Polygamy, previously illegal in all 50 states, has taken a big step forward in becoming legal in at least one state. For the first time in 85 years, the Republican-controlled Utah State Senate unanimously voted (29-0) to decriminalize polygamy among consenting adults.
For the past 85 years, polygamy has been considered a felony under current Utah state law and if convicted, it was classified as a third-degree felony and carried a punishment of up to five years in prison. It could also have carried up to 15 years if the defendant was convicted of fraud, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, child abuse or human trafficking or smuggling.
Reuters reports that even with the unanimous vote by the Utah State Senate, it doesn’t mean polygamy will go completely unpunished, it means that if the Utah House of Representatives (where the bill now resides) votes yes on it, the law will now move polygamy from a felony down to a simple infraction that is more like a parking ticket. The penalty then would carry a “fines” limit of up to $750 and community service.
WHAT IS POLYGAMY?
Polygamy is different for each sex. In general, it is the practice of marrying multiple spouses and is more of a religious practice. When a man is married to more than one spouse, it is referred to as polygyny. When a woman is married to more than one man, it is referred to as polyandry.
Utah has long been a state where polygamy thrives. Even though it has been a felony for over 85 years, the practice has not stopped. In fact, polygamists number in the thousands even today. So why has this bill been written and why has it been passed by the Utah State Senate?
She first spoke of the law as it reads now. “The law is a failure. It hasn’t stopped polygamy at all and it’s actually enabled abuse to occur and remain unchecked,” said Henderson to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Henderson stated that the intent of the bill is not to legalize polygamy but to lower the penalties attributed to it so those from a polygamous community, victims of crimes, feel they can finally come forward without the fear of being prosecuted. She also noted that it would be much easier for those otherwise law-abiding polygamists to get the critical services without fear she feels they deserve, such as medical and mental healthcare, employment or even education.
THE HISTORY OF POLYGAMY
The University of Wisconsin ran a survey in 1998 of more than a thousand societies. Of those thousand, 186 were monogamous. There was some occasional polygamy in 453 of those societies and in 588, they found it was quite common.
While the laws against polygamy in the United States are very strict (though Utah aims to change that), it is quite common in other cultures. It is very popular in the Muslim communities of West Africa. Nearly 47 percent of marriages in Senegal feature multiple women. In Arab nations, the numbers are still very high. The numbers come in around 30 percent in the Bedouin population in Israel. Does this mean it is legal in these nations? Yes. In Egypt, South Africa, Morocco, Eritrea, and Malaysia polygamy is legal. With written consent from the first wife, polygamy is also legal in Iran and Libya.
POLYGAMY IN THE UNITED STATES
As mentioned, there is not one state in the U.S. where polygamy is legal. Even if Utah’s House of Representatives passes the bill, it still won’t be fully legal. And while polygamy has been acknowledged in many other nations, it wasn’t until 1830 and the creation of the Mormon religion by Joseph Smith that it gained any popularity in the United States.
The religion Joseph Smith introduced gave men who joined a very powerful role. Smith taught that by “sealing”, a religious rite, families could be together forever in Heaven. Because of this, Mormonism attracted many more men at that time. Smith then extended the role of men to include polygamy. His teachings said that a righteous man would be able to help women and children go to heaven by being sealed in plural marriage. Smith even established it as doctrine.
Smith continued to preach his Mormon doctrine. His preaching, though, did not go over well with many. Those who were against it said Smith was using the religion to draw in modest and reserved women to seduce and marry them.
Smith met a violent end. He was jailed with his brother in the Carthage Jail in Illinois for inciting a riot. While there, a mob stormed the jail trying to get at Smith. They took out his brother first, killing him instantly. Smith made it to the window where he was shot several times, falling out the window. He died right after he hit the ground, but the mob got to him again and shot him several more times.
After Smith’s murder, the Mormons migrated to Utah where they were led by Smith’s successor, Brigham Young. It was Young who brought out the practice of polygamy even more than Smith and in 1852, it was announced that plural marriage became an official Mormon practice.
The openness would not last. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the war on polygamy took place. In 1878 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. The United States against polygamy. The court said in part, “Polygamy has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people. At common law, the second marriage was always void, and from the earliest history of England, polygamy has been treated as an offence against society….”
POLYAMORY ISN’T POLYGAMY
We know of polygamy. We know of polygyny. We also know of polyandry. But here is another poly that sometimes is confused with polygamy. That would be polyamory.
When you compare the two, their simple definition would be that polygamy means multiple spouses and polyamory means multiple loves. What are the main differences between the two? Well, the biggest difference between the two has to do with the gender of partners. In polygamy, the most common form is polygyny, where the male has multiple wives. The relationship is almost universally heterosexual. In polyamory, any gender can have a relationship with multiple partners and gender of this person or their partner does not matter.
Polygamy is typically part of religious culture, whether outside of the United States or practicing Mormons. Polyamory does not have much history as religious affiliation. Polygamy, as discussed earlier, goes back thousands of years. Polyamory found its creation in 1990 when Morning Glory Ravenheart coined the term.
Polygamy is seen mostly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, where their cultures allow for men to take on multiple wives while frowning on women and multiple husbands. Polyamory is more of a western ideal, found most common in Canada, Australia, Western Europe, and the United States; places where the equality between women and men is true.
SHOULD OTHER STATES FOLLOW UTAH’S LEAD?
With Utah making the push to decriminalize polygamy, it’s only right to ask if other states should follow suit. This thought truly came to the forefront a few years back when same-sex marriage was legalized. What would be the next step after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision? Polygamy was on the minds of many and why not. If same-sex marriage was finally seen as a right for love and equality between two people, regardless of gender, then why can’t love and equality also be between a man and many wives or vice versa?
The main argument against this is that polygamy is not equal. In fact, many believe it goes against everything women have been fighting for years to achieve. One man being served by many wives does not compute for the majority of western civilization. The same can be said for one woman being served by many husbands.
William Baude of the New York Times spoke out in his op-ed piece that polygamy should remain illegal because it would increase social instability and gender inequality. “Judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected a right to plural marriage because it would lead to gender imbalances if ‘the five wealthiest men have a total of 50 wives.’ Similarly, same-sex marriage advocate Jonathan Rauch has argued that polygamy allows ‘high-status men to hoard wives’ and destabilizes society.”
Of course, there is opposition to Henderson’s bill. The anti-polygamy group Sound Choices Coalition said in a statement, “Proponents of this bill attempt to piggyback on the success of the gay rights movement by promoting the narrative that this initiative is about consenting adults doing what they will. This has nothing to do about consenting adults or gay rights. It’s all about weaponizing God.”
While it doesn’t look like many, if any, other states are willing to follow Senator Henderson’s bill, Utah seems poised to stand alone in its view on polygamy. As Henderson said during a preliminary debate before the bill was passed, “The solution to the problem is increased societal integration, which can only come through decriminalizing otherwise law-abiding polygamists.” She just needs the Utah House of Representatives to agree.