“Love should be multiplied, not divided.” — Sister Wives star Kody Brown
Polygamist Kody Brown and his four wives, featured on TLC’s reality show Sister Wives, challenges the show’s audience with that “prove me wrong” statement at the beginning of every episode. Now in its third season, Sister Wives follows the lives of Brown and his wives, Meri, Janelle, and Christine, all of whom he married in the early 1990s. The most recent addition, Robyn — younger, thinner, prettier — married into the family last season. The household also includes a total of 17 children (three of them Robyn’s from a previous marriage). The only legal marriage is between Kody and Meri.
Like most reality shows, there’s an element of train-wreck entertainment as we watch the daily lives of the “cast,” and like most reality shows, we can be certain that the editors and producers play a strong role in shaping the show’s narrative. In much of the first season, they portray the family as happy and loving — your average family next door — until they introduce the fourth wife, Robyn, and she and Kody begin courting. Jealousy between the wives begins to surface and escalates as Robyn and Kody eventually marry. There are serious cracks, especially in the relationship between Christine and Kody now that she has been replaced as the the newest wife:
I have a lot of expectations and not a lot of appreciation, to be honest. And so, he’s walking into a hostile environment sometimes now. And we’re just at a point where we’re struggling to find ourselves. I don’t know if I care if it’s perfect anymore or if it’s what he wants anymore. It’s just so much work. And I know there’s a big payoff and I know for years and years we had a great marriage and a great thing. I just don’t know what I want anymore.
Meri admitted that she struggled when Christine joined the family.
In Season 2, Robyn gives birth to a baby boy as the family prepares for a move from Utah to Las Vegas, Nevada. The family faces a major crisis when they try to qualify for mortgages on four luxury homes in a gated community and they discover that dear, sweet Robyn has a serious credit problem. She tells the family that her ex-husband left her saddled with $25,000 in credit card debt and a medical bill that sent her into bankruptcy. It turns out that she’s not the only one. In 1997 Janelle (wife #2) filed for bankruptcy, saying she was a single mother with three children, $388/month in income, and no financial support from Kody Brown for their three minor children. She was unable to pay $20,000 in outstanding debt — a combination of credit cards, medical bills, student loans, and car payments. By 2005 the household again filed for bankruptcy — this time in the names of Kody and Meri. The clan had amassed a stunning $85,000 in mostly credit card debt on top of their $100,000 home mortgage, which also had a $32,000 home equity loan tacked onto it.
Polygamy isn’t cheap and you can’t live on credit cards indefinitely, so it seems that the TLC show came along at just the right time. TLC doesn’t disclose how much they pay their stars, but some estimate it’s in the range of $75,000 per episode.
Aside from the family’s financial problems, there have been legal issues as well. The Browns claim they fled Utah because they feared criminal prosecution for their polygamist lifestyle. While that sounds like exactly the kind of overblown drama we’ve come to expect from these TV reality shows, this one includes important legal issues that could impact the entire country.
As it turns out, polygamy is illegal in Utah — and in Nevada and every other state in the country. While Sister Wives portrays Kody Brown as a shaggy-haired, fun-loving dad, more than a year before the show was even announced, he publicly spoke out in support of legalized polygamy, granting interviews to the BBC and other media outlets in early 2009 as he joined a lobbying effort at the Utah state legislature. He made no secret of the fact that he knew he was breaking the law, so it probably came as no surprise when, amid the publicity of the show, two individuals filed complaints with the local police department and the Utah County Attorney threatened to prosecute the family.
The Brown family, likely seeing the dual benefits of boosting ratings and drawing attention to their political cause, basically told the Utah County Attorney to “bring it on. “
They sued the Utah County Attorney and state officials, claiming that Utah’s bigamy statute violates their constitutional rights to privacy, due process, equal protection, free exercise of religion, free speech, and freedom of association.
Utah County Attorney Jeffrey Buhman ultimately decided not to file charges against the Browns. In fact, Buhman adopted a formal policy saying they would not prosecute bigamy charges unless “the bigamy occurs in conjunction with another crime or a person under the age of 18 was a party to the bigamous marriage or relationship.”
Court briefs have been flying back and forth, as the U.S. District Court decides whether or not the case should go forward now that the Browns have moved to Nevada and there are no charges pending against them in Utah.
In a hearing in July, U.S. District Judge Waddoups grilled the state attorney about his motives for dropping the charges and adopting a new policy:
U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups’ blunt questions had a state attorney on his heels for much of a 45-minute hearing Wednesday as he tried to defend Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman’s recent policy change regarding the statute.
