Policing the American Family: more polygamy

For those of you following the marriage debates in the United States or thinking back to my posts on polygamy and American anxieties about the nuclear family (somehow melted down during AAA ’07)….breaking news!

Warren Jeffs’ compound has been raided again following reports that a 16-year-old woman/girl was being sexually abused by a 50-year-old-man (they are/were husband and wife). News reports are not clear as to whether the girl in question had been found during the raid. However, “Texas Child Protective Services have now removed 137 children and 46 women, who are being questioned.” It is not clear, according to the BBC, that these women and children left the compound voluntarily. While the ages of the women involved raises reasonable concern (and sometimes outrage) in my mind (and probably yours), the tight focus on “polygamy” as the most important aspect of this group (and “what’s wrong” with them), brings our analytical attention back to the questions about dominant (and, more to the point, legal) models of idealized households, descent, and affiliation in the United States.

The raid focuses our attention on a different aspect of the marriage debates in the United States: the specter of polygamy, which is often rhetorically paired with same-sex marriage. Polygamy assumes the rhetorical role as the sort of limit or horizon of possible depravity in some discourses around same-sex marriage in the United States. The unquestioned legal status of polygamy in the US (basically, “no, no, no”) points to limits in the potential role of “anthropology” or comparative data about exotic forms of marriage to speak to the status of same-sex unions (see Strong’s recent posts, linked above). Obviously, the anthropological record is full of examples of polygamy, both polygynous and polyandrous. However this data (and, of course, limitless ethnographic examples of women marrying relatively young to men by far their senior) does not appear relevant to discussions of the what constitutes a legal and acceptable marriage in the United States.

16 thoughts on “Policing the American Family: more polygamy

  1. Ok, so just to play devil’s pimp, is marriage law really what makes this story controversial? I mean, I’m all in favor of all kinds of consensual unions between whoever. I saw Harold and Maude like 100 times as a kid. But this is disgusting and problematic for other reasons, right? It’s not the law that’s at issue here… seems more like it’s the “kidnap, brainwash and impregnate the 14-and-under set” that makes this fodder for the moral panicky media, no? or do i misunnerstand you?

  2. i always get a little sad when i see “law” being spoken of as a kind of monolithic force in the world that operates to shape people/relations in coercive ways. the truth is polygamy is not an “unquestioned” law, as anyone who has ever studied the original supreme court debate around Mormon polygamous unions would tell you. And the status of marriage, as well as rules of filiation and inheritance, differ from state to state. there ARE places that have started to look at the legal status of polyamorous relations (california, for example). so, as a legal anthropologist, i would just hasten to say that law is not a homogenous field that can be easily described as framing intimate relations in teh same way across different times and spaces. that being said, i’ve really enjoyed your posts, so thanks!

  3. Legal Anthropologist: can you provide some relevant links on the polyamory in CA thing? Sounds interesting.

    Based on the one BBC report Gretchen linked to, I might call it a ‘loose’ rather than ‘tight’ focus on polygamy. While our guest blogger is right to mention the outrage provoked by the very factors of this story Chris mentions, she is also right to point out that the gay marriage debate often uses polygamy as a ‘logical’ outcome of allowing same sex marriage. Gay marriage is a gateway custom, so to speak; gay sex is too (it leads to bestiality, ask Rick Santorum). I don’t think these phenomena are unconnected in the brimming-with-unresolved-conflict unconscious of the US zeitgeist.

  4. “Obviously, the anthropological record is full of examples of polygamy, both polygynous and polyandrous. However this data (and, of course, limitless ethnographic examples of women marrying relatively young to men by far their senior) does not appear relevant to discussions of the what constitutes a legal and acceptable marriage in the United States.”

    It’s very relevant. It’s how we don’t, or at least shouldn’t, do it around here.

    While there is obviously a lot of cultural politics involved around this issue I think there is also a lot of—to use a completely non-technical term—honest concern. I suspect that if you take someone who is honestly worried that the society they grew up in is going to fall apart if the norms of marriage are changed and present them with data about exotic practices amongst exotic peoples then that concern will probably grow rather than diminish.

