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.
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