Sisterwives reframes the polygamy debate
Dec 8, 2011

Sisterwives reframes the polygamy debate


It is always easier to dispel some characterization when it is given absolutely; not just as a generalization, not just as something that exists for some people, but as something that is always true. In this case, one merely needs to find a single counterexample to disprove the claim. Polygamy is one of those subjects that seems to lend itself to people giving absolute characterizations of it. Consider this Globe and Mail story: Polygamy's degrading to women - end of story:
"Polygamists’ wives are literally treated as cattle...women are reduced to the status of toys that can be tossed away and replaced at the whim of their husband. If this is not in itself degrading, I wonder what is."
Is this really the end of the story as the author would have us believe? Contrast the above narrative with the example of a polygamous family presented on the popular TLC show, Sisterwives

The TLC show Sisterwives:
Sisterwives challenges most preconceived notions we may have of what a polygamist family looks like. It is a family with four wives and seventeen children between them. All of the women come off as strong, proud, and independent women who can articulate a range of reasons why they actively want and desire the life style. It is clear there is considerable love throughout the family including close bonds between the sisterwives, something they cherish. Any semblance of coercion of either wives or children is entirely antithetical to the almost matriarchal family unit where everyone is treated as equals. The children are raised more or less normally and are not forced to continue the lifestyle and are free to make their own choices without pressure; some of the older children claim they want the lifestyle for themselves, others don't. They rather forcefully make a clear distinction between their lifestyle (which they claim is the most common way polygamy is practiced in Utah and I have little reason to doubt this claim) and the lifestyle of such high profile polygamy cases as convicted child assaulter Warren Jeffs, who they vigorously condemn for his actions. 

It seems to me nearly impossible to watch the show and not come away with the impression that this specific family lives an entirely acceptable, perhaps even normative, life. It is exactly the opposite of the common caricature suggested by the Globe and Mail writer. Indeed, it becomes clear that to forcibly break up this family would be a very significant harm (as Utah law would attempt to do if pursued, they had to flee to Nevada after coming out on TV) . On this fact alone we can't necessarily make the case for legalization of polygamy - harm in other ways may trump the harm of separation here - but it provides a very compelling and very public example of how a polygamist family can be entirely fine and how it would clearly be a sad thing for the law to intervene here. 

The main structure of Sisterwives models the format of the earlier runaway TLC hit Jon and Kate Plus Eight, and is part of a slew of similar shows such as Nineteen Kids and Counting, The Little Couple, and American Muslim. The essential premise is a reality TV show that follows a mixture of mundane daily activities and more major life moments of some family through a combination of filming unscripted family activities as they occur and through interviews with determined topics or questions. Each family has something about it that makes it unique and outside of the average person's experiences such as being polygamists, having sextuplets and twins, having nineteen kids in a very Christian household, being little people, and being Muslim, respectively.


Say what one will about the entertainment value of these shows, but there is a definite social value in portraying these different types of people - many who have distinct stereotypes attached to them that might make us uncomfortable with the idea - and showing how they can live entirely acceptable and even desirable lives. It helps to remove our stigmas and paves the way for both social and legal acceptance. 

Sisterwives began by largely addressing the basic questions of how one actually might live a polygamist life. How does the husband allot time to the different wives? How do they function as a family? How do the various members think about polygamy (this children disagree n this question, incidentally)? What kinds of adversity do they face? And so on. In between episodes that were more drama centric (such as a pregnancy or fleeing Utah), they offered some episodes that really talked about their religious beliefs and how that fit in with society, including such things as discussions between them and Mormons of the same and differing sect (sometimes quite adversarial sects), Protestants, LGBT members, and other groups that were among the more frank and interesting discussions of the intersection of religion and society that I have seen on television.