    It might just be me, but I get the impression that concerned anthropologists tend to look at the legalization of gay marriage as a problem for the individual while many (most?) Americans look at it as a problem for the group. There would seem to be some irony there if that is indeed the case.

    Somewhat off topic, but does anyone else get annoyed by the fact that practically every anthropology textbook ever printed lists marriage as a cultural universal? Maybe it’s just a matter of definition, but there are plenty of places in the world where there is no such thing as a marriage ceremony.

  5. bq. While there is obviously a lot of cultural politics involved around this issue I think there is also a lot of—to use a completely non-technical term—honest concern. I suspect that if you take someone who is honestly worried that the society they grew up in is going to fall apart if the norms of marriage are changed and present them with data about exotic practices amongst exotic peoples then that concern will probably grow rather than diminish.

    Gay activists do often use a language of individual rights to advance their claim that discriminatory marriage laws need to be revised. Of course, this can also be understood as an ‘honest concern’ for the future of their society: will that society be one which continues systematically to discriminate against its gay members? Surely, all sides of this debate display ‘honest concern’ as to its consequences for their communities’ future.

    If the anthropologists ‘own’ the human past in these debates (see below here at SM), “Social science” (or some variant thereof) gets trotted out in predictive fashion in this way as well: can it prove that allowing same-sex marriage will ultimately ruin the institution, and with it, the future, by, say, examining marriage in Scandinavia and how same-sex unions destroyed it there (or didn’t, “actually”:http://www.slate.com/id/2100884/)? I think Tom’s “essay”:http://www.anthro.uci.edu/faculty_bios/boellstorff/Boellstorff-Falls.pdf says something about this style of thought.

  6. I’m with ckelty on this one. For evidence, go back to the tragic Bronx apartment fire of March 2007, when two co-wives of a Nigerien businessman, living with their children on two adjacent floors, were involved and some died.

    I don’t remember any of this panicky breathless behavior. It was merely noted that one wife was “official” and the other “traditional,” all of the several children all were being cared for, adults were of legal age and consenting, etc. There was some hand-wringing, but no panic.

  7. dude, strong, keep it up and the hits on this site will skyrocket!! Bestiality, gay sex, Scandanavia. I expect to see us turning up in our own spam soon :)

    but seriously, the “honest concern” thing demands a bit of Foucault, no? Criminalization produces danger; danger demands legal norms and institutions; legal institutions produce criminals. Lather, rinse, repeat. What I think is interesting about this story is that people see jeffs as being beyond criminal… kind of like serial killers. He’s not a drug dealer or a sodomizer, he’s a monster (certainly according to the media, perhaps objectively so). Which just seems to confirm that despite the presense of polygamy in the story, this isn’t really about marriage of any kind…I just don’t really know what its about yet.

  8. At face value I think (in the eyes of the public) its about the fettering and exploitation of women and children, especially in the name of religious freedom. At a deeper level perhaps its about a group of men closing themselves off from society and making up their own rules, that really irritates society (if so, then the next raid should be on the headquarters of Citigroup, Dow, etc…).
    But I’m sure that for the media the sex is a big draw.

  9. “but seriously, the ‘honest concern’ thing demands a bit of Foucault, no?”

    If anything demands a bit of Foucault it’s discussion of sex with children. But just to be clear, my comment was directed towards broader concerns over gay marriage.

  10. Strong: Yes, be sure to read the comments (and don’t forget that Jezebel has one of the most active and loyal sets of commenters, and you have to be approved to comment). The BBC article I linked to is headlined “polygamy sect” as well. (I am especially intrigued by the Jezebel commenters reactions to the French-braids and prarie-style clothes which seem to be coming to stand for this group, apparently long hair really is a sign of women’s oppression.)

    I am a little dubious about the “sex with children” thing too (though the age difference seems kind of “ick” at first glance, I admit), in Texas marriage is legal at 16 with parental consent (no matter the age of the other partner), and I am not seeing prominent discussion in the news of child brides that are under 16 (nor of any married without parental consent). Maybe this is because I am not in the US and am actually pretty far from American local news cycles?

