When most people hear the term “polygamy”, they may think of child brides dressed up to be married to old men with a handful of wives. There are certainly cult-like polygamous communities about, but what about the other side of polygamy, detailing extravagant homes filled with large families of multiple loving wives and rooms full of children?
Considering that gay marriage was illegal in almost half of the United States up till 2014, it is perhaps no surprise that polygamy, the practice of having multiple romantic partners, is currently still illegal in the United States. However, that has not stopped an approximate 30,000 to 50,000 people living in polygamous families all across the country. Some people choose to live in polyamorous relationships, meaning that more than two people are involved in a relationship, except that none of them are married to one another – thus not breaking any laws. While there have been no upcoming plans to legalize polygamy, some people hold the belief that the recent legalization of gay marriage in many states is a precursor to the legalization of polygamy. Supporters are waiting in anticipation, while social conservatives are against the thought, warning that the legal change to traditional marriage could potentially lead to the legalization of group marriage.
Polygamy is not new to the scene. Historically, polygamy was widely practiced in some ancient cultures, not just with people but with animals as well. Animals are still naturally polygamous today, with the males mating and moving on to other partners long before their previous partners birth any offspring. We often hear of kings in the past having hundreds of wives and concubines, and tens of children. It was only some thousand years ago that monogamous culture became predominant, perhaps when people started to settle down into their own plots of land and property, keeping it within the same kin. Some advantages of polygamy include allowing a man to sire more children, but monogamy allows for more successful reproduction in the natural course of genetics, where a man can ensure that his partner’s offspring are his – and also prevent the offspring from coming to harm at the hands of other male rivals.
It has usually been the case in most cultures, past or present, that polygyny – a man having multiple wives – is more common and socially acceptable than polyandry – a woman having multiple husbands. There have been instances of polyandry when a civilization suffers from scarcity of land and resources. Polyandry, in terms of human beings, helps to limit population growth and protect the family’s land from division. Most instances of polygamy today are of polygyny.
These days, partly due to the stigma against polygamy and the laws associated with it, many polygamous families are private and do not disclose their status. In the United States, there are some communities or religious groups such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) that permit polygamy.
The FLDS has been infamous for the sexual abuse of children, particularly its leader, Warren Jeffs, who had sexual relations with underage girls and was sentenced to life in prison as a result.
There is also an increasing number of Americans who say that the practice is morally acceptable, rising from seven to seventeen percent since 2001. This has been attributed to a leftward shift on political and moral issues in the country, as well as the practice being depicted in popular media, such as the Sister Wives, which documented the experiences of a real polygamous family.
This Utah family, the Brown family, allowed the media to come into their lives and feature their polygamous relationship. With one husband, four wives and eighteen children, the husband is only legally married to one of the wives and spiritually married to the other three. However, they drew the attention of critics who accused them of breaking polygamy laws in the state. Eventually, their lives became so public that a very invasive investigation was started, causing the family to move out to Las Vegas, Nevada. The matter escalated into a lawsuit filed by the state of Utah against the family, who retaliated with a federal civil rights suit, stating that their constitutional rights had been violated under the First and Fourteenth Amendment. In the end, the state of Utah dropped the case. After Sister Wives, there were other polygamous families featured on the same television station, although they may not have been prosecuted to the same extent by their states.
Some concerns have arisen over the modern polygamy scene. For one, girls in polygynous families tend to be married off at a very young age, sometimes even in their teens. This could happen with arranged marriages and without the girl’s consent, especially in communities and religious groups. Plural marriage has also been linked to genetic disorders in the offspring and child development problems in the family. Polygyny in particular may also have the side effect of leaving many men without a suitable partner in some communities, leading to an increased occurrence of rape and substance abuse.
Polygyny has been a sensitive topic in some parts of the world, especially in Western culture. It may promote gender inequality by allowing a man to take multiple wives. Although the husband should usually treat his wives equally, there may inevitably be favoritism involved, perhaps most often with the youngest and newest wife.
The experiences of polygamy differ depending on the parties involved. While some maintain that polygamous relationships can be toxic for the parties involved and promote jealousy between a person’s spouses, others state that polygamous relationships can be loving and satisfying. Some women married to the same man enjoy one another’s company and being able to share the burdens of housekeeping and raising their children. Sometimes, tensions between the wives can be diffused if the wives are sisters or they each have a separate household. At the end of the day, the number of benefits or drawbacks of polygamy depends largely on each individual family and their approach to love.
Aside from the negative effects and religious associations of polygamy, it was found that non-religious Americans are more likely to accept the practice compared to religious Americans, especially those who identified as Christian – an interesting statistic considering the Christian history contains multiple instances of polygyny.
With the large amounts of stigma still against anything other than traditional marriage between one man and one woman, it is unlikely that polygamy will be accepted into the mainstream society anytime in the near future. While the legalization of gay marriage may suggest some degree of openness among the populace, as long as Western marriage still maintains that marriage should be between two people, those practicing polygamy will probably still live under the hood, separated somewhat from the rest of Western culture.
Jun 01, 2020