Monday, November 19, 2012

An Ally For the Polygamous Freedom to Marry

Janet Bennion
courtesy of David Ballou

Like many examples in Bennion’s illuminating study, they defy the popular perception that the practice of men taking multiple wives is solely about the male libido.
You don't say?

But whatever we think of polygamy in America, Bennion argues, it’s not going away anytime soon. And she believes it should be legal.

Thank you! As you can see, she knows her stuff...
Bennion, 48, has been researching polygamy for two decades. As a master’s student in 1989, she moved in with a rural Montana colony of the Apostolic United Brethren, a fundamentalist Mormon sect that still practices plural marriage as instructed by founder Joseph Smith in 1843. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints [LDS] officially renounced polygamy in 1890.) 
Bennion would go on to publish book-length ethnographic studies of the AUB and the LeBaron fundamentalist colony in Mexico. Her fieldwork got her in trouble with LDS church leaders, who “disfellowshipped” her.

That's too bad. Some religious organizations support people questioning the imposition of the "heterosexual monogamy only" model.

But she made new friendships with a startling range of polygamous women. Most bore little resemblance to the underage brides in prairie dresses familiar from news reports about raids on Warren Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Women in the large AUB group can and do work outside the home, dress as they choose and divorce when they wish.
Child abuse should be prosecuted. Consensual relationships between adult should not.
SD: You mention having a “theory that plural marriage fosters clandestine lesbianism” — something the LDS church doesn’t condone.

JB: That’s a new area of interest. I think women do what they need to do without a man around. Mormon women have done this for ages. There are women in the Utah pioneer days who formed a sisterhood network and allowed for lesbian connections. It doesn’t upset the patriarchal framework. I talked to at least three women who had formed sexual connections to their sister wives or to another woman in the community. When the husbands found out, they just called it a friendship. 
This is nothing new. If there was a Solomon with all those wives, as the Bible says, does anyone, after thinking about it for a second, doubt that there were some lesbians and lesbian relationships involved?
SD: Why should we legalize plural marriage?

JB: We need to just step back, get off our high horse, and look at this from a civil liberties perspective. If we’re going to pave the way for alternative sexuality, why not provide liberties for those who choose the polygamy form? We hear a lot about the abuse cases, but we rarely hear about the well-functioning families. As a feminist, I say, “Bring it on; let’s legalize it.” In that way, what you do is you bring the abuses into the light. You bring in governmental regulating policies that protect second wives.

[This position is] controversial, that’s for sure. There are abuses, but to state that polygamy is uniformly abusive is just an outright lie. It’s a form of bigotry. 

Although the interview is mostly about polygyny, she makes it clear that she supports polyandry, too.

Thank you, Professor Bennion for supporting the polygamous freedom to marry.
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  1. Thanks for the post. I've known there were non-Mormon polygamous sects out there that didn't practice the abusive patterns of the FLDS. However, I was not aware that there were Mormon ones as well. Always good to learn new things. I'll have to find some of her books.

    I also like her point about legalization bringing the abuses out into the light. As with sex workers, the main reason for the abuses is largely the illegality of it. The women (or worse, girls) can't go to the police, because they risk getting arrested themselves and having their children taken away. By keeping it illegal we just help perpetuate the abuse.

    So again, thanks.

  2. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bennion when I was writing an article about changing family structures for Bay State Parent magazine. She knows her stuff inside and out. I'm looking forward to reading her book. For that matter, we quoted her often in the book I wrote with Philip Kilbride, "Plural Marriage for Our Times: A Reinvented Option, Second Edition."

    1. Mr. Page,

      Thanks for your feedback. It is always good to hear who is worthwhile to read. Please feel free to comment any time!


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