Thesis: Polygamous Marriage Polygamy Is the Practice

Pages: 6 (1677 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Family and Marriage  ·  Buy This Paper

Polygamous Marriage

Polygamy is the practice of maintaining family systems involving more marital partners than two. It was commonly practiced in ancient times and is referenced throughout the Old and New Testaments. In modern human societies, polygamy is still practiced in numerous countries but is prohibited by state and federal law in the United States (Witte, 2008). Until the late 19th century, polygamy was officially condoned and practiced by the Mormons but mainstream the mainstream Mormon church changed its position in 1890 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them in several cases challenging the constitutionality (under the First Amendment) of state prohibitions of what they claimed was a religious practice (Dougherty & Johnson, 2007).

Polygamy in Contemporary American Society:

In the U.S., polygamy is a criminal offense in every state and is no longer the official practice of any recognized mainstream religion; however, various splinter groups such as some Mormon sects in Utah and Texas still maintain polygamous societies although without the consent or recognition of any mainstream Christian leaders or authorities (Witte, 2008). In 2007, the issue received national attention in connection with the arrest and conviction of Warren Jeffs and the marital practices of his Mormon sect in Utah. That case was followed by the subsequent arrest of religious cult leaders in Texas in connection with child abuse charges in connection with another polygamous sect in which children were routinely married (and generally against their will) to older male sect members who maintained many wives. While the legal issues in such cases involve child sexual abuse rather than polygamy, they both highlighted the fact that polygamy still exists in the U.S. despite laws strictly prohibiting it.

The Controversy:

In principle, it is less clear what the rational basis for objection to polygamy is, outside of the issue of involuntary or coerced marriages and the involvement of minors in inappropriate sexual relationships and underage marriages. The fact is that polygamy has been routinely practiced in many human societies across the globe since antiquity. Even in the U.S. where polygamy is illegal, there are no such prohibitions whatsoever prohibiting consensual adults from maintaining polygamous sexual relationships provided the individuals involved do not seek to formalize their relationships in a state-recognized marriage (Henslin, 2002).

Certainly, the U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what rights and specific liberties are protected by the First Amendment which is the original basis for the "free exercise" of religion as a fundamental constitutional right. In that regard, the Supreme Court has also rejected claims that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment provides religious freedom to consume hallucinogenic drugs or to withhold necessary medical treatment for children. Likewise, it is obvious why the free exercise of religion cannot permit human sacrifice under the claim of religious practice, even where such activities reflect genuine religious beliefs.

However, polygamy is different from those activities in principle, primarily because, unlike human sacrifice, child neglect, and the consumption of controlled substances for unauthorized non-medical use, plural relationships and even plural cohabitation and multiple simultaneous sexual relationships are not illegal in and of themselves. Even wholly apart from any issue or claim of religious freedom, it is much more difficult to justify legal prohibition against plural marriages for two principal reasons. First, all of the underlying activities in polygamous marriage are perfectly legal as long as the individuals involved do not seek formal recognition in marriage. Second, it is not clear what the objective basis is for the objection to the practice since it is not necessarily inherently harmful to anyone provided it involves only consenting adults of legal age to participate in sexual relationships.

The Fundamental Structure of Polygamous Families:

Contrary to many popular beliefs about what polygamous marriage is, the basic structure of polygamous families and the relationships among the individuals involved is much closer to those within traditional marital relationships (Henslin, 2002; Macionis, 2003). Generally, polygamous marriages begin with a traditional marriage arrangement of one man and one woman rather than a pre-existing dating relationship or courtship involving a third party. Most often, the married partners are mutually involved in incorporating subsequent partners into the marriage (Macionis, 2003).

Ironically, while this arrangement may conflict tremendously with contemporary notions of the concept and definition of marriage, it is often much healthier than the manner in which traditional marriages are affected by infidelity. Specifically, marital infidelity is virtually epidemic in traditional marriage, with even conservative statistical evidence suggesting that as many as three-quarters of all traditional American marriages experience at least one episode of sexual infidelity during the marriage (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2007).

More importantly, and regardless of the exact figures, one fundamental difference between polygamy and traditional American marriages is that sexual plurality within traditional marriages rarely involves the consent of both partners. Therefore, the typical pattern of sexual plurality seen within traditional marriages is much more likely to be damaging to the primary relationship than any pluralistic arrangement in which there is no deception or violation of the rules of the marriage as they are understood by the marital partners.

In fact, whereas pluralistic sexuality in traditional marriages is most often motivated specifically by the sexual element, sexual infidelity is comparatively rare within polygamous marriages (Henslin, 2002). Moreover, within polygamous marriages, new prospective partners are welcomed by all of the existing marital partners and their invitation to join the family comes from all of the marital partners jointly. Furthermore, multiple sexual partners in the context of traditional marriages are antagonists vying for exclusive access to the partner engaged in multiple relationships (Henslin, 2002).

Conversely, within polygamous marriages, the multiple wives (or husbands, as the case may be) typically establish a close bond in which they share both household and child-rearing responsibilities with the other wives and also share access to the husband (including sexual access) in a very democratic and harmonious process. While polygamous families may involve multiple husbands and a single wife in various foreign cultures, by far, the more common dynamic (particularly in the Western World) is for polygamous families to consist of a single husband and multiple wives (Henslin, 2002; Macionis, 2003). This is largely a reflection of the biological reality of procreation with regard to the fact that a single male can impregnate multiple females simultaneously while human females evolved to devote all their energies and resources to one child (or multiple siblings) at a time (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2007).

Generally, within polygamous families, the wives establish relationships that take on many of the characteristics of communal sisterhoods in which their interpersonal bonds bear a close similarity to biological sisters, sorority members, or (ironically) the relationships seen among sisters in religious convents (Macionis, 2003). From the perspective of the husband, most aspects of the polygamous marriage are very similar to a traditional marriages and nuclear families in which multiple wives combine to play the role of a wife (Macionis, 2003).

Contrary to popular assumptions, sexuality within polygamous marriage is not radically different from sexuality within traditional marriages (Henslin, 2002). Sexual relations involving multiple wives simultaneously is generally not a feature of typical polygamous marriages. Instead, the wives usually negotiate a fair schedule that allows each of them time and sexual access to the husband privately (Henslin, 2002). To the extent that sex plays any greater role within polygamous marriages than within traditional marital arrangements, it is principally because male sexual desire remains higher with access to multiple partners than within traditional monogamous marriage (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2007).

That is strictly a function of the "Coolidge Effect" pertaining to the phenomenon that prompted former American President Calvin Coolidge to remark "Perhaps you could point that out to Mrs. Coolidge" during a tour of a poultry farm upon being told that his Mrs. Coolidge had said "Perhaps you could point that out… [END OF PREVIEW]

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