It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy. ~ Jim McMahon

Via elephant journal
on Aug 20, 2012
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I suggest it’s time to legalize polygamy among consenting adults.

I have been thinking about how to respond to the many stories in the press about polygamy and the seemingly odd behavior of polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs. Mr. Jeffs leads the polygamist cult based on the Utah/Arizona border and is locked in a Texas prison for having sex with minor girls to whom he was “married.” While I don’t condone Jeffs’ behavior, I am astounded by the blatantly negative attitude toward polygamy in the media. While the focus as of late has been on the extreme practices of this particular sect, there appears to be some kind of media consensus that polygamy is evil.

I don’t agree.

I’ve lived in Utah for 12 years and find much that is odd about the Mormon culture. Since legislators and local lawmakers in Utah are predominantly LDS, it follows that state and local laws reflect the religious convictions and values of this majority. If you don’t believe me, try ordering a drink in a restaurant or finding someplace to dance. Polygamists are, in theory, practicing the original form of the faith. While Jeffs is consistently cast as an evil psychopath, I wonder if his behavior is much different from Brigham Young’s, the fellow who led the Mormon pilgrimage to what is now Utah.

What’s difficult for me to understand is why it’s okay to be gay in San Francisco (or anywhere else) and not okay to be polygamous in Utah. Our country is increasingly leaning toward more acceptance and recognition of a variety of relationship types. The Democratic Party has recently added same-sex marriage to their platform. Polyamory, the concept of multiple loving relationships, is emerging in western states including Utah. I find acceptance of gay marriage and rejection of other loving relations to be a contradiction in the values of those who would judge.

The problem with polygamy is that it’s illegal. Polygamists have been forced to live outside of the legal system. When people are forced to be outlaws, they establish their own rules. Why not take advantage of the welfare system? Why not avoid taxes of all kinds by developing community property and voucher payment schemes? Anyone in a similar situation would do the same.

I’m not for or against polygamy, but I have had discussions with polygamist women (in my naturopath’s office) in which I have been impressed by their contentment. Non-polygamists respond that these women have been brainwashed and can’t be trusted to have an unbiased perspective. I would assert that the most indoctrinated group anywhere in this country are Christians, having been thoroughly inundated throughout childhood with mythical stories characterized as factual.

It was some years ago, while reading the seven volume Annals of Ireland, that it became obvious to me that my Irish ancestors were polygamist. The Annals don’t use that word but instead spoke about building alliances between adjoining tribes through multiple marriages and warriors taking in their brother’s wife and children when he was killed in war. It was clear that some men had multiple wives. Polygamy is also common in biblical stories. It is a part of our heritage. Frankly, so is juvenile marriage.

Society has a right to change its moral code, as exampled by child labor laws being instituted to eliminate that practice. Polygamy and underage marriage have been outlawed too. Mormons were seen as an oddity and forced to give up polygamy in order to become a state, yet now the nation is swaying toward recognition of same-sex partners. Likewise, some people are finding that they can love more than one person.

I suggest it’s time to legitimize plural marriage among consenting adults. If polygamy were legal then anyone who was unhappy with their current prophet could leave the faith and take their assets with them. A woman unhappy with her husband could divorce him and seek support. The oddity of polygamist practices would diminish. Bring those people who practice plural marriage into mainstream society. Then, enforce the societal consensus that it’s not okay to marry minor girls to old men.

Beyond that, let’s live our own lives and mind our own business.


James P. McMahon studied ecology at the University of Illinois because he is curious about the natural world around him. He fell in love with rivers at an early age and then learned all about them. He’s also fallen in love with yoga and travels to yoga festivals and workshops. He has a passion for learning and contributing to a healthier planet and healthier people. He works from his home overlooking the Santa Clara River in southern Utah. You can learn more about Jim and his work at Home Water Purification Systems by Sweetwater LLC.


Editor: April Hayes


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16 Responses to “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy. ~ Jim McMahon”

  1. Annie Ory says:

    This is America, a nation founded on the idea that the State shall have no hand in condoning, or condemning, the religious practices of people of faith. We are rare among nations in not having a State Church, a single organization backed by the State as the official church of choice. The state has a reasonable stand in saying that 9 year olds can't marry, or consent to marry, but it as far as I can see the state has no reasonable stand in saying that one person can't marry any number of other people. "Polygamy" is not, I hope, what you would wish to see legalized. What I hope you mean, when you say you wish they would legalize polygamy, is that they would deregulate who adults can marry. That is what a government of and for the people would do. Protect the children, yes, but everyone else should be free to do as we wish.

  2. Jim says:

    Hi Annie – I'm not sure about the distinction you make. Polygamy is actually illegal. Because Utah was viewed with great suspicion by the rest of the country at the time, Utah had to adopt a bygamy law in order to be accepted into the union and, as I understand it, the Congress of the United States must approve any change to this law. So I think this law should be repealed, thus legalizing or decriminalizing polygamy. The State of Utah supposedly has a practice of not enforcing this law among consenting adults. Nonetheless the existence of the law drives these families, which consist of different cults and an estimated 60,000 individuals (in Utah) to live outside the law. Meanwhile the press, in particular CNN as of late has been extremely critical of one particular sect and its leadership. That leader may be a nut, but the way the issue is conveyed the press acts like all members of this faith are nuts.