Polygamy in Utah:
The Brown family featured in Sisterwives are a religious minority three times over. In the context of a broader Protestant and Catholic Christian society, they are Mormon. Within the Mormon church, or LDS church, a schism occurred at the turn of the 20th century due to extensive legal and social pressures against the traditionally polygamist Mormon practices. The mainstream LDS movement completely abandoned and banned the practice while the Fundamentalists, or FLDS, continued the practice of polygamy. There is considerable tension in Utah between the LDS and FLDS movement both of which at times consider the other to be a corruption of the faith, and we would be very wrong to lump these in together as is often done.

Because of the nature of the laws in Utah and other jurisdictions, the FLDS movement often tried to shy away from public exposure or working with police and has been tarnished with a few high profile cases of child abuse. Within the broader fundamentalist Mormon movement there is an offshoot called the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB) that disagrees with the more secretive practices of the FLDS and instead promotes wider and open social engagement, very strongly condemns all forms of child or spousal abuse, and pledges to work closer with the police and other authorities on these issues. It is essentially an attempt to hope for more acceptance from government and society by being open rather than closed about their lifestyle. The Brown's are members of the AUB (although they don't announce this on the show) which explains their willingness to do such a show.

Comparison to the Niqab:
Reading the comments of the article, the overwhelming consensus agreed with the central premise of the article that polygamy was oppressing women, end of story. This is often the claim as well with regards to the wearing of the Niqab that it is just a tent forced on women by oppressive men. However, some Muslim women will tell a different story about how it is matriarchal not patriarchal, how they are doing it out of their own desires for modesty and religious humility, and various other reasons.

When we claim that we are going to ban the free actions and associations of others, we have a very high burden of proof to justify this. Saying that we are doing it for their own good because they are some combination of brainwashed or forced into the actions (whether it is polygamy or the Niqab) superficially gives us this justification. However, this characterization of us being the good Samaritans as we ban other peoples decisions is often buying into narratives that the people involved simply don't believe and don't follow, or at least some of them don't.

Previously on the Niqab/Burqa: Defending the Burqa (also involves discussion of a G&M article) | Banning the Niqab: Freedom vs Inconvenience

Tactics of bigotry:
It is worth noting a few of the tactics used in the Globe and Mail article to combat polygamy simply because they are quite common and repeat themselves by people wishing to target all sorts of other groups of people. Perhaps most egregiously was the use of finding the most extreme example possible to be used as cannon fodder. In this case, the author mentions the timely example of a murder done by a polygamist. The implication, unstated but in no way unclear, is a smear against polygamy in general because of this extreme murder example. It is standard practice to find the most extreme examples of a group when trying to say something negative about the group.

There was an appeal to the fact that history of western democracies which has maintained marriage as being between two people with the idea that this could only have been because there is a really good reason for this. The author does note that the definition of marriage has changed recently to include gay marriage yet in a moment of cognitive dissonance still seems to think the historical precedent set of two people not more is relevant while the man and wife bit wasn't. Never mind, of course, that polygamy has a very prominent role in history including for many biblical characters. Such an appeal to tradition and history is a similar tactic people use when trying to defend their claims and truly sounds no different than all the people making the exact same arguments about about gay marriage.

Next up was the characterization of polygamy as just part of our animalistic lusts that makes males want to spread their sperm widely around. Dehumanizing various behavior and eliminating the idea that people do things for higher order desires of self-actualization, religious devotion, love of family, or whatever else, and replacing that with just base level urges as the only possible motivation, is common practice. Of course, when a male sleeps with many women outside of marriage - something our culture is entirely fine with an indeed glorifies - talk of these animalistic urges somehow doesn't materialize. Yet when they aim to express love and commitment and family for each other through marriage - not just base sexual gratification - this is the time this rhetoric gets pulled out. This narrative has thankfully dropped out of common usage, but in the sixties it was common to similarly characterize male homosexuality as just being an outlet for male desires of promiscuity.

Polygamy vs Polyandry vs Polygyny:
As a minor terminology correction to the Globe and Mail piece, the word polygamists refers to any combination of multiple spouses. The word polygyny refers to the multiple wives situation specifically such as the Brown family. The word polyandry refers to multiple men. Both are examples of the broader concept of polygamy. It is thus not, as stated, polygamy vs polyandry as the two possibilities; this is a category error.

