What is wrong with polygamy?
Nineteenth-century Americans coupled it with slavery, calling both “the twin relics of barbarism.” Today, it is used as a scare image to deter people from approving same-sex marriage, lest it lead down a slippery slope to that horror of horrors.
But what, exactly, is bad about it? Looking at the Texas sect at the Yearning for Zion ranch, so much in the news, will not tell us, because that sect allegedly forced underage girls into marriage. The case then becomes one of child sexual abuse, a crime hardly unknown in the monogamous family, although it gets less splashy publicity when it occurs there. Disturbing things are fun to contemplate when they can be pinned on distant “deviants,” but threatening when they occur in families like one’s own.
Mormon polygamy of the 19th century was not child abuse. Adult women married by consent, and typically lived in separate dwellings, each visited by the husband in turn. In addition to their theological rationale, Mormons defended the practice with social arguments – in particular that polygamous men would abandon wives or visit prostitutes less frequently. Instead of answering these arguments, however, Americans hastened to vilify Mormon society, publishing semi-pornographic novels that depicted polygamy as a hotbed of incest and child abuse.
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