far-fetched — glamorized. Big Love was taken from a mix of mostly true stories from real polygamous groups and people, then made into one fictional t.v. program – full of drama. If’s full of reality and definitely deficient in portraying the more common than not abuses, poverty, shame, jealousies, guilt…. that goes on. Read some truthful books of those of us who have been there and done that. (FIFTY YEARS IN POLYGAMY – BIG SECRETS AND LITTLE WHITE LIES By Kristyn Decker

    Polygamy is NOT an option for those who seek genuine happiness, partnership and love!

    Wag_dog_, there are very few (of age) women who put them-selves into this __ w/o a religious back-ground or the need for a sugar daddy. Most are about children born and raised to believe living polygamy is their only way to get to Heaven and keep their families; like I did, they will do anything required to get there.

  • dassy

    Do I perceive some pro-Western bias against the predominate form of marriage in the world? Yes, in terms of nations who allow polygamy, it is the most predominate form legally (though in practicality,most Muslims can’t afford the price of a second or third wife.) Why is it that liberals can express these kind of biases against other cultures and get by with it and feel very sanctimonious? Once you allow the definition of marriage to be expanded based on the rights of people to live as they want–you have no right to set limits! You have no right to criticize conservatives for their support for traditional marriage. nothing in this article absolutely dictates that marriage definition should be set where you think it would be best set. Live with the consequences of rejecting traditional marriage in the U.S. Stop being a hypocrite!

  • dassy

    Do I perceive some pro-Western bias against the predominate form of marriage in the world? Yes, in terms of nations who allow polygamy, it is the most predominate form legally (though in practicality,most Muslims can’t afford the price of a second or third wife.) Why is it that liberals can express these kind of biases against other cultures and get by with it and feel very sanctimonious? Once you allow the definition of marriage to be expanded based on the rights of people to live as they want–you have no right to set limits! You have no right to criticize conservatives for their support for traditional marriage. nothing in this article absolutely dictates that marriage definition should be set where you think it would be best set. Live with the consequences of rejecting traditional marriage in the U.S. Stop being a hypocrite!

  • persiflage

    All in all, you can’t beat the single life!

  • Catken1

    I see. So you have no moral or rational judgment beyond “adhere to my tradition in all its details and require EVERYONE to do likewise,” or “total anarchy?” There’s no room for evaluating each claim on its merits, as intelligent and thinking people do?

  • SuzanneF2

    With two young people choosing each other, they are equals. With a young woman marrying an already married man, there is already a wife there, and both the man and his wife are probably older than the new wife. There is an imbalance. Are all three of them equally in favour of the new marriage? And if yet another young wife joins the household a few years later, is there equality among the four people now joined together? Also, what happens to the young men who might have married the young women now married to already married (sometimes multiply so) husbands?

  • Catken1

    Maybe the young men in question marry a woman who’s already got a couple of husbands?

  • andrew23boyle

    The best way to deal with all this nonsense is to simply have the government stop “marrying” people altogether and simply reduce the entire thing to a matter of contracts, as far as the law and the government are concerned, and leave the semantics to society and to the people actually in the relationships.

    If people wanted to live together “officially”, they’d write up a contract between them stipulating their duties and expectations in the relationships. The government’s ONLY role in this would be to register the contract and to adjudicate disputes from breach thereof but NOT to label, grade, sanction, condemn or name in any way the relationships involved. The government would simply deal with the legal aspects of the contract and not worry one way or the other what, exactly, people call those domestic relationships.

    If a heterosexual couple wants to live together legally, they can write up such a contract. If two guys want to live together, they can draw up the same sort of contract. If one guy and several women want to live together in a legal framework, they too can draw up a contract. The government’s only concern in any of this would be to register the contracts and judge disputes, not to say “these people are married” or “these people are not married”. Basically, EVERYONE, gay, straight, swinger, polygamist, would be in a “civil union” as far as the law is concerned and everything else would be left up to the people in the relationship and those with whom they traffic.

    This way, everyone has equal access to the law and can arrange their most private domestic affairs as they will without the government intruding into their most personal business. It would also necessitate doing away with the various tax-codes that the government uses now to screw around in peoples’ live by taxing them differently according to their “marital” status. Churches and other religious organizations could still “marry” people but since these would be religious ceremonies without any lega

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