Sustainable PolygamyBy: Bored in Vernal
With a 2004 lawsuit came the coining of the term “Lost Boys” to describe those young men in the FLDS community who have been cast out — ostensibly to reduce competition for older men in the sect who marry large numbers of younger wives. This phenomenon is apparently limited to the FLDS because of the extremely closed nature of the community and other factors peculiar to the group. Despite this, the term “Lost Boys” is now widely used to describe the unsustainable nature of polygamy in general. The generalization of FLDS practices to polygamy as a whole is far too prevalent for my taste.
For example, the reference case on polygamy unfolding in B.C. Supreme Court of Canada features dozens of lawyers, a series of expert witnesses and a weighty cache of written material. The case also features affidavits of people who live, or used to live, in communities where polygamy is practiced. The goal in hearing the testimony of these witnesses is to decide whether laws prohibiting polygamy in Canada should be upheld. Is polygamy in itself a criminal practice that should remain illegal based on harm to women, children and society? Or can the practice be separated from abuse which may occur equally in other segments of the population? What has fascinated and exasperated me has been the spotlight on the specific FLDS practice of polygamy throughout the testimony. Canada’s polygamists run the gamut from liberal practitioners of polyamory to Islamist polygyny. Estimates put the number of Canada’s multiple-spouse families between 2200 and 18,000, compared to the 33 families at Bountiful with an FLDS background. It seems strange that in this venue the battle is being fought on the basis of the practices of a small unrepresentative sect.
So, in considering whether or not polygamy is sustainable, let’s move on beyond the few hundred “lost boys” of the FLDS! I’ve wanted to do this for quite a while, and in my last post, two scenarios were mentioned. The first, by commenter Thomas, I mention with tongue in cheek:
“All you need to make it sustainable is to adopt a warrior-ethic tribal model, like the Afghans, American Indians (historically), or some of the rougher species of great apes. That has a twofold payoff: You get to raid the next tribe over for their women, plus you get your surplus males killed off. There’s your Sustainable Polygamy model right there.”
I mention this scenario only to show that one needn’t insist that there are always surplus males in a polygamist community, even if the multiple spouse marriages are wholly polygynous. Off the top of my head, I can think of others, such as a community where sizeable groups of males serve vital roles as celibate priests or shamans. Or what about small open groups of polygamists located within a larger society where there is a high degree of divorce,adultery, and other forms of marital turnover? (hm, sounds awfully familiar..)
But the situation I’d really like to discuss with this post has been presented by Justin on his (oft-linked) post at LDSAnarchy, Tribal Relationships. In Justin’s model, small intimate tribal groups are formed on the basis of multi-male, multi-female relationships. Men and women share partners within the tribe, making it both polygynous and polyandrous. In his post, Justin explores how this model of polygamy is sustainable, both physically (our bodies are designed to engage in concurrent sexual relationshps within a group/tribal setting) and emotionally (while we enjoy pair-bonding, sexual satisfaction decreases over time and both males and females crave the stimulation of new partners). Justin decries the current model of assigning men and women to relationships of ownership and exclusivity. He encourages instead a tribal system where all things are held in common, including spouses.
I am fascinated with how well this fits with some of what we know about Joseph Smith’s approach to polygamy. It doesn’t disturb me to contemplate that Joseph’s taking of multiple partners came from his robust, passionate and libidinous personality. However, I also like to view Joseph’s polyandry as an effort to experiment with and transform social structures, as well as a desire to follow what he considered spiritual direction. Otherwise, his sealings to women who were already married is difficult to explain.
Justin’s approach begins to diverge with Mormon thought, however, when compared with traditions and texts. After Joseph’s brief alliances, succeeding Mormon leaders embraced polygyny as the sole form of multiple spouse partnership, eventually abandoning even this variation on the Western monogamous model of the family. Justin seems to view the tribal arrangement as workable, if not completely countenanced, for active modern Latter-day Saints. I can’t imagine this to be the case. And there are difficulties reconciling such a system with our primary documents on marriage and the family.
D&C 132, a treatise on plural marriage for Latter-day Saints, sets forth laws governing the “plurality of wives,” with instructions on forming polygynous unions. I invite Justin or other interested persons to reconcile this section of the Doctrine and Covenants with a tribal system of marriages to multiple spouses of both genders. Throughout the revelation, women are “given” to men in marriage. Emma, our prototype, is commanded to “receive” women into her household, and to cleave to Joseph and none else. If she does not abide this law, she is told, she will be destroyed; while Joseph will be crowned with (other) wives and children, and an hundredfold of blessings. Furthermore, it seems clear that once a woman contracts with a man to be his wife, she is to raise up seed to him only. She cannot be with another man, or it is adultery (see verses 61-63). This same condition is not required of a man, for he is permitted multiple spouses under the new and everlasting covenant. The Law of Sarah seems even more problematic to a tribal system. According to this provision, a woman can approve or disapprove a man’s choice of additional wives. However the caveat is that if she does not approve, she becomes the transgressor, and is destroyed, and her husband is exempt from having to seek her approval. No such law is mentioned for a man, nor is there provision for women to seek additional spouses.
It is no wonder that Mormon women may become agitated by this presentation of plural marriage. I certainly hope Justin can show how the tribal system fits into this paradigm, for I am rather partial to the communitarian vision of celestial marital relations presented by this group of LDS anarchists.
I know that Mormon polygamy is a particularly loaded subject, and I suppose that rants are expected. But I’d really like to consider the tribal system on its merits in a somewhat dispassionate way. First, do you think Justin’s tribal system is sustainable? (And if you bring up Lost Boys, you’d better be prepared to show me where this phenomenon has ever occurred besides among the Warren Jeffs-led FLDS, a mere segment of the Mormon-based polygamous population.) Is a tribal system more fair and equitable for females than monogamy or polygyny? Next, do you think this fits with polygamy in Nauvoo? Could Joseph had something like the tribal system in mind with his polygynous/polyandrous/male-to-female/male-to-male sealings? Lastly, how does D&C 132 fit in? (Extra points if you include analysis of the history of the document!)