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.


  1. Taken to its inevitable conclusion wouldn't this ultimately be an argument against even monogamous marriage? Feminists have made a similar rationale against marriage in all its forms, and what they would see as the unreasonable pressures and obligations it puts upon women.

    Indeed, for a large part of history marriage has taken away many rights from women. Yet knowing this there were still women who chose that union and men who honored their wife within it, and offered support which the legal institution did not.

    It could be argued that marriage even now disadvantages women financially, educationally, and professionally. Yet to some women it is seen as a partnership, and to Christian women it is looked upon as a sacred relationship between them, their spouse, and God.

    A soldier conscents to some restrictions and risks to his life to carry out what he considers to be his sense of duty, a person who devotes their life to serving amongst lepers would miss out on some of regular societies convienciences, but might feel amply rewarded by their sense of purpose and feel compensated by other parts of their life. Each of these definitely has potential harms - like marriage or life in general, but is not necessarily harmful in and of themselves.

    A plural family may feel a sense of mission that means facing and overcoming insecurities and jealousies. A woman may feel a calling to that way of life, and a man may act solely in service to his wives. Together they may function at varying levels of success, and we looking in from the outside may not judge that the same as they would.

    In none of these types of scenarios is it possible to fully anticipate the challenges ahead, but each person makes their decisions with an ideal in my mind, and as an exercise of faith. Although some will ultimately choose differently, others will find their fulfillment in the circumstances others found too challenging.

    Protecting others from the choices we feel they shouldn't make might work if we were there parents, had some obligation to oversee them, and had some right because of their lack of age and maturity. However, it is no way to treat adults.

  2. I'm sorry, Nathan, but I can't see the logic in your argument. I see no parallel between polygamous marriage and monogamous marriage regarding disadvantages to women. In a monogamous marriage, a woman enters into a contract with a man as an equal. Each has the same responsibilities and the same rights within that relationship. There is no physical, emotional, or spiritual extortion used to get the woman to agree to the partnership. Husband and wife legally have the same rights to the assets from the partnership and although one partner, by agreement of the couple, may have more control over the finances as he or she assumes the responsibility of paying the bills, it is often the woman who has this control. In our society, she has the same access to education and often has the opportunity to pursue a career which provides her freedom to remain in the relationship or not if the relationship becomes dysfunctional or oppressive.

    You say that the plural family "may feel a sense of mission that means facing and overcoming...jealousies," but in fact it is only the women that are forced to overcome jealousies. The husband has numerous privileges that are not accorded to the wife (or wives) under any circumstance.

    There are some choices that even two consenting adults do not have in our society and that is because it is seen as detrimental either to the adults or to society. You and I might agree that I would be your slave in return for your providing me with food and shelter, but our laws would not permit us to have that relationship because it is seen as a relationship that damages at least one of the participants. Polygamy is the same.

  3. Nathan C.'s wives need brother husbands.

  4. Don't see how the "inevitable conclusion" of the above article has any relevance to monogamy. The thrust of the argument appears to be about compromised consent because of types of co-ercion. There are no comparable pressures for women to comply with monogamy (which may be negotiated in an equitable way) whereas inequities are inherent in polygamy.

  5. I was pointing out that given the different status of men and women traditionally that similar arguments to those made in this article could have been used against such marriages, and there are those (such as some Feminists) who would still use similar arguments against even modern civil marriage (some calling that slavery). Although I am certainly not promoting such a view.

    I wont defend every plural union (and I doubt anyone would try to defend every monogamous one), but personally I condemn any relationship formed or maintained through pressure in any way, or anything that would disadvantage a woman in her choice of partner or profession. (Interestingly some of the first female doctors in Utah attributed their ability to study in and take on that profession to the support of their sister wives.)

    There is an idea that plural marriage is an easy ride for the men involved. Imagine for a moment you are a deeply religious man seeking to serve God, whose faith includes the idea that to be with those he loves for eternity requires him having multiple wives. Your motivation is not lust, power, or greed. It may be a trial of a man's faith, traditions, and inclinations. But he is seeking to do what he believes is part of his devotion to God and for the love of his family.

    In all matters of religious faith there are obligations that are seen as divine in which those who comply are promised or expect blessings in this life or the hereafter, or may be in danger of losing such blessings if they do not abide that principle. Some will look upon this as an opportunity, others as a burden. Mormonism is not unique in this.

    I do not believe in arranged marriage, and I would hope that no woman would consider marrying me or remain married to me unless they both love me and feel God has directed them personally to do so (as an answer to prayer).

    Because I don't feel this is the best venue for me to discuss these matters I'll leave my comments here, hoping I have given some insight into a different outlook.

  6. I see many problems with these arguments. 1. Gay marriage doesn't produce "external forces such as threats of destruction?" Christianity as a whole has preached the same destruction (as mentioned in this article about women) about the gay community...AND ALWAYS HAS. Leviticus 18:22 and 22:13. Saddam and Gomorrah was apparently destroyed because of it!! It has long been a part of Christian doctrine and has been taught even after the fulfilling of the law by Jesus Christ. Christians do in truth, teach that all those who do not accept Jesus or understand him, doctrine and scripture differently will not enter into heaven! I see zero basis for the argument that duty to religion or fear is where they connive the women when all churches teach a similar concept and members respond the same way.

    2.Several studies which you fail to mention report the same percentages of healthy, unabusive, and happy families as monogamist marriages. Several woman whom I have had the honor of knowing personally, express quite the opposite experience of yours. Stating they wouldn't feel complete without a "sisterwife." They have specifically stated they feel no pressure and that if they desired to leave...they would do so without fear of hell or suffering. Mormon prophet Brigham Young made the statement the lifestyle would damn more people than it would save! A statement these people very apparently realize and accept as truth. Merry's words to me were, " I think the lifestyle attracts the best of best...Along with the sickest of the sick." Also many branches of polygamy see little/no increase in crime. In fact there are several communities in which it is lower.

    3rd: It is unfair and inaccurate to say polygamist men control a family. Many sects of polygamy are in every way equal partnerships. In many cases the woman is controlling and believe it more than the men. Men leave due to hardships in approximately the same numbers as women. Is each 1 share owner of business which 3 shares any less an equal partner if run as we would assume? NO.

    3. I know all churches preach the same love. I know all churches have mass amount of people leave believing that they were subject to methods of control. All Religion is a method of control whether its for right or wrong reasons, People are generally happy in religion and its not all a big setup where people hold in their feelings. As a Christian I see no valid basis for any point made in this article.

    1. I apologize for spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors. It was typed fast.