Conclusion: 
I have found over and over in my life that when we attempt to truly understand people who are different than us, when we try to determine their human motivations and desires, when we view them in a humanized way, it often leads us along a path of acceptance and welcoming. Conversely, when we pigeon hole people into negative, dehumanizing characterizations, it breeds division and contempt. Sisterwives provides a unique and deep insight that humanizes the Brown family for us all in a way that is just fundamentally antithetical to the narrative presented by too many people about polygamists. 

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14 comments:

Anonymous said...

What is happening in Bountiful, B.C. is degrading and cannot be compared to sisterwives in any way.

bazie said...

Sure. My point certainly isn't that all polygamy - Bountiful included - is like sisterwives, it is that all polygamy is NOT like any specific characterization. In particular, all polygamy does not fit the usual worst case scenarios that people can find of it. Attempting to eschew generalizations is completely antithetical to suggesting an equivalency between bountiful and sisterwives.

Marriage Equality said...

Thanks for this. Domestic violence, child molestation and child brides... THAT should be prosecuted, NOT relationships between consenting adults. An adult should be free to share love, sex, residence, and marriage with ANY consenting adults. Some women will choose to marry a many who already has (or likely will have) other marriages. As long as women are free to NOT marry, free to divorce, and free to take on multiple spouses themselves, what's the problem?

bazie said...

Hear hear.

Petter Falch Rasmussen said...

I hope they would take a (non-religious), non-conservative, non-polygynous polygamy for once, once!

tiffany and co said...

This is a really good read for me, Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw.Thanks for posting this informative article.

Petter Falch Rasmussen said...

I think lumping LDS and FLDS in together is not wrong, as long as you do it right. Lumping them in together as both are mormons is by all means correct, but lumping them both in as either LDS or FLDS is, of course, wrong.

I do believe both niquab and polygyny can be done in a good way, without the women being oppressed, in fact, the women could be the very ones choosing it (and, you know, consenting adults, and all that), but the very idea that only women are to wear niquab, and the men don't, and men are to have several wives, but women only get to have one husband. That's not really coool, is it? To me, women making such choices by their own free will, feeds those that abuse these things, with good arguments. I'd like to see men with niquab, or women with multiple spouses. I don't really like the idea of niquab at all, but I am a polygamist, but very anti-polygynist.

Marriage has never been between just to people. Marriage is divided into two subcategories, monogamy (which is two people) and polygamy (which is more than two). And even if you think marriage is between two people, you have to add that they are to be closed marriages, or you could still marry one person, and have a marriage with only that person, and then marry another, and have an individual marriage with only that person, etc.

It is not accurately precise to say that "polygamy" refers to either multiple wives or multiple husbands, so that it is a term encompassing only polygny and polyandry. If there was a system where a marriage could consist of three homophile men, another marriage of one man and six hundred wives, one marriage of two women and three men, then this is not either polygyny or polyandry, but it is still polygamy. Polygamy is best described as "multiple spouses" :D

bazie said...

I broadly agree. The FLDS vs LDS distinction is relevant for polygamy because they take opposing views on this (a fact people seem to ignore often making polygamist jokes about normal Mormons) but outside of polygamy there are many similarities. Yes absolutely the general polygamy definition is wide, I meant the inclusive AND/OR operator not the exclusive XOR operator when I said multiple wives or husbands.

I suppose my question to you would be the following: as someone who ostensibly supports the idea of people being able to choose various polygamous lifestyles outside the context of one man and one wife, why are you against the specific choice of on man and many women, particularly if the women can express cogent arguments for why they actively desire this lifestyle and are not at all coerced into doing it?

Petter Falch Rasmussen said...

WOW!!! A fellow logical mind! "inclusive AND/OR operator not the exclusive XOR operator" <3 But you have to agree using the term "either" before "or" would suggest a little inclimanation towards the exclusive operator?