  3. Jim says:

    Yet, Anderson Cooper, who reports on this has just come out as gay. It is my view that he can do whatever he wants within the reasonable confines of the law and so too should that standard apply to people who choose to live in plural marriages. Now by that statement I don't mean to suggest that I comply with every law in this country some of which I choose to view as intrustive and not pertaining to me. So on that note I would agree that as long as we do no harm to others we adults should be free to do as we choose. What I see instead are groups attempting to impose their limited world view on those of us who do not agree. Thanks for commenting Annie.

  4. Annie Ory says:

    Polygamy = a man who is free to marry more than one woman
    Polyandry = a woman who is free to marry more than one man
    Polyamory = people who are free to love/marry more than one other person of any sex, sexual orientation, or whatever else society and the government currently deem to be an abomination

    The distinction is important because legalizing "Polygamy" – what you say you support, means that only men can have multiple partners, and then only multiple wives. If we are liberate marriage, let us just set it free completely. If you want to have a government sanction, the government should sanction any adult's choice to co-habitate and to share finances with any other person/people that person chooses. We could even call it something different so that the religious people would stop squawking about the sanctity of their "marriages". Let the churches sort the rest out. It's none of our business.
    IF however, the government is going to be in the business of sanctioning marriage, then it must sanction said institution for all citizens.

  5. Jim says:

    Annie I support all forms of relationships. I was only making the distinction that polygamy is specifically illegal. But I would take exception that your definition of polygamy is somehow male oriented. Those women are free to marry that man or not, so I believe it to be a decision made by equals. I believe in freedom.

  6. Alyson says:

    "The problem with polygamy is that it's illegal."

    I absolutely disagree.

    I grew up in the Mormon faith and am a descendant of Mormon polygamists. The problem with polygamy, or in this case, polygyny (one man being married to multiple women), is that is is based on the antiquated, sexist, patriarchal subjugation of the rights of women. It is practiced in a male-dominated structure with all kinds of implications ignored by the author in this piece.

  7. Jim says:

    I am suggesting that bringing plural marriage into the light of day can address those antiquated, sexist, partriarchal practices…. Isn't mainstream mormonism itself still male dominated?

  8. Mark Ledbetter says:

    I agree with Jim. But I REALLY agree with Annie. It’s simply none of the government’s business who marries who so long as we’re talking about adults. The idea that government should define marriage and then issue licenses leads to no end of trouble. Like all the recent culture wars over gay marriage. Both sides in that one seek to enlist the power of the state to enforce their particular beliefs. If the state were not involved, the culture war would immediately be reduced to more of a culture spat.

    Alyson, yes, polygamy may (or may not, I simply don’t know) be “antiquated, sexist, patriarchal subjugation of the rights of women,” but that, too, is simply none of the government’s business. It’s the business of adults who freely choose whatever marriage configuration is comfortable for them.

  9. charon says:

    by interfering in the bonds god sanctifies the state has done itself a disservice. better that we take the state out of all marriage and other socio-religious bonds, and make everything a contract, where the state recognizes the submission to legal responsibilities to another and gives legal rights over another, so that they have shared responsibility over their property and children. this is what the state does best. if there are multiple parties that want to form a contract, there will be just that degree more paperwork and fees. homosexual state-sanctified marriage is not about rights but about acceptance of homosexuals. if it were about rights, there would be a push for the state to give civil unions only. the bonds we make with each other should not be kept in the dark, but unless the argument is made on the grounds of equal rights and responsibilities and separation of church and state there will remain an unnecessary state control over our choices, and who we choose to submit to and support.

  10. Annie Ory says:

    It isn't my definition of polygamy, it is THE definition of polygamy.
    It's just what polygamy means. Period. It men can marry more than one woman.
    Polyandry is the opposite.

    Plural marriage is a more neutral term, I prefer non-monogamous myself, as it can apply to married people and people who choose not to seek the government or religious sanction of marriage.

  11. Alyson says:

    Yes, that is why I left the Mormon church. I will give your assertion some thought. Thanks for replying.

  12. Keith says:

    Polygamy must be legalized as part of full marriage equality. Along with gender equality under the law, the polygamous freedom to marry (which includes polyandry, three or more women and no man, and other combinations) will better protect women and children than the current system. Monogamy isn't for everyone, and equality just for some is not equality. An adult should be free to share love, sex, residence, and marriage with any consenting adults, without prosecution, bullying, or discrimination.

  13. Jim says:

    Annie – here are the actual definitions:

    polygamy |pəˈligəmē|
    1 the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time.
    polygyny |pəˈlijənē|
    polygamy in which a man has more than one wife. Compare with polyandry.

    polyandry |ˈpälēˌandrē|
    polygamy in which a woman has more than one husband. Compare with polygyny.

  14. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    James – very interesting point of view! I'm going to have to rest on this and come back to you!

  15. Jim says:

    Tanya – I look forward to that…. I'm single (not a polygamist) and straight (monogamous – one woman is handful) but I believe that those who wish to experience plural marriage or polyamory should have a right to do so openly and not have to hide their relationships from prying and judgemental eyes….

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