  11. This news item from the LA times (blurb pasted below) does include mention of polygamy, but notice that it’s switching the focus from the polygamy to pedophilia and ‘sacred sex’ – it almost comes off as some sort of sacrificial altar.

    Bed discovered in sect temple
    ——————–

    An informant says that it was used for sex between underage girls and adult men at the polygamist compound.

    By Miguel Bustillo
    Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

    April 10 2008

    SAN ANGELO, TEXAS — Authorities searching a remote polygamist compound for a 16-year-old girl who had claimed she was sexually abused discovered a bed inside a towering limestone temple and were told by a “confidential informant” that men used it to have sex with underage girls, according to a court document unsealed Wednesday.

    The complete article can be viewed at:
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-compound10apr10,1,2512549.story

  12. This has me wondering: where does the US opposition to polygamy come from? The fundamentalist insistence on “marriage between one man and one woman” would seem to be at odds with the Biblical foundation that fundamentalism ostensibly refers to, where we find crucial figures with several wives. I can easily see the insistence on monogamy as a reflection of a modern society that discourages bonds between people (e.g. the distaste for extended families and multi-generational households, as in “He still lives with his parents? Ewwww…”) but a) such functional explanations don’t really explain the emotional resonance of monogamy, and b) monogamy certainly pre-dates modernity.

    I wonder if it could be as simple as “Polygamy is what *they* do”, the “they” in question being both external Others like Muslims and internal Others like Mormons.

  13. I think we need to distinguish between people in the United States who see all polygamy as bad and those who see polygamy as (they believe) it is practiced by splinter Mormon groups. I have met people who are fine with polyamorous relationships (and some who are actually in polyamorous relationships) who probably would have no problem with legalized polygamy but who are hostile to the “Mormon” form of it. I think this is due to the perception that in the case of splinter Mormon groups, most reporting has emphasized either child abuse (see the article above posted by L.L. Wynn) or the (supposedly) nonconsenual nature of most Mormon polygamous marriages. In this way, someone who would have no problem with an expanded legal definition of marriage (to include both gay and multiple forms of marriage) can oppose a specific form of it because they see it as damaging to children and/or oppressive to women. I do not think we can assume there are only two default positions on polygamy (i.e. for or against) in relation to its manifestation as a “Mormon” practice.

  14. Great article. As a polyamory advocate I’m an avid follower of the marriage debates and an oppose the marriage movement as a matter of public policy.

    As you can imagine, the subject of forming alliances with FLDS leaders as a political strategy has been a contentious topic in polyamory activism circles for a long time now. In practical terms, it seems likely that they would want nothing to do with we egalitarian nonmonogamy types. Because FLDS multi-partnering has this patriarchal, and sometimes child abusing, component, most of the polyamory community has no stomach for such an alliance, though we activists do make a point of saying that we support FLDS polygamous relationships where all concerned are consenting adults and involved of their own free will. How many there are of those kinds of relationships is obviously questionable, but as a matter of principle, that’s where we stand.

    I was contacted earlier this week by a reporter for Voice of America, which translates and broadcasts US news on TV and radio to 45 countries. I was asked to speak on camera on the differences between religious polygamist and poyamorous families. The piece came out yesterday. See my blog post at http://practicalpolyamory.blogspot.com for more and a link to the VOA report, which, BTW, is only available on their website in the US, since they don’t broadcast within the US.

  15. Hey people, it is legal to marry a 15 yo right now in utah, so why the big deal?

    And what is the difference between 14 yo and 15 yo anyway. one day??

    And i can verify that none of the polyg girls are sluts and none have taken the LBT (low back tattoo). this is why they are being persecuted.

    the local govrenment devils want all girls to be whores and sluts like their own wives and daughters. It makes them feel inferior when they think of the pure polyg girls but have to look at their own tattooed up whorish women. to be honest, i sympathize with them. those ugly faded tattoos combined with the stench of cigerette butts is a romance killer for sure.

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