“In the biblical story in Genesis, God creates Eve as ‘an help meet’ for Adam, because she is the only creature who can fulfill that function. While it is obvious that ‘surplus’ non-alpha men will be losers in any society where polygamy becomes widely acceptable—women will also be losers—harem members instead of helpmeets. This is something that feminists and their male enablers who blithely tout polygamy as another ‘diverse family arrangement’ ought to think about.” Charlotte Allen
Charlotte Allen, The Wall StreetJournal, December 19, 2013, p. A 19
Less than six months after the high court issued a pair of decisions expanding access to gay marriage and its benefits, a federal judge in Utah has ruled unconstitutional key parts of a Utah bigamy law that makes polygamous cohabitation a crime. The law had been challenged by 44-year-old Kody Brown and his four wives, who, together with their 17 children, star in the reality-TV show “Sister Wives.” The Browns, who used to live in Lehi, Utah (they have since moved to Las Vegas), belong to one of several breakaway Mormon sects that practice plural marriage. (The mainstream Church of the Latter-day Saints formally abandoned polygamy in 1890, shortly before Utah became a state). An estimated 40,000 residents of Utah live in polygamous households.
To be sure, the court ruling, by U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups, does not legalize polygamous marriage or even invalidate Utah’s bigamy law in its entirety. All 50 states have antibigamy laws on their books. But Utah’s law, apparently uniquely, forbids plural marriages entered into via multiple marriage licenses and also applies to a married person who “cohabits with another person.”
The typical practice for breakaway Mormon men, including Kody Brown, is to enter into only one legally recognized marriage but to take on additional “sister wives” in “spiritual” unions sanctified by religious ceremonies. Such unions are technically adulterous, but since the state of Utah does not prosecute adultery, Judge Waddoups said there was no “rational basis” for Utah’s criminal law to distinguish between plain old adulterous cohabitation and informal polygamy entered into for religious reasons.
His ruling thus affects only so-called “fundamentalist” Mormons. However, the decision becomes precedent elsewhere, then it may apply to an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Muslims in the U.S. who are in similar polygamous arrangements that they believe are permitted by the Quran.
Still, since what can’t be criminally prosecuted is de facto permissible, the plural-marriage toboggan is now positioned firmly downward on the slippery slope. Judge Waddoups’s decision has already been hailed by polyamorists, libertarians and feminists. In an April article for Slate, Jill Keenan argued that legal polygamy “is the constitutional, feminist, and sex-positive choice” that would allow women to select among “diverse family arrangements” for the one that suits them best.
Cheerleaders for legalized polygamy should be careful what they wish for. For one thing, “polygamy” almost invariably means “polygyny”—one man with multiple wives, not the other way around. “Polyandry”—one woman with multiple husbands—is extremely rare. It seems to exist only among isolated Amazonian hunter-gatherer tribes and in parts of rural Tibet, where brothers sometimes marry the same woman in order to keep the property in the family in case one of the brothers dies. You can call that female empowerment—or you can call it the same old patriarchy.
Polygamy invariably favors “alpha” males who can beat down the competition for available women and maintain a lock on the affections of the women themselves. The women also have to be willing to sacrifice being the only object of attention of their spouse or lover for the glory of being an object of his attention at all.
The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, in his 2000 book “The Mating Mind,” described polygyny as a kind of default setting for human societies, and indeed primate societies as well. “[M]ating in our species has always been moderately polygynous,” Mr. Miller wrote. He pointed out that women crave powerful, charismatic, often sexually promiscuous men—the most successful hunters and herdsmen, conqueror-kings such as Charlemagne and Genghis Khan, politicians, rock stars, and even sociopaths such as Charles Manson —because women instinctively reach out to men strong enough to protect them and the vulnerable offspring they bear.
Tune in to “Sister Wives” on TLC or watch a video clip, and you will see exactly this alpha dynamic at work. When Kody Brown sits down to preside benevolently over a family council with his four adoring wives, there is no doubt who is the head of this household. Upper-middle-class American men, used to constant arguments with their feminist spouses over “gender roles” and whether they’re doing their “fair share” of the laundry and floor-mopping, must envy Mr. Brown.
But as with all things, there is a trade-off. Monogamous marriage, still the paradigm in the West, ensures that a wife is ontologically the equal of her husband—because there are only two of them and they are dependent on each other.
In the biblical story in Genesis, God creates Eve as “an help meet” for Adam, because she is the only creature who can fulfill that function. While it is obvious that “surplus” non-alpha men will be losers in any society where polygamy becomes widely acceptable—women will also be losers—harem members instead of helpmeets. This is something that feminists and their male enablers who blithely tout polygamy as another “diverse family arrangement” ought to think about.
Ms. Allen is the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”