Saturday, July 30, 2011

Polygamy: A Matter of Consent

By Marion Munn
April 2011. Written for an Analysis of Argumentation Class at the University of Utah

Polygamy: A Matter of Consent

Over the past few years the media has been filled with high profile debates about same- sex relationships, such as the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, and the possible legalization of gay marriage. At the same time, another relationship controversy, that of polygamy, has been brought to both national and international attention in news reports featuring Warren Jeffs and his followers in The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or FLDS (Appleyard 48). This group is only one of several referring to themselves as Mormon Fundamentalists - all polygamist offshoots of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, or LDS) which abandoned the practice around the turn of the last century. Tenacious in its practice of polygamy, one of these groups has spilled over into Canada, precipitating a major debate there that will affect Moslem as well as Mormon Fundamentalist polygamists, as British Columbia’s Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of its ban on polygamy (Wetzstein).

In the US, debates about polygamy take place in a society where grass-roots movements have promoted greater tolerance for alternative lifestyles, shifting away from biblical standards of morality towards a greater prominence for the bedrock American principle of individual freedom of choice. Because of this, some liberals who are pro same-sex marriage are now being drawn into support of polygamous unions. Society’s response to this issue is an important one, since its values are defined by what it condones, and some have identified problems inherent in polygamy, including “imbalances of power and psychological abuse” (Young 18). If this is so, responsible citizens would be well advised to withhold their support. As a 2006 Economist article states, “hardly anyone …is thinking about polygamy as social policy...” and that “for reasons that have nothing to do with gay marriage, polygamy is a profoundly hazardous policy” which includes implications of increased crime rates, male-female ratio imbalances affecting marriage prospects for men, and undemocratic processes (Rauch).

There are indeed multiple factors inherent in polygamy that should give cause for concern. One of these is the aspect of “consent.” Any factors limiting or compromising this vital facet of a relationship would certainly cast doubts upon its validity or desirability. Accordingly, this essay contends that polygamy, as typically lived in the United States, may violate accepted principles of informed consent. The term “consenting adults” has become familiar in the US, and implies freedom of choice, particularly in matters of sexual partners (Lawrence). To demonstrate the limitations of this term within polygamy, evidence will be presented including my personal insights as a past member of one polygamist community (the AUB or Apostolic United Brethren) for a period of approximately twenty years. It should be noted that the polygamy discussed here is more precisely termed “polygny,” i.e. one man with more than one wife, since this is the typical form (Valsiner 67-68). Additionally, the term “wife” or “husband” denotes a religious, not civil contract. Consent within these unions centers around two main factors: a woman’s agreement to becoming part of a polygamous union, and her consent for her husband to take more wives.

In considering a woman’s consent to entering polygamy, we will focus on adults, discounting the obvious abuses involving female children in sexual liaisons with adult males, which may not necessarily be typical. As Cassie Ambutter points out, “many of the women that opt for fundamentalism abandoned the mainstream LDS church in their later years, far beyond age of consent’s relevance” (14). This was true in my own case, and may appear to implicitly validate that choice in terms of free exercise of will, and to offer no grounds for challenge. However, there is an important qualifier to “consent” that has a bearing on decision making - even in the case of mature women not brought up or conditioned within societies where polygamy may be the norm, bringing into question even adult female compliance.

Definitions of informed consent include “Voluntary agreement by a competent person to another person's proposition” with ”competent” defined as “Able to act in the circumstances, including the ability to perform a job or occupation, or to reason or make decisions”(Nolo). In general it is conceded that an adult with no mental disabilities, not being physically coerced, usually has the potential of arriving at an informed decision. However a 2010 California Law Review article identifies another element relevant to this discussion, focusing on the word “imperfect.” It states that “imperfect consent… [is] where the ability of a person to consent to an act is questionable either because the act is arguably harmful to the person, or because social or cultural pressures compromise the person’s autonomy (Richards 200). Richards here identifies two important factors which he suggests may exist in polygamist culture– undue pressure, and compliance in spite of possible resultant harms to the individual - a view supported by others, writing on the subject of ethics (Arneson 42). It is important to identify these pressures and harms.