What if the jokes about "normal" mormons could be interpreted as being about mormons in general, of which a higher percentage than average are polygynous? :D

Good question! I am against all forms of unfairness. It is ok to desire and even practice a polygynous lifestyle, but as soon as you start denying women the same privilege, I will fight for their rights. Even though Joseph Smith actually married women that were already married, whose husbands still lived, you probably won't see any mormons of any kind (or any other conservative (religious) people), where a woman can have several husbands (let alone a man have husbands, or a woman have wives). I've talked and discussed with all types of these, and they do believe it is immoral if not ONLY males have this privilege. That is subliminal coercion, and even if there are women conservative enough to actually support this and desire it, you do see how this can serve to support and uphold a moral system that might not be benemaficial for everyone living under it? Now, if I got the power, and could legamalize true, genderneutral polygamy over the whole, of course I wouldn't have a hard time with indimavidual instances of marriages that happened to contain only one man married to several women, and these happened to not be married to anyone else, as long as they don't try to convince people that some people should not be able to be polyamorous.

Sanjiv said...

It'd be nice if all polygamists were like the Brown family, but as we well know at this point, they're just not. Check out the Kingston family - they'd make a much better reality show. Incest, child labor, violent abuse and a prophet who's said to have - according to his own family members - in the region of 400 children. Yes, you read that right.

check out secrets and wives dot com

bazie said...

Certainly, my point isn't that the Brown's are like everybody else or even representative of everybody else, instead it is that everybody isn't like examples such as the Kingston's.

Thankfully, incest, child labour and violent abuse are all things we have very strict laws against and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of these laws. But there is nothing inherent about polygamy that results in these things and they can be prevented and prosecuted on their own outside of the context of polygamy.

Anonymous said...

I do not agree with pologamy at all , I think its wrong and degrading for women. I am a athiest and am not a fan of any religon , but the morman religon has to be the most blood boiling one. How does having more than one wife make you closer to god, it doesn't, its an exuse for the man to get his own way and make him feel supiror to his wifes. The programme sisterwives shows the Mormon way of life good and filled with love , its not , its difficult and it doesn't work. Not to sound offensive , but most of the women are overweight and and little self confidence, there is no way a woman could he happy knowing that her husband is in the room next door having sex with another woman, and they are meant to he civil with them, another problem is the kids. When they grow up to he teenages they are going to gain there own views and may not agree with the pologamy lifestyle. It showed in one of the eposiodes that all the 17 kids were arguing and being bullied because of there lifestyle. Girls and boys growing up in this lifestyle will grow up to beielve that polagamy is acceptable, there is a reason why its illegal in most countries and states. I belive that a relationship should be between one man and one woman, or two men, or two women, there should he only two people in a relationship , any more makes this things difficult. Do they have sex all together? Or does he take in turns? How would it feel to a child , having 16 brothers and sisters calling the same man dad? Would they know who there mum is, being sourouded by loads of women? The children will be taught different things in school and realise there family is different, they would be confused, how unfair! Everone is an individul and should be treated like a individual , not a toy that is just added to the collection. I think The Mormon community should be ablolished! And the whole idea of it is complete and utter b*******.

bazie said...

I always find it interesting when people who support gay marriage don't support polygamy, at least in principle. Many of the things you have said are exactly how people have long fought against gay marriage. For instance they will remind us the "definition" as between one man and one woman (without your added qualifications), they will pull a "think of the children!" line, they will say how the children will grow up thinking homosexuality is acceptable, they will note there is a reason it is illegal in other countries, etc. I am just taking statements from your comment and only slightly adjusting them to how the anti-gay rights movement used to, and still does, frame it.

There are also several comments from your post that the show shows not to be correct such as the conflation of Mormon in general and not FLDS in specific, questions of whether they have sex together or in turns, what the children feel about this (they talk about this at length), etc. And I highly doubt you know enough polygamist women to be able to say they are more "overweight" than the average mothers.

Anonymous said...

How does a person with Love to express and enjoy life become involved in something like this?

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