What Exactly is Wrong With Polygamy?

Thanks to Concurring Opinions for inviting me back to blog this month. I look forward to your comments.

I have been thinking a lot about polygamy lately. As I prepare to teach Family Law once again, I am confronted with polygamy everywhere I turn. First, the third season of Big Love, the HBO series about a Utah entrepreneur struggling to support and “satisfy” his three wives and eight children, begins next week. Second, last April, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services removed 468 children from their homes in a polygamous ranch. Although the Texas Supreme Court ordered the children’s return to their parents after finding no immediate danger warranting emergency removal, child protective services has continued its investigation in a handful of cases. Third, I have been following Professor Angela Campbell’s research on the polygamous community of Bountiful in British Columbia, which has challenged some of my assumptions about polygamous wives. Finally, I recently learned that polygamy is practiced in the U.S., not only by members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect in Utah, Arizona, and Texas, but also by Black Muslims and African immigrants in New York and Philadelphia. This brings me to the question I would like to raise: What exactly is wrong with polygamy? I will discuss some frequently made arguments and look forward to reading yours.

Polygamy is illegal in all 50 states. Yet, it is estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 men, women, and children live in polygamous households in the U.S. Most polygamists do not enter into plural marriages for purely personal reasons, but rather are guided by religious beliefs. Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which broke with the Mormon church in 1890 when the latter disavowed polygamy) believe that only men who have at least three wives will enter the highest level of heaven and that women can only get to heaven if their husbands take them there. The United States Supreme Court, in Reynolds v. United States , rejected claims of religious freedom under the First Amendment to practice polygamy.


Many Americans believe that polygamy is morally wrong, but this view is not universal. Polygamy is legal and widely practiced in many countries in Africa and the Middle East and Islamic law allows a man to have up to four wives so long as he treats them equally. So why are most Americans vehemently opposed to polygamy?

Some people oppose polygamy because they are concerned about the potential for sexual abuse of young girls. Admittedly, some girls entering polygamous unions are too young for marriage (or sexual relationships). Some of the girls who lived in the polygamous ranch in the Texas case discussed above had become pregnant in their early teens. The husbands are often much older, men in their 50s and 60s, or older. Undeniably, many of these “spiritual marriages” are not consensual unions, but sexual abuse (rape) of a minor.

However, polygamy and sexual abuse of young girls do not necessarily go hand in hand. Every state has laws protecting minors from sexual abuse. States can prosecute child predators while allowing consenting adults to enter into polygamous relationships without fear of criminal prosecution. For example, law enforcement agencies in Utah and Arizona have chosen to focus on crimes within polygamous communities such as child abuse and domestic violence rather than polygamy itself.

Sexual abuse is clearly a problem in at least some polygamous communities. However, some adult women freely choose plural marriage. For example, Anne Wilde, a graduate of Brigham Young University and co-author of Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage, freely chose plural marriage for 33 years until her husband’s death. Should women like Anne Wilde be able to enter into a polygamous marriage without fear of prosecution?

This question raises a second concern. Even if some adult women freely choose plural marriage, does polygamy harm all women? Arguably, polygamy violates the principle of gender equality. Although the term “polygamy” includes marriage to more than one man, such marriages are very rare; almost all polygamous societies practice only polygyny—marriage to more than one woman. Further, most plural wives have no legal protection during or after the marriage. The reason is that most polygamist men have one legal wife and the subsequent wives are “spiritual wives” – they are not legally married. When a spiritual marriage ends before the husband’s death, a spiritual wife has no claim to spousal support or equitable distribution of marital property. Spiritual wives are also not entitled to an intestate or elective share of the husband’s estate, or any of the legal benefits of marriage, including Social Security survivor benefits. While legal recognition of polygamous marriages might remedy these inequities, under current law, polygamist men who are unjustly enriched by their wives’ contributions to the marriage have no legal duty to provide anything in return.

Opponents of plural marriage argue that exposure to polygamy is harmful to children. Texas officials believed that the “culture of polygamy” in the compound was such a threat to the children’s health that immediate removal was necessary. Although the Texas Supreme Court found no evidence to warrant removal, in 1955, the Utah Supreme Court upheld a similar raid on a polygamous community, finding that a polygamous home was an “immoral environment for the rearing of children.” However, some adults raised in polygamous households recall their childhood fondly. One woman who grew up with seven mothers and 60 siblings told the Salt Lake Tribune: “I’ve always considered that I had a fairy-tale childhood . . . I had more close friends and family than most people have acquaintances. It was warm and supportive. You knew you were loved.” Few adults recall their childhood, whether polygamous or not, quite so fondly. However, according to the ABA Journal , many of the attorneys who represented the children in the Texas case thought that the children’s mothers “seemed like great parents . . . Their children were noticeably well-behaved . . . and quite playful.” It is worth noting that the children repeatedly asked to go back home to the polygamous ranch.

We cannot assume that children reared in polygamous households are necessarily worse off than children reared in one or two parent homes. In fact, in recent years, the Utah Supreme Court seems to have changed its opinion that a polygamous home is an “immoral environment for the rearing of children,” and has held that the practice of polygamy does not make a person unfit to serve as a custodial or adoptive parent. In other words, in a custody dispute between a parent who practices polygamy and one that does not, it might be in a child’s best interest to reside with the polygamist parent.

Finally, I would like to return to the argument that polygamy is immoral. Although many Americans hold this view, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the majority’s belief that certain conduct is immoral does not mean that it “may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operations of criminal law” and Massachusetts and Connecticut allow same-sex marriage despite many individuals’ beliefs that such marriages are immoral. This brings me back to my original question: If there is no evidence that polygamy per se harms children, why shouldn’t consenting adults be allowed to enter into polygamous relationships?

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59 Responses

  1. Lee says:

    I love your arguments on both sides of the polygamy issue. Referring to Sis’s question: “Whats wrong with it – 2 women married to the same man in a equal, loving relationship, entered into willingly and and for only the reason that they love each other?” Was there, or has there been any such case? Assuming all of you are married, would any of you honestly feel HAPPY if your husband/wife had an affair with another woman/man?

    I have thought of many different conditions, like during a war where your partner(s) can die at any time; like in a closed community where people are heavily brainwashed with some religious doctrine; like in a society where everyone accepts polygamy as a normal way of life (i.e. ancient China where wealthy men could have as many wives/concubines as they wanted).. None of those conditions would give me an imagination that someone is happy to share his/her spouse with others.

    It’s simply beyond my imagination!

    Perhaps, for some reason, and only for A MOMENT, a woman could be happy (or ok) to know that her husband was having (sexual) relationship with another woman. But what about EVERY other moment of her life?

    You may bring all the reasons in the world to support the practice of polygamy. You may have the best arguments that any lawyer would envy. But in your heart, you know it’s wrong. And therefore, it’s wrong.

  2. Joe says:

    I don’t have arguments merely from lawyers. I have actual accounts of those involved who are “okay” and “happy” with sharing their husband with others. People in this society, not some “closed” society that merely are “brainwashed” repeatedly have felt a polygamous relationship is right for them. I can trust them or somehow examine my “heart” and determine I know best for them.

  3. Lee says:

    Thanks Joe. I find no flaws in your reasoning. I think all reasons or arguments are at first based on certain premises. For example, in the United States, whatever written in the Constitution must be the truth; for Christians, whatever written in the Bible must be the truth; and for most part of the Middle East, whatever written in the Quran must the be truth.

    I guess one of your premises would be “events I observe in real life, as well as events that are well documented, must be reliable proofs to prove my case”.

    People change their mind all the time, but it’s usually too late to fix things after they change their mind. Thus, even with freedom of choice, one’s at-the-moment decisions do not guarantee his or her best interests. Specifically, those women who are happy to share one husband, I agree. Nothing’s wrong with that AT THE MOMENT. Perhaps they are all in love with the same man, or simply run after his money. But how long does that “happiness” last? Could they maintain the affection for the rest of their lives? What would happen when the money ran out?

    Yes, I understand your “legalization” position would allow them to divorce, but then what would happen to the children? Most of us would agree that things among consenting adults aren’t the issue, but the welfare of helpless kids is.

    Now, you would argue that there’s no difference between monogamy and polygamy in terms of domestic abuse and divorce. True, but first of all, we should set aside abusive behaviors, which may be the same in both cases. But in polygamy divorce cases, the overwhelming reasons would be envy, jealousy, quarreling about fairness and equality, etc., all of these reasons don’t exist in monogamy relationships.

    Joe, one of the premises that I base my arguments on is “humanity”, at the heart of which is the concept of “conscience” or whatever people may call it. There are different kinds of law in different parts of the world. But I believe the law should not only to protect the people and preserve justice, but should also serve as guidance to a more advance civilization. One example is a common law against animal cruelty in the United States.

  4. Joe says:

    Thanks Lee.

    The Constitution is a framework of government; it is not “nothing but the truth.” Christians and Muslims also repeatedly don’t think their holy books are totally true. Some are absolutists on the point, yes. Many are not.

    Observations and well documented behavior is not just something I find important. I reckon you do too in any number of ways. For instance, when you decide what to eat or what sort of car to drive or whatever. You observe, you look to see what is well documented as safe. This does not always work but it’s standard. It is not just ‘my’ rule.

    I also partially rely on “humanity,” my “heart,” and my “conscience” to determine how things are. Using this, along with the other stuff, just like you determine how to live your life & make decisions, I think my position is correct.

    The happiness of the people I referenced lasted as long as it did for people in monogamous relationships — different times for different people. As to the children, people have polygamous relationships with or without some sort of formal ceremony. Children are involved in either case. Merely making it all illegal will lead to more problems for everyone, just like if you couldn’t divorce, more harm would occur. Some “in their heart” think divorce is wrong too. That is hurts children. etc. We let the people decide.

    I am no big supporter of polygamy here, any more than I am for some couple to have ten kids. But, it is a personal matter & it belies reality to ignore that some (like Justice Scalia, who has nine kids), have are happy.

  5. Cecilia Clyne- Hosten says:

    I was born on raised on a strongly professing Christian Island in the Caribbean called Grenada. The majority of my family members are VERY staunched Catholics. But what perplex me deeply, is the fact my paternal grandfather was married in the Catholic church, had five children with his lawfully wedded wife, and thirty-four children with other women outside of the marriage. Those other children and their mothers, were not recognised or provided for by him nor his family. He died when I was a young child,so I don’t know his story. But am wondering what caused him to behave in that way…I know he came from a family who were plantation owners….both he and his wife were white, but all the other women involved were blacks. Am fifty-four years old, so you can imagine the era am speaking about.

    I only know seven of my grandfather’s of-springs, which means I have thirty-two aunts and uncles that I don’t know, including their children and grandchildren. This is very disturbing to me especially where mating is concerned…..you understand where am coming from. Now my grand father was not the only one. I know of another man who has 44 and another 90 children, both were married to one woman, and only a few with their wives. There are others to…. But Grenada is not only a very small island with about 90,000 people, but a strong professing christian nation that strongly condemns such practices; and would vehemently condemn polygamy if it were to come to our shores. But the general practice is that a man is married and he sleeps around with as many women as he wants; and their wives who can’t do anything about it suffers in silence. Sometimes I think if given a choice wouldn’t legalized polygamy be an option? Because nothing is stopping these many. A

  6. Cecilia Clyne- Hosten says:

    I was born on raised on a strongly professing Christian Island in the Caribbean called Grenada. The majority of my family members are VERY staunched Catholics. But what perplex me deeply, is the fact my paternal grandfather was married in the Catholic church, had five children with his lawfully wedded wife, and thirty-four children with other women outside of the marriage. Those other children and their mothers, were not recognised or provided for by him nor his family. He died when I was a young child,so I don’t know his story. But am wondering what caused him to behave in that way…I know he came from a family who were plantation owners….both he and his wife were white, but all the other women involved were blacks. Am fifty-four years old, so you can imagine the era am speaking about.

    I only know seven of my grandfather’s of-springs, which means I have thirty-two aunts and uncles that I don’t know, including their children and grandchildren. This is very disturbing to me especially where mating is concerned…..you understand where am coming from. Now my grand father was not the only one. I know of another man who has 44 and another 90 children, both were married to one woman, and only a few with their wives. There are others to…. But Grenada is not only a very small island with about 90,000 people, but a strong professing christian nation that strongly condemns such practices; and would vehemently condemn polygamy if it were to come to our shores. But the general practice is that a man is married and he sleeps around with as many women as he wants; and their wives who can’t do anything about it suffers in silence. Sometimes I think if given a choice wouldn’t legalized polygamy be an option? Because nothing is stopping these men. And many of them go to church with their wives faithfully. I REALLY need answers here!

  7. melissa says:

    It may be true that polygamy usually only occurs in cults and religious groups who brainwash people now, but that would be because it is illegal. Only crazy people would openly break the law. However if it was legalized, most people would stick with tradition and not do it, but some people would decide to do it. There already are many people who are married with other partners on the side that they even have children by. With laws requiring the first partners consent to second marriage, taking on a knew partner doesn’t seem morally wrong, only if the second partner doesn’t get the same benefits. If couples were more honest and held responsible for their actions there would not be illegitimate children everywhere on welfare. Furthermore lesbian relationships use up extra women too. And some people are not good marriage material for anyone. Also it is doubtful that one person would be able to get consent from a large number of the best mates for themselves anyway. There are plenty of lonely unwanted people out there that would consider being a plural partner if it was legal(just think of all the mistresses and guys having affairs with married women). Those people are not protected under the law and any children born to them may not get support or if the extra is a guy, paternal rights are iffy. I have read the Bible and it is not against polygamy(homosexuality in the Bible is considered a sin not polygamy). Now homosexuals have been granted marriage rights in some states, so why not polygamy? Simple it is not as widely socially accepted, it is almost never brought up objectively, and the government would rather not be bothered with larger more powerful families and changing laws. Is government moral? Are politicians moral? Why would they care if polygamy is moral? No, it is all about power and control.

  8. Sherman says:

    On tyhe front of early cultures where the women were in charge I am adecendeant of such. The Cherokee people were ruled by the women and the men voted in as leaders by the same. The women chose the man and if the man wanted more he had to get his wife/s permis to take another. In other words if a man had one wife she had to say yes. I f man had ten wives all ten had to say yes or it was a no go. While yes some religous groups force women into it it hten does not become a polygamous relationship as all must be consentual it then becomes onesided adn demeaning. What most folks do not realise is that polygamy has been illegal for only 35 five years. I am 36. I personaly woudl have no problem having 2 wives however I would only do that if my wife consented to it. Keeping peace, happiness, and love flowing properly in my family is an absolute must. Keep in mind my wife and I were both born and raised in monogimous families.
    I don’t understand how it’s ok for our national leaders to cheat on their spouses but if we want to marry more than one woman/man it all of a sudden becomes illegal. This seems to be the degrading path that our once great country has taken. Where your wife is not worthy of a mans loyalty and therefore must stay at home or work while the husband plays around? on the front of food stamps and abuse…… both are rampit in monogomous marages as it is even more so with the current economic climate in the state and worldwide. melissa you make absolute valid points and I can not agree with you more on the state of the government.

  9. Truth says:

    Polygamy should be a choice for both partners to say if it’s okay or not. The government’s job is to keep us safe not to control are personal life choices. Having 2 or more wives or husbands is not going to change the way we live as a whole greatly. I understand that males and females are almost equal in number but with one man having more wives would probably increase birth rates. Yes, for the first few years it will look as if all the singles are disappearing and they probably are. But this wont have much change things like infidelity or divorce rates, and if they do it would only be a slight decrease in infidelity also a increase in divorce.

    People view polygamy as a way men treat women as less then they are but that is not completely true. Polygamy was used as a way to increase population in earlier centuries. Modern women seem to think you can only have one love in your life and your unwavering loyalty and love is what makes you husband and wife. As adult women a more realist view is needed, love is the most important factor and as we all should know it is possible to love more than one person. Think of just the idea of love in a relationship, you can love your parents, friends, children, neighbor, and spouse all at the same time. But this does not mean you love one more or less then the other but some people would say that those are different types of love. If you love your father then you can also love your mother the same, right? That is what polygamist feel with their spouse, just because you have two doesn’t mean you love the first or second any less regardless of what type of “love” it is. That’s why some people feel the government has no right to define “marriage” regardless if its gay or multiple.