Protect children, yes, but leave cockamamie grownups alone
By Tony Phillips
September 13, 2006

Why must the talking heads on my television keep referring to Warren Jeffs as a polygamist? Warren Jeffs is an accused child-sex offender. Child-sex offenses matter. Polygamy does not. I don’t care about polygamy, I don’t care about polygamists and I don’t care about sensationalist “news” broadcasts about polygamy and polygamists. But since so many of us apparently do care about those things, I hope no one minds if I get pedantic.

The term “polygamy” comes from the Greek roots polu, meaning many, and gámos meaning marriage. Anthropologists distinguish between two types of polygamy with the terms “polygyny” (having more than one female mate) and “polyandry” (more than one male). I suppose “polyoviny” would be the correct term for being wedded to more than one sheep.

CityBeat readers are a learned lot. Y’all know that for the overwhelming majority of human history, throughout cultures and across the inhabited earth, polygamy of one form or another has not only been tolerated, it has been the norm. It still is. The Ethnographic Atlas recorded the marital composition of 1,231 societies between 1960 and 1980. Of them, 186 were monogamous. That’s 15 percent. As recently as 26 years ago, 85 percent of human societies had prevailing marriage norms that included some form of polygamy.

Some of you are thinking, yes, Tony, but in this society it’s illegal. Is it really? Entering into more than one contract of marriage simultaneously is in fact illegal in every state in this country, mostly because of the tax and legal implications that come with marriage. But a polygamous lifestyle, i.e. “polyamory,” is perfectly legal, even in San Diego. If I so chose, and others so chose along with me, I could marry a woman and she and I could live with three San Diego State co-eds, a transgender dwarf and two Ecuadorian pool boys, all of us just screwing to beat the band, and there is nothing you, the district attorney, the Pope or Anderson Cooper could do about it. In fact, if any of you co-eds are interested....

Anyway, all the hoopla about polygamy surrounding the Warren Jeffs case misses the mark. What matters is not that Warren Jeffs leads a polygamous lifestyle. What matters is that he might be a criminal. The charges confronting Jeffs brought by Brock Belnap, county attorney for Washington County, Utah, and his counterpart Matthew Smith of Mohave County, Ariz., have nothing to do with whether or not Jeffs lived domestically with multiple sexual partners. Jeffs faces felony sex charges for allegedly coercing a young girl into “marrying” an older man. Taking part in the sexual exploitation of minors is against the law. Having multiple life partners is not. And just as certainly as the former should be against the law, the latter most certainly should not be.

If Warren Jeffs is guilty of organizing or engaging in sex acts between adults and children, he should be put away. Likewise, if he is guilty of using his domestic arrangements with multiple partners to evade taxation, as has been alleged about polygamists in his Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), he’s got some explaining to do. But, on the other hand, if his only offense is that he leads a sect whose abrasion of mainstream sensibilities comes from the fact that its members live in unusual relationships, we need to leave him alone.

What can one say about the FLDS polygamists, that their religion is cockamamie? Come on, regular Mormonism is cockamamie. The Book of Mormon is a script for modern lunacy exceeded on the cockamamie meter only by the rest of the world’s holy scriptures. The Bible has some pretty cockamamie stuff in it. In Genesis 5:25, we are told that Methuselah sired his first child at 187 years of age, then lived another 782 years and had other sons and daughters. The Koran, likewise, is full of weird stuff, like 27:18-19, which recounts Solomon hearing a conversation amongst a colony of ants.

I don’t own any other holy books, so I can’t be sure what kind of cockamamie stuff is included in the canonical works of religions whose adherents worship elephants, four-armed women, suns and moons, or whatever else people pray to and kill for. All I know is that, in the scheme of things, having more than one wife, though a bad idea, is nothing compared to the truly bizarre beliefs of which our species is capable. Assuming the involved parties are lucid adults who enter knowingly into their arrangements and as long as nobody gets hurt, I say they can arrange anything they want and the rest of us need to butt out of it.

I had a wife once. I got rid of her. I don’t want another one and I damn sure don’t want two or three. But then I never wanted my wife to whip me with a coat hanger while I was strapped to a sawhorse with a ball-gag shoved in my mouth, either. I know some guys do, and they have that right. Other guys want to have a whole bunch of wives, and quite clearly some women want to be one of them. I have used this column before to argue that the government has no business limiting the institution of marriage to a contract between a man and a woman. I pride myself on logical consistency, so I have to weigh-in in defense of polygamy.

As offensive as it may seem, and though I might be accused of missing something inherent about the FLDS, if (and that’s a big if) all we are talking about is polygamy, we need to stay out of it. What is at stake is who gets to determine how consenting adults live their personal lives. What is at stake is how far the government can go in homogenizing our society. What is at stake is the right to differ—and that is a right worth defending.