“Is the act of the Utah County attorney simply an attempt to avoid the issue of what consenting adults can do constitutionally?” Waddoups asked assistant attorney general Jerrold Jensen.”
It raises an interesting question. Did the Utah County Attorney drop the charges against the Brown family and soften the county’s bigamy prosecution policy in order to avoid a legal battle that could potentially overturn Utah’s bigamy laws — and perhaps those in the other 49 states? If the Browns prevail it will be the first time in 120 years thata district court has considered whether criminal restrictions on polygamy are unconstitutional. The Browns are hoping to keep the case alive for that very reason.
All of this makes for salacious reality show drama and fascinating legal theorizing, but when we strip all of that away, we have real women, real boys and girls, and a husband and father. There are important moral and ethical questions we must wrestle with, regardless of the outcome of the court case and whether or not the Browns stay together and manage to pay their credit card bills.
It’s rather fascinating that we’ve tumbled down this slippery slope so quickly, isn’t it? In a 2004 Slate article, Dahlia Lithwick argued that it was ludicrous to suggest that legalizing gay marriage would lead to legalized polygamy:
But one can plausibly argue that there is a rational basis for states to ban polygamous and polyamorous marriages in which there has been historical evidence of an imbalance of power, coercion (particularly of young girls), and an enormous financial burden placed on the state. None of these arguments can be made against gay marriage. … The right to sexual privacy [Supreme Court Justice] Kennedy finds in the line of cases starting with Griswold v. Connecticut, the Connecticut birth-control case from 1965, is an intimate right, between two consenting partners. The court calls these “the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.” The desire of a group of seven people to marry simply does not intuitively fit into that binary sphere of intimacy.
But when Rick Santorum debated students on the sanctity of marriage during the presidential primary last year, trying to ascertain whether “happiness” and the right to privacy should be the only standards for permitting marriages, he was booed and heckled by students making the same arguments Lithwick dismissed out of hand in the Slate article less than a decade ago. “Back in the day” activists and sympathizers of all stripes used to be shocked and offended by the slightest “comparison”—as they pejoratively labeled it—of gay marriage to polygamy, even when detractors merely attempted to point out that the same arguments being made for gay marriage (privacy, freedom of religion, equal protection) would eventually be made for polygamy.
The Slate article does raise some important concerns about polygamy. It explains why all states ban the practice: “…there has been historical evidence of an imbalance of power, coercion (particularly of young girls), and an enormous financial burden placed on the state.”
Dr. Thomas West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College, touched on some of these concerns in writing about our country’s historical ban on polygamy:
In spite of this sincere religious belief, the Supreme Court ruled that Mormons were not exempt from the law forbidding multiple wives. Polygamy was made a crime in Utah “because of the evil consequences that were supposed to flow from plural marriages.” The Court wrote that a “free, self-governing commonwealth” presupposes monogamy, upon which society may be said to be built. . . . In fact, according as monogamous or polygamous marriages are allowed, do we find the principles on which the government of the people, to a greater or lesser extent, rests. . . .
…[P]olygamy leads to the patriarchal principle, and which, when applied to large communities, fetters the people in stationary despotism, while that principle cannot long exist in connection with monogamy.
The Republican Party platform of 1856 had condemned “those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy, and Slavery.” Both were viewed as enemies of liberty. Polygamy was thought to be the antithesis of the proper equality between man and wife. The moral message of polygamy is that one woman is not good enough for a real man. The Supreme Court pointed out, correctly, that polygamy was practiced elsewhere in the world only under despotic governments in Asia and Africa…
…The U.S. Constitution guarantees free exercise of religion, but not for religious practices that, in the words of the Supreme Court in 1890, are “repugnant to our laws and the principles of our civilization.
It is no coincidence that the countries with legalized polygamy are overwhelmingly Muslim and/or patriarchal societies and that the countries that allow it almost without exception only permit polygyny (one husband with multiple wives) and not polyandry (one wife with multiple husbands). Even in some countries that ban the practice, allowances are made for Muslims practicing Sharia law. For example, in India, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, polygamy is illegal in all forms, “except for Muslims.” In Mauritius, polygamous “marriages” are not recognized, though Muslim men are permitted to “marry” up to four women. Unfortunately, the women do not enjoy any legal rights or status as wives.
Historically, from a human rights standpoint, polygamy has been associated with male domination and women being treated as little more than property. In his book The History of Human Marriage, Edward Westermarck equated monogamy with women’s rights and progressive societies:
When the feelings of women are held in due respect, monogamy will necessarily be the only recognized form of marriage. In no way does the progress of mankind show itself more clearly than in the increased acknowledgment of women’s rights, and the causes which, at lower stages of development, may make polygyny desired by women themselves, do not exist in highly civilized societies.