First, it should be recognized that within Mormon Fundamentalist culture polygamy is not optional. It is considered to be an essential commandment that must be followed to gain God’s approval and to enter the highest level of heaven (Walsh qtd. in Wetzstein par.6). Writings considered to be revelations directly from God to Joseph Smith (first leader of the LDS church) recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, clarify this. One passage states that “all those who have this law [polygamy] revealed unto them must obey the same" (132:3). Even more compelling is the penalty attached to its rejection, which is that if a woman is taught polygamy by her husband and refuses to live it “she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her....” (132:64). Early Mormon leaders hammered home these teachings to those who were unenthusiastic about polygamy, warning that such people would “go down to hell and be damned if they do not repent" (Pratt). Such threats may not carry much weight with today’s average member of the public, but Fundamentalists take a very literal reading of these passages; and emulate LDS leaders who, in the past, have defied the law and have been willing to risk imprisonment over the principle (Smith). In this context, however incredible it may seem, there are women who do agree to polygamy even though it may be repugnant to them and cause mental anguish (D’Onofrio 383). This was my own experience, and the experience of other women in my circle. For instance, a young woman whom I will call “Sarah “confided to me that she was angry with her parents for teaching her about “plural marriage” because that meant she “had to live it.” She also admitted that she was afraid of “being destroyed” if she “rejected the law [polygamy].” The result of this kind of experience is often emotional pain exacerbated by diminished time with the husband, and a reduction in resources that are spread increasingly thin (D’Onofrio 380). Some of the emotional effects have been noted by Dr. Lawrence Beall, Utah trauma psychologist, (Summary) and are also paralleled within Moslem communities, as will be shown later.

Not only do some women feel compelled to enter a polygamous relationship, once within such an arrangement their consent may be compromised in another important way. This is demonstrated in the ability of a man to take on new partners without the consent of existing wives. A man may solicit a woman’s agreement and sometimes obtain it under pressures already noted. However, if she does refuse, this may have no bearing on the outcome since the Doctrine and Covenants justifies her husband in taking new wives without her compliance (132:65). This renders a polygamist wife potentially powerless in this aspect of the relationship, once again with the potential for stress, unhappiness, and feelings of helplessness.

Some may argue that these pressures, limitations and harms are centered solely in Mormon Fundamentalist polygamy, and are atypical of other forms, but it should be noted that in Islam many women also view polygamy as a religious duty against which objections are “haram (not lawful)”(Polygamy). Alia Hogben, Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women states that some women are sometimes fearful of repercussions, including “bodily harm” for shaming their husbands by non compliance (qtd. in Dhillon). They too are subject to radical changes within their marriages that do not require their consent. Dr. Susan Stickevers, expert witness in the Canadian polygamy hearings writes to me, “Too many Moslem women I have known had their husbands arrive home from trips to Pakistan, only to be informed that there was a new wife in the picture...” As a doctor in New York she was able to witness firsthand the negative mental and physical symptoms presenting in women subjected to such stresses, as was Professor Dena Hassouneh (736-737) a Moslem who studied the effects of polygamy on women.

It may be difficult to quantify the percentage of women who feel pressured into entering polygamy against their will, since repression of what is deemed to be negative emotion is expected (Beall par 9). Within the FLDS the dictum is to “keep sweet” (FLDS Beliefs) and for wives in the AUB, it is to be “in harmony.” Additionally, a woman’s “worthiness” is measured by her outward expressions of approval for the lifestyle, and women are “strongly dissuade[d} …from having or expressing alternative perspectives on plural marriage… creating the appearance of unanimous satisfaction with the polygamous lifestyle, regardless of any internal disagreements…” (D’Onofrio 391-392). Moslem women also face similar pressures not to shame their husbands by open dissent (Hogben qtd in Dhillon).

Although the pro polygamy lobby is attempting to appropriate the “consenting adults” argument in order to win support from liberal elements of society as a stepping stone to legalization, the consent problems discussed here are clearly not paralleled within gay relationships, where there are no external forces such as threats of “destruction” pressuring either party to be involved, no expectation of other individuals being introduced against the will of either partner, (with the accompanying potential for emotional distress, loss of time with a partner, or reduction of financial resources) and no pressure to give outward approval to an inwardly galling arrangement. A society that prides itself on the defense of the freedom of the individual to choose should also be intensely committed to ensuring that it does not condone practices and institutions that violate accepted norms of consent. Despite some outward protestations to the contrary, polygamy hurts many women, and for this reason liberals should not be seduced into confusing support for same sex marriage with support for a practice that embodies such inherent harms.

Works Cited

Ambutter, Cassie. "On Religious Subject Formation and the Limits of Liberalism: A Case Study of the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints." All Academic Inc. (Abstract Management, Conference Management and Research Search Engine). Web. 07 Mar. 2011. <>.

Appleyard, Bryan. “Church of the Child Brides.” The Sunday Times Magazine. London. 22 Jun.2008. LexisNexis. 12 Apr. 2011

Arneson, Richard J. “Mill versus paternalism.” Ethics 90. Jul. 1980.

Beall, Larry. “The Impact of Modern-Day Polygamy on Women & Children. “ TATC: Trauma Awareness. Web. 27 Feb. 2011. <>.

Dhillon, Sunny. “Polygamy Court Case will examine Muslims.” The Canadian Press, updated 5 Aug. 2010. Web 7 Apr. 2011. < documentid=25346982>.

Doctrine and Covenants. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Web. 06 Mar. 2011. <>.

D’Onofrio, Eve. "Child Brides, Inegalitarianism, and the Fundamentalist Polygamous Family in the United States." International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family. Oxford. Dec 2005. Vol. 19(3): 373- 394 doi:10.1093/lawfam/ebi028. Heinonline. Web. 06 Mar. 2011.

FLDS Beliefs 101. FLDS Beliefs 101 – “Keep Sweet.” Web 7 Apr. 2011. <>.

Hassouneh-Phillips, Dena. "Polygamy and Wife Abuse: A Qualitative Study of Muslim Women in America." Health Care for Women International 22.8 (2001): 735- 748. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 7 Apr. 2011.

Lawrence v Texas. 539 U.S., 123 S.Ct. 2472, 156 L.Ed.2d 508 (2003).

Nolo. Dictionary. Web 7 Apr. 2011.

Pratt, Orson. Journal Discourses of the General Authorities of the LDS Church. Vol 17: 224- 225. Web. 4 Apr. 2011. <>.

Richards, Jacob. "Autonomy, Imperfect Consent, and Polygamist Sex Rights Claims." California Law Review 98.1 (2010): 197-242. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Mar. 2011."

Smith, Joseph F. Reed Smoot Hearings Volume 1 page 197. 56th Congress Hearings Document No. 486 . Proceedings before the Committee on Privileges and Elections of the United States Senate, In the Matter of the Protests against the Rights of the Hon Reed Smoot, A senator from the Stat e of Utah, to hold his seat. Washington, Government Printing Office. 1906. Web 7 Apr 2011. <>.

Stickevers, Susan. Email to the author. 18 Mar. 2010.

Valsiner, J. “Organization of children’s social development in polygamic families.” In J Valsiner (ed.), Child Development in cultural context. Toronto:Hogrefe and Huber. 1989. Print.

Wetzstein, Cheryl. “ Anti-polygamy law challenged in Canada court. “ The Washington Times 5 Jan. 2011:5. LexisNexis. Web 12 Apr 2011.

Young, Cathy. "Opening Marriage." Reason 35.10 (2004): 18-19. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Mar. 2011.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Texas Heroes

Howdy Warren,

And, "Wel-come-to-the- great- state- of -Tex-as! If you didn't grow up going to the State Fair of Texas at Fair Park in Dallas, to stand at the feet of Big Tex every year, to be fair, you may not get that one.

I had an interesting meeting with a writer from Austin yesterday, who has written a book on religious maltreatment. We do not agree on all of her hypothesis, which I found broad. What we have in common are some core understandings of what constitutes an abuse of religious authority in a child's life. Or even the abuse of adults, spiritually.

Texas, although many people will never even know it, is full of heroes. The local abuse hotline staff, Schleicher County Sheriff's Office, Texas Rangers, and Child Protective Services, right down to ordinary citizens, including churches, on the ground made heroic efforts to save 400 children from the abuse, which was occurring on the grounds of the YFZ Ranch, in Schleicher County, Texas, in April of 2008.

Although those of us in the media have come to call this 'a raid,' the truth is, it was a rescue mission. Right up until someone in Austin decided to throw their hands in the air and say 'We give up! Take them all back.'

Since the trial for Warren Jeffs begins on Monday, I thought we could perhaps review some of the heroes of this story that will probably never get the attention and admiration they really deserve.

The FLDS had been in these good Texas people's backyard in tiny Eldorado, Texas for around five years when the call came into the hotline. There had been plenty of time, and plenty of warning given to the citizens of the area regarding the ritual sex practices of the FLDS, which include incest, regular child marriage and regular child rape. Little girls are born only to become future concubines for powerful men.

These men have money and plenty of it. They own and operate businesses from Utah to Texas, and Mexico. They even have lucrative government contracts, at both the federal and local levels, as well as multiple businesses devoted to the construction industry. Within years of locating their giant houses designed for communal living, instituting massive infrastructure improvements including a sewage treatment plant, a cement plant, a brand new religious temple along with manned and armed guard towers overlooking Schleicher County, one of their concrete companies had the contract to lay the pad for every new wind turbine in West Texas.

This FLDS is the same one Flora Jessop remembers as a child in Colorado City, Arizona, when Senator Orin Hatch used to come and play the organ in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints services. Senator Hatch, typical for a Utah politician, is for ignoring the felony crime of polygamy, and he personally knows "many fine polygamist people."

Needless to say, these are the kinds of forces our heroes knew nothing about. The heroes simply set out to do a job, and that was to be prepared. So they were very prepared for the abuse they saw. Nothing, however, could have ever prepared them to understand or account for the inexplicable actions of top ranking state employees, who shut them down after they had done nothing but their job, and document it.

Top ranking heads rolled in Austin for taking the position that someone like Warren Jeffs, and other parents on that ranch, had no business having any legal parental rights to any child in the state of Texas. The position from the top was clear, 'It doesn't matter how much abuse you have documented, we're giving them all back.'

The heroes of our story kept working. They did things like push children across the floor as they cried and begged not to be made to go back to their abusers. They handed over a toddler with bone scans showing multiple fractures through his tiny body. They gave girls back to mothers, who they knew had willingly turned their child over for sex, with a man on the YFZ Ranch. They handed a young girl back that spent 3 days in labor on the ranch, without any pain medication or a doctor.

They hugged them. They told them they could always call, no matter what.

But the real story of our unsung Texas heroes is even deeper. These social workers had something happen to them when they started working with the FLDS children. The children were racists. They were raised that way. In the early days of the rescue many of the children, who had most likely never even laid their eyes on anyone who was not also Caucasian, hurled racial insults at some of the social workers.

I think, because of that, I was unsure what the emotional reaction of the minority social workers might have been. That was all put to rest when me and Flora took to the road in the summer of 2009 and we met them, these heroes. They didn't just come to buy Flora's book, they needed to meet her, viscerally.

I could give multiple accounts of meeting social workers across the state who expressed the same feelings, but I never saw anything like I saw when we got to San Antonio. That was special. Flora's appearance, signing, speaking and question and answer periods were clear and concise. The event was at the San Antonio Public Library, where there was a crowd.

At some point, while answering a question about the abuses common in the group that Flora grew up in, a woman from the back of the room spoke out and challenged Flora, and told her she was exaggerating the abuse found on the YFZ Ranch. She then actually said there was no abuse found on the ranch, and that she was an attorney who represented one of the FLDS women in the case.

Incensed, I grabbed my satchel and whipped out the final CPS report. I shook it at her and said, "Excuse me, ma'am, but I have the final report here and it identifies victims, lots of them. Don't you dare come in here to Texas and think you can sell anyone on the idea that it's okay to rape little Texas girls, just as long as you call it your religion."

