There are a lot of misconceptions and common stereotypes about the practice of Mormon Fundamentalist polygamy. As someone who was raised in polygamy, who has siblings that practice polygamy and who continues to have friendships and connections to people within the polygamist culture, I feel (somewhat) qualified to speak to at least a few of these misconceptions. Here are but a few of them and my responses.
All the men are in it for the sex and the power.
Yes, there are some men who are primarily interested in polygamy for the power and sex, (the stereotype exists for a reason). And it is true that the polygamous culture favors men and gives them authority over women. Some men abuse this power, using it to dominate and control. But most of the men I know that practice polygamy, spend their time and energies, not seducing young girls or abusing their wives, but working long hours to provide food and other necessities for their large families. And while they do believe in a patriarchal system, they strive to show fairness and responsibility to their wives and to be available, nurturing fathers to their many children. They are aware (some of them) that polygamy complicates their lives and creates a lot of stress and carries with it heavy responsibilities. They choose it anyway because they believe that polygamy is the correct marriage structure for their personal lives and the salvation of their souls. And yes, I have known some real creeps in the polygamous culture but not nearly as many as the media may have you believe.
The women want to leave polygamy but are too abused or brainwashed to do so.
There are women in polygamy who are disenfranchised, abused both physically and emotionally and who suffer under the doctrine of male superiority. But I know women who have left abusive polygamous marriages, who have abandoned their cultures and embraced mainstream society. I am not implying that it isn’t difficult and that there isn’t tremendous pressure on women in the polygamous groups but to assume that the women are merely victims of their religion or have been brainwashed by the patriarchy, insults their intelligence and their convictions. They are some of the strongest, most opinionated and powerful women I have known. They believe in polygamy as a spiritual doctrine and a belief is a powerful force and one cannot be talked out of, what one deeply believes. If the women didn’t believe that polygamy was necessary for their happiness and spiritual salvation, they would never agree to it. Perhaps it is because of this, that many polygamist wives are the strongest advocates for it. Yes, they are deeply conditioned by their culture. But aren’t we all deeply conditioned by our cultures?
“I don’t know how those people can live like that.”
I have personally heard this phrase about polygamy many times. It may come as a surprise to some, that the polygamists, looking out of their gated communities and the windows of their homes at the rest of the world, say in complete wonderment, “I don’t know how those people can live like that.” While outsiders often pity members of polygamous groups and consider them brainwashed by a religious cult, likewise, many members of polygamous groups pity outsiders and consider them brainwashed by the media and other seductions of the world. I grew up believing I was superior to outsiders, that I had been blessed with greater intelligence and spiritual capacity. “Plural marriage is not for everyone.” I was often told. The implication is clear that only an elite few are worthy to practice polygamy. Just like only some people can get into a college like Stanford or Princeton, polygamy is reserved for those who have earned it. There is monogamy for the rest of the world. Of course, not all polygamists feel this way but there is an underlying belief of exemption. They believe that their lifestyle is a higher form of living. Intended or not, elitism is built into the structure of polygamist beliefs. Isolation is necessary to maintain this elitist viewpoint. Many polygamists have to deal with the discomfort of being stared at, judged, sneered, mocked and deeply misunderstood so perceiving yourself as superior takes the sting out this judgment.
There is a common misunderstanding that all polygamists are alike but there is so much diversity among them. There are many polygamous factions with widely varying beliefs. Many are surprised to discover that none of these groups have anything to do with each other. Some groups embrace mainstream society quite readily in their dress, their homes and all the other benefits that it offers, while others find the appearance of the outside world utterly repulsive, shunning TV, radio, politics and current affairs. You will also find everything in between these two extremes. Some polygamists are deeply spiritual, thoughtful and educated; others are friendly, curious and open-minded. Yet others still are self-important, opinionated, and socially backwards.
But then you will find all these sorts of people everywhere.
Much of what the media presents about polygamy panders to voyeurism. But to look beyond that, beyond the old fashioned clothes and the strange hairstyles; if you listen to them speak or watch them with their children you will see they are just like you. They are human beings with the same basic needs, wants, longings and desires. They want to feel understood and loved. They want to belong. Polygamy is misunderstood and nothing is easier than to make quick judgments about it. It is much harder but much more gratifying to seek out the familiar in the strange and to cultivate an understanding of what makes us different.