It’s not often that I take aim at the media, the government, academia and religion in one fell swoop, but here I go. It all starts with the polygamous community in Bountiful, B.C.—a situation that’s making it clear that the first three are operating with a dire lack of critical thought, or even plain old logic.
The basic story, for those unfamiliar with it, is this: A Mormon fundamentalist community in Bountiful, a remote town in British Columbia, has been living by polygynous traditions for decades now. In recent years, the authorities have been taking notice, and B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal has made it his personal mission to put a halt to the situation. Despite legal advice from many sources warning against such a move, he’s brought charges against Winston Blackmore, the religious sect’s leader. Specifically, according to this CBC article, “Winston Blackmore and James Oler were charged with one count each on Tuesday of breaching Section 293 of the Criminal Code—which bans polygamy—by entering into a conjugal relationship with more than one individual at a time.”
The law against polygamy is 120 years old, and the numerous legal experts that Oppal consulted (before he went vigilante) pointed out that to bring it to court will result in a challenge to religious freedom—a challenge that stands a high chance, legally speaking, of being unsuccessful. It’s on particularly shaky ground because there’s a distinct lack of evidence and witnesses seem reluctant to come forward. As this Times Colonist article explains, Oppal “could still win the day, after a lengthy legal war in which everything from the Bible to the charge approval requirements will be dragged into the fray. But if he loses, the end result could be the complete decriminalization of polygamy for the foreseeable future.”
Most of the articles that speak against polygamy do so based on women’s rights and the question of child abuse, because it appears that often, fundamentalist Mormon sects force young girls into marriages with much older men and then expect them to bear many children. Of course, the Mormon leaders deny abusive practices and defend multiple marriage as a question of religious freedom. Oppal himself admits there is still a distinct lack of evidence in this case, which is quite easy to explain: when you’ve got a remote, insular community with a strong belief system based in a religious patriarchy, there is a pretty high price to pay for anyone who might speak out against it, and the ones most likely to need help (and thus, most likely to have evidence against the perpetrators) are already on the receiving end of exactly the kind of abuse we’re talking about, which aims to silence and isolate. (Judy Nichols outlines the system well in this 2003 article from the Ross Institute Internet Archives for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements.)
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to assume that most people—publicly at least—will express horror that women and children should be sexually and physically abused. That’s a bit of a no-brainer. But from there to linking non-monogamy to these practices, and then targeting non-monogamy in a bid to end said practices, is a lot more of a logical leap.
Let’s start with the idea of polygamy. “Poly” means “many,” and “-gamy” means marriage. The Etymology Online site explains that the term is “not etymologically restricted to marriage of one man and multiple women (technically polygyny), but often used as if it were.” In other words, when our dear lawmakers (and plenty of feminist theorists and researchers, to boot) take a stand against polygamy because they think it’s detrimental to women, they’re using the wrong word. I’ve definitely got to take issue with researchers, writers and legal experts who can’t even be bothered with the basic use of a dictionary.
And if what they’re actually upset about is polygyny, that raises the question: what of polyandry? Would these same people argue that a situation in which one wife has multiple husbands is also a blow to women’s rights? Would the same logic hold up? Likely not. But apparently the possibility is so foreign that nobody’s even thought about it. Yikes. Talk about essentialist gender notions. It’s as though lawmakers and the media have collectively regressed to the 1800s in their concept of what marriage can be—not coincidentally, the era in which the original anti-polygamy law was originally written. Among other things, they seem to have forgotten than the Canadian definition of marriage has been rewritten to include same-sex couples. Hello, people! Are you going to argue, next, that a lesbian triad is oppressive to women because it involves multiple marital partnerships? I mean, get real. Oppal is aiming to create new case law that relies on incorrect terminology and plainly one-sided understandings of gender and relationships.
That segues nicely into my next point. These discussions of “polygamy” in the media seems to miss the larger reality that a plethora of societies and cultures across the world and throughout history have accepted non-monogamy in a wide range of forms. Depending on the mores of a given society, those forms have ranged from the oppressive to the libertine, but they’re nothing if not diverse. I’m no anthropologist, but it doesn’t take one to deduce that these various forms probably only have their non-monogamous character in common. In other words, any research that makes heavy-handed assumptions about the oppressive nature of multiple marital or conjugal partnerships to women is (wilfully?) ignoring many examples to the contrary. And even if one were to find historical and cultural differences or obscure academic research too difficult to grasp, there are lots of modern Western and European examples of successful, happy non-monogamous arrangements that are (or at least can be) plenty kind to women, from 1960s lesbian communes to Tantric polyamorous love-pods in Hawaii to French bourgeois intellectual open marriages to the booming swingers’ culture and numerous well-known books about non-monogamy.
Now, let’s take the idea of sexual coercion. I think we can all agree that forcing anyone to do anything sexually against their will is not only morally wrong but legally prohibited. That means it’s both wrong and illegal to rape someone, both wrong and illegal to forcibly impregnate them, and both wrong and illegal to beat them in order to facilitate either of the other two acts (not to mention just plain wrong and illegal on its own, sex or no sex). In addition, while I do take issue with age-of-consent laws as a general rule, it also happens to be illegal, in Canada, to have sex with a minor.
So if Oppal and his legal team have determined that sexual assault, forced impregnation, coerced marriage, physical abuse and statutory rape are occurring in Bountiful, why the hell aren’t they prosecuting the perpetrators for those crimes? There’s no need for recourse to a creaky 120-year-old law for those things – they’re blatant instances of everyday routine unquestionable lawbreaking, clear as day.
And if investigators have so far failed to gather enough evidence that these crimes are taking place, why aren’t they coming up with new strategies to procure such evidence? Surely the B.C. government can produce some innovative ways to make evidence-gathering possible in a situation where an entire large community of people is said to be suffering from gross forms of abuse.
I fail to understand why Oppal is prosecuting Blackmore on polygamy instead of on straight-up child abuse and sexual coercion. It just seems so incredibly clear-cut. He’d get to avoid the religious-freedom question, all while attacking the real problem: women and girls being forced into sexual activity and reproduction against their will.
And what does “polygamy” (polygyny) have to do with any of this? Is it any less a breach of basic human rights when a single girl gets coerced into sex, marriage and child-bearing by a single man? Is there something special about polygyny that makes these same acts somehow more awful? Or is it just that the idea of a non-monogamous marital arrangement upsets a bunch of conservative lawyers who have now decided to impose legal sanctions on a community of people that might actually need an entirely different sort of help?
Apparently I’m not the only one who’s concerned. Thank goodness at least one article says something thoughtful about the question. In a 2007 article in The National Post, entitled “Criminal Act or Religious Right? Canada stymied by polygamy issue” (sorry, no link), Charles Lewis writes:
Jason Gratl, a criminal lawyer and president of B.C.’s Civil Liberties Association, said it is important to distinguish between a moral disdain of polygamous marriage and a desire for legal recourse to crimes sheltered “by the insular community structures and bonds of loyalty.”
“It’s tempting to point at polygamy as the determining factor which creates abuse,” he said. “But one should resist that temptation in light of the fact that similar abuses occur in quite ordinary marriages. And no-one is suggesting wiping out the institution of marriage because some of those marriages lead to insular family structures.”
Basically, it sounds to me like nobody’s asking the women of Bountiful what they need. Perhaps, as Gratl argues, striking down the existing anti-polygamy law could actually benefit the women in question more than upholding or reinforcing it. In that same article, he said, “Family law structures are not equipped to deal with the dissolution of polygamous marriages.” Yeah, I highly doubt a runaway Mormon wife could ever hope for legally enforced child support or alimony—and anyone who’s thought about spousal abuse even a little bit can surely understand that lack of funds would make for a pretty significant obstacle to leaving.
Beyond the legal aspects of this, what about plain old moral support, a way out, a demonstration that there’s another way of life than the one imposed on women by a strict and oppressive form of fundamentalist religious tradition? What about setting up safehouses not far from town to serve as a place where women who want to run can go? What about creating a legal fund for women who want to bring charges against their abusive husbands? What about offering career training and child care for women who choose to leave and start a different life? Support groups where they can connect with other former fundamentalist wives?
And what about leaving the women who do want to stay the freedom to choose exactly that? Our legal system already “allows” abused partners to stay in their abusive relationships elsewhere in the country, and our society has created hundreds of institutions to help abuse survivors. It sucks to stand by and watch an abusive situation continue, I’ll definitely grant you that, but yanking someone away from an abusive spouse, or chiding them to just leave already, hasn’t ever been shown to be effective way to help out, especially when you can’t back it up with some sort of concrete support as an alternative to the status quo.
From a purely selfish standpoint, I almost want Oppal to continue on his wrongheaded path. If this whole mess ends up backfiring (in Oppal’s view) and legalizing multiple marriages, as the legal experts have been predicting for months now, I know a lot of polyamorous folks who will benefit from it because it will allow them to obtain legal protections for their families. I know of many different situations in which triads or other non-monogamous groupings are facing major obstacles, legal and otherwise, to their parenting approaches and other matters that don’t fit within the current two-people-only legal marriage system—not to mention they often need to stay closeted out of fear that they’ll be branded as child abusers and potentially risk losing custody of their kids or being ostracized from their communities. So a newly struck-down anti-polygamy law, and the consequences of such a legal move even when it’s at the provincial level, could have fascinating and beneficial ripple effects for poly people all over the country.
The problem is that if the B.C. case results in the repealing of the old anti-polygamy law, it’ll have happened for the wrong reasons—religious freedom instead of simple civil rights, which shouldn’t have anything to do with religious affiliation at all. It’ll effectively be saying that if you have an extreme religious viewpoint, we’ll just have to leave you and your marital choices alone—but it won’t mean we’ll be seeing any actual progress in terms of legal support for non-traditional family structures. It won’t have happened because a progressive lawmaker saw fit to serve the kids’ best interests or take a trans-historical, cross-cultural and realistic view of the potential value of multiple loving partnerships. Quite the contrary. It will send the message that powerful male leaders can get away with abuse and rape if they cloak it in religious terms, and I can’t possibly feel happy about that even if the eventual legal situation does make some of my friends’ lives (and their kids’ lives) easier.
Wally Oppal is doggedly pursuing a legal strategy that the experts agree will most likely leave a bunch of old men in Bountiful all the freedom in the world to coerce a bunch of teenage girls into early marriage, forced sexual activity and premature child-bearing. His strategy is making this result more likely while failing to engage with any other available options that might actually help solve the problem. Talk about messed-up priorities.