It's one of those moments in life, where things could take any old turn, and for a moment you wait to see if a crowd turns on you or stands with you. Two women jumped up from the crowd, like lions and started blurting out that they were CPS caseworkers, and had worked with the FLDS children. Before we knew it, the room went rather wild with people turning on the woman identifying herself to be an FLDS woman's attorney in the case. It was a CPS room, and they had all worked with FLDS children taken in the 2008 Texas rescue mission at the YFZ.

They started shouting out about their cases, especially the idea that the FLDS women on the YFZ were in some significant part just as legally guilty as the men. The caseworkers understood the children's abuse, much of it ritual, racist and full of hate, had to have required the enthusiastic participation of the children's mothers as the girls were traded, inside the fences of the YFZ Ranch, across the country to Mohave County, Arizona, up to Bountiful B.C., and down to old Mexico. Nobody's little girl just leaves for Canada one day and never comes home again, right?

No one could possibly be a capable and responsible parent if when you wake up, and you're told by your husband or maybe even one of his other concubines, that your 13-year-old-daughter has gone to live in another country, you don't demand her return, and then immediately notify the law.

If you don't pick up the phone and call the police to report your 13-year-old is missing, aren't you a criminal participating in the disappearance and sex trafficking of your baby?

Imagine, if you will, you are the young idealistic graduate who decided to go into social work, because you deeply cared about people and truly wanted to help protect them. Imagine you carry within you, this noble desire to protect the innocent from harm and to provide hope to the hopeless, so with your life, you serve. It's not hard to imagine what must be in the hearts of lots of people who go into social work or law enforcement.

Now imagine having all of this in your heart and then being a minority faced with pure racism, up close and personal, so blatant that it takes your breath away?

What I discovered is that these ordinary Texas folks were so taken back with the evil of it, that the only weapon with any chance of working was love. So they did that.

They grabbed these kids by the scruff and loved on them. With a white-hot-fierce sort of love they overcame their own distaste and repulsion, and just loved them. They prayed for them. They rocked some of them. They hugged some of them. And when they had to give them back, to whatever force that had shoved so much hatred and evil at those little souls to begin with, they cried, like babies.

After the FLDS attorney had been put in her place, it was like Oprah entered the room. Suddenly, it was alive with people talking to each other, sharing their grief at what happened to the FLDS children, how they were terrified Texas was making a mistake in giving them back to an institutionalized abusive society, run by sex predators, and using fundamentalist Mormon religion to protect themselves from prosecution of their crimes.

The trouble is, our constitution does not allow religious individuals or organizations to commit crimes and then declare immunity from prosecution, just for being who they are, that is to say: religious.

"Before the Supreme Court, Reynolds argued that his conviction for bigamy should be overturned on four issues. These included that his grand jury had not been legal; that challenges of certain jurors were improperly overruled; that testimony by Amelia Jane Schofield was not permissible as it was under another indictment; and, most importantly, that it was his religious duty to marry multiple times."

Among other findings one from the court wrote, ""to permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself."

These Texas heroes loved the hate right out of those kids, and in return they got kicked in the teeth. My new friend, the writer from Austin, has a chance soon to speak to a lot of these heroes. I hope she tells them what I think of them, and that someone out there still knows.

In my mind's eye I see every one of these Texans wearing a white hat. In case, in this strange world we live in these days, you don't know what that means; in Texas it just means they are the 'good guys.'

The CPS workers who jumped out of those chairs, like lions, reminded me of the goddess of Liberty on the San Jacinto Battle Flag. These weren't women or government workers who didn't give a damn about what was happening, these were heroes. These people had been wounded in the heart by the hate and abuse they saw perpetrated against the FLDS children.

I hope someday, some of them will feel safe to come forward and share their stories. That is my brightest hope. I'd like all Texans to know about these real life Texas, good guy, heroes.

Have you ever held anger, racism and hate to your breast and rocked it to sleep with a sweet song, praying that while you did it the hate was being rubbed right off and away? That's a true Texas kind of love.

I know heroes who have.

I know lions of love.

I know the kind of people Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed about.

I have a good life.

G-d Bless Texas