New TLC Show: Sister Wives

14 Aug

A few days ago, I was looking through the sidebar at Juvenile Instructor when I saw that a link to a new reality TV show on TLC about polygamy. I was understandably excited. For those of you who don’t know me, I am addicted to reality TV. It began with Flavor of Love, continued through I Love New York and Rock of Love, and I’m 16 and Pregnant. The trashier the better. The link also played into my interest in polygamy and the ways that individuals negotiate relationships in such marriages.

In my excitement, I posted a link to the new TLC show Sister Wives on my Facebook show.

I was surprised at the number of comments that my status update received. Most of the concerns surrounding the show surrounded its legality. One friend, however, brought up the possible connection between it and other alternative lifestyles. As someone who supports gay marriage, she felt that she had to be accepting of polygamy as long as everyone in the relationship consented and there was no abuse of women or children. In the end, it was her position that seemed to win out. It will be interesting to see if similar debates arise in the United States as the TV show airs and as debates surrounding gay marriage continue.

The issue is a live one in Canada. Last year, the Canadian government charged a man living in British Columbia with violating the polygamy ban. His lawyers are challenging the constitutionality of the polygamy ban. Right now, the issue is undecided. And, as the last article points out, the issue extends far beyond fundamentalist Mormons. Some immigrants from Islamic countries are legally married to more than one spouse in their home countries and continue such relationships when they arrive in Canada. Their profile is much lower than the fundamentalist Mormons in British Columbia but the law theoretically affects their lives just as much as it does anyone else.

Description of the case: http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=1423616
Recent news article on its progression from the Montreal Gazette: http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Polygamy+troubling+implications+society/3296353/story.html
Polygamy in Canada: http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=20070625_106285_106285

I’m not sure what is going to happen with either the TV show or the case against the polygamists in British Columbia, but I’ll be following both as closely as I can.

Note: The most recent thing I could find on the case of the Canadian polygamists was the Montreal Gazette article. If anyone has anything newer, please let me know.

3 Responses to “New TLC Show: Sister Wives”

  1. Stephen M (ethesis) August 15, 2010 at 1:49 pm #

    It is interesting to see how all of these issues are playing out.

  2. Kimberly August 18, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    I came to your facebook post and this entry a bit late, but wanted to say thanks for linking the articles. It’ll be interesting to catch up on these debates about polygyny in western contexts. I frequently encounter individuals who discuss the way that some Central Asian countries (namely Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) put the legalization of polygyny on the table after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a way of (yet again) “othering” these societies. (And, I recognize that, in North America, Mormons are similarly othered.)

    For me, the legalization of polygyny is more than simply a tolerance issue that is equivalent to the legalization of gay marriage. Like many laws that aim to protect women, the prohibition of polygyny has had unintended negative consequences that harm women more than the practice of polygyny itself. At least, this is the case in Central Asia. Do you find that it is similar among Mormon communities in the US? Can wives who are not legally recognized by the state be easily dismissed by their Mormon husbands? Are their children guaranteed the same rights as the children of the legally-recognized wife?

    An interesting comment made on your facebook post is that “it appears that women are not treated as equals by the husband.” This begs the question of what is meant by “equal” – are they loved equally? financially treated equally? And which of these means the most to the women involved in the marriage? In what ways and to what extent would legalizing polygyny encourage equality (in economic, if not sentimental, terms)?

  3. amanda5245 August 18, 2010 at 10:53 pm #

    Kimberly,

    The information about polygamy in Russia is very interesting. One of the things that strikes me about the conversation in the United States is how much it centers around Mormonism and ignores the question of polygamy in other cultures.

    It’s difficult to answer some of your questions about polygamy in the United States because of the paucity of accurate information about the communities that practice it. As a result of police raids on polygamist communities, they tend to be very secretive and usually only allow journalists access to select families who serve as spokespeople for the community. Women who have escaped from the communities have written exposes of the faith, but without more information, it’s difficult to tell what’s accurate and what’s not. That said, the laws against polygamy like many laws to protect women do seem to have unintended adverse consequences. When abuse occurs people seem to be less likely to report it because they fear the repercussions for the community as a whole.

    As far as I can tell, one of the consequences has not been an ability to easily put away or divorce women. A prophet who has to approve all marriages usually runs polygamous communities in the United States. If a man no longer wants one or more of his wives or if he dies, they are usually reassigned to another man in the community. As suggested by even this short description of marriages within the communities, women do not have rights as far as choosing their husbands and they do not retain separate legal rights to property. In some of these communities, if not the majority, the property is held in common within the community. Anyone who leaves the community, then, forfeits the house they were living in, their land, everything. I’m not sure what rights, if any, the children have. Often, sons are run off from the community, ostensibly for committing an infraction like holding a girl’s hand or kissing her. Several people argued, however, that young boys are forced to leave because they are competition for the women of the community. Others refute that such “lost boys” exist.

    All of these only apply to people living in formal communities, of course. Women and men living in polygamy outside of those communities negotiate their own living arrangements, and second- and third-wives in those relationships would be subject to all the difficulties you mention in regards to abandonment and inheritance rights.

    *Note: Technically, Mormon polygamy is more properly referred to as polygyny but the academic literature on the subject has followed the primary sources from both the nineteenth and twentieth-century in using the term polygamy. The terms celestial and plural marriage are often used within Mormon communities but aren’t always recognized outside of it.

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