After studying polygamists in cultures around the world — from African tribes to Native Americans to Muslims to well-heeled Europeans — he concluded that humans naturally gravitate to monogamy and that even within polygamous relationships, monogamous trends occur:
Where polygyny occurs, it is modified, as a rule, in ways that tend toward monogamy: first through the higher position granted to one of the wives, generally the first married; secondly through the preference given by the husband to his favourite wife as regards sexual intercourse…It remains for us to note the true monogamous instinct, the absorbing passions for one, as a powerful obstacle for monogamy. “The sociable interest,” Professor Bain remarks, “is by its nature diffused: even the maternal feeling admits of plurality of objects; revenge does not desire but to have one victim; the love of domination needs many subjects; but the greatest intensity of love limits the regards to one.” The beloved person acquires, in the imagination of the lover, an immeasurable superiority over all others. “The beginnings of a special affection,” the same psychologist says, “turn upon a small difference of liking; but such differences are easily exaggerated; the feeling and the estimate acting and reacting till the distinction becomes altogether transcendent.”
Westermarck expresses what most of us know instinctively: women have a deep, abiding need for exclusive love. Despite 30+ years of feminist propaganda trying to convince us otherwise, we have a God-given desire for the security of a relationship with one man, for life. It’s why an estimated two billion people watched the wedding of Britain’s Prince William and his lovely bride Kate Middleton and the reason for the ubiquitous “chick flick.” Fairy tales sell — women still want the knight in shining armor and the happy ending.
It’s also the reason the Brown wives struggle with jealousy in their marriage. They fight against their natural inclinations when they share their husband and settle for a part-time lover and partner.
Susan Deller Ross, a professor of law and director of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at Georgetown Law, who has studied polygamy in the human rights context, points out that the polygamous relationships are almost universally of the male-dominated variety, resulting in equal protection violations for the women in these marriages:
At the beginning, each person has the right to marry the other; historically, the marriage also operated to sanction sex between the partners. With polygamy, however, the man has the right to marry as many women as he likes, while the woman is limited to one husband. What’s more, the sex lives of the husband and the wife are different: He has sex much more often than she. Turning to the obligation to support the children, the polygamist husband has fewer responsibilities than each wife does concerning their children. The wives’ time, emotional attention, and financial resources are available to support the children; only a fraction of the husband’s are. The same is true when divorce or death comes. A typical intestate succession statute leaves one-third to a wife and two-thirds to their children, but when a man has four wives, each wife gets a fourth of a third, or one-twelfth, while he inherits one-third from each wife.
Ross notes that legalizing polygamy would violate several international agreements and that many human rights organizations condemn the practice.
When considering whether legalizing polygamy is good for society, we must also consider the idea of scarcity. For example, when news began to trickle out about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) sect, we learned about the “Lost Boys”— young men who were excommunicated from the church and banished from the community in large part because there were not enough women to go around. Plural marriage supporters will, of course, argue that there is no slippery slope, but we’ve already demonstrated that the slippery slope in these matters is like a giant water slide greased up with a tanker full of oil. One needs only to look at the current demographics of China, with their one-child policy, to see the results of distorted social mores that have wreaked havoc on gender roles and marital outcomes. (It’s better to marry a dead “ghost bride” than to die single.) This toothpaste cannot be put back into the tube.
I write as a Christian who objects to polygamy for societal, cultural, and biblical reasons. And yes, I know all about the polygamy in the Old Testament. The Bible is not a book about spray-tanned televangelists with perfect teeth and perfect lives. We see a lot of evil and also see its consequences. It never ends well for polygamist families. Jesus brought a new paradigm into a world where women were treated like property and enjoyed few rights. He spoke to them with compassion and elevated their status in the church and eventually the world, as Christianity spread with revolutionary ideas like “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Hebrews 13:4); “The husband should fulfill his marital duty towards his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:3); “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21); and “Be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect” (1 Peter 3:7).
As a Christian and as a woman it breaks my heart that some want to take us back to the antiquated concept of polygamy, where men and women, rather than being equal partners in a marriage, place an alpha male at the helm with a variety of women available to service the husband’s needs. The husband collects more wives as the years go by, while he deprives the women of the full respect, attention, and affection they deserve as equal partners in a marriage. Why, in the name of “rights” and “equality,” would our country ever consider going back to a system sanctioned by some of the most brutal regimes in the world and one that human rights activists want to end in the name of women’s rights? It seems unthinkable.
Previously from Paula Bolyard at PJ Lifestyle: