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What could polygamy of the future look like?
Utah and other states could allow three or more adults to enter into contracts, creating both a plural marriage and dictating how assets will be divided.
Or states could recognize plural marriages for the purposes of distributing government benefits.
Perhaps states decriminalize polygamy. Women and children who suffer abuse within a polygamous household will then feel free to report that abuse to authorities.
Then again, the states and Canada could continue with the status quo. That would please a lot of people, too.
All of those scenarios are discussed in "The Polygamy Question." It is an anthology of academic articles, published last month by Utah State University Press, that constitutes the first major scholarly examination of plural marriage since the Brown family from the reality television show "Sister Wives" persuaded a federal judge in Salt Lake City to strike down a Utah statute that made polygamy a felony.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling Monday, reinstating Utah's criminal ban on polygamy. The appeals court said the Brown case was moot because the Browns were not at risk for prosecution. The Browns' attorney, Jonathan Turley, wrote on his blog Monday that his clients will appeal. The Browns have an the option of asking for another review from the 10th Circuit or urging the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.
The ruling displeased the book's co-editor and Utah native Janet Bennion.
Bennion, a professor of anthropology at Lyndon State College in Vermont, said the Browns had reason to fear prosecution so long as their unions remained criminal.
Bennion also contends that rulings banning polygamy are actually upholding a patriarchal tradition in monogamy that is more oppressive to women than is polygamy.
"Far more social ills are associated with monogamy than any other forms," Bennion said in a telephone interview.
Benign or not
Bennion has studied plural marriage for more than 20 years and has "seen all flavors of polygamy," she said. To Bennion, the Brown family husband Kody and wives Robyn, Meri, Janelle and Christine represent a change from the days when polygamists were isolated, the patriarch tended to be abusive and women were economically dependent upon him.
"They're new," Bennion said, "in that they're illustrating this more benign form of polygamy that I think has truly emerged recently in the last 20 years."
"The Polygamy Question" captures those nuances of polygamy, examining the practice from the viewpoints of religion, culture, economics, power and familial relationships. North American Mormons and polygamy-practicing offshoots of the mainstream LDS Church, which officially swore off plural marriage in 1890, receive the bulk of the attention, but there also is discussion of polygamy in Africa.
Not every author advocates for decriminalization. The anthology's most biting critique of polygamy comes from Rose McDermott, a political science professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, and Jonathan Cowden, a social worker in San Jose, Calif., who has a doctorate in political science. They used statistical models and found societies in which men who married multiple women had "not a single documented positive outcome occurring as a result," though individual households may have operated without abusive behavior.
They found 18 negative outcomes in aggregate, they said, including higher rates of violence against women and decreased economic output by both the women and the males who are excluded from marriage.
Society could pass 18 laws to address those problems, McDermott and Cowden write, or it can pass one: Ban polygamy.
"The promotion of monogamy and female emancipation is a formula for a safer world," they write.
Bennion disagrees with those assessments. She acknowledges polygamous sects like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Kingstons have their ills, but says there are also examples of polygamy that can be practiced to the benefit of all.
"Even the numbers, I don't think, are the full picture," Bennion said.
Martha Bailey, a professor of law at Queen's University in Ontario, spends most of her article talking about the problems associated with polygamy, including crimes against children. Yet she calls Canada's criminalization of polygamy "unwise." She contends it drives those crimes "underground" and makes them difficult to police.
Two scholars contributing to "The Polygamy Question" offer a hybrid approach.
Sarah Song, a professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley, makes a case for "qualified recognition," in which the choice of women to remain in polygamy is recognized so long as they have the right to leave. Song says government would have to require a contract between the existing and new spouses that fairly divides the assets. Then a family court judge would have to approve.
Kerry Abrams, a law professor at the University of Virginia, says full recognition of polygamy is politically unlikely. She asks if partial recognition, in which the law recognizes polygamy in some settings and not others, is possible, particularly in providing government benefits.
Abrams uses a United Kingdom policy as an example. There, it is illegal to enter into a plural marriage, but when determining benefits for the unemployed or underemployed, the government counts plural spouses. Each additional wife is eligible for what amounts to about $47.62 per week, according to Abrams.
It wouldn't be such a stretch to adopt these policies in the United States, she says. Children of plural wives are entitled to the father's insurance benefits, for example, and states often recognize cohabiting couples as entitled to certain benefits and rights.
Like a lot of Utahns, Bennion descends from polygamists. Three of her great-great-grandfathers, including pioneer-era Mormon apostle Ezra T. Benson, had multiple wives.
Bennion grew up in Vernon, in Tooele County. While pursuing her doctorate from the University of Utah, she spent time studying the Apostolic United Brethren, also known as the Allred Group, in Montana. She believes some polygamy is well functioning, some forms function poorly, and the poor functioning polygamy isn't a reason to ban it for everyone. She also believes people descended from polygamists are hypocritical when they seek polygamy bans.
"Polygamy is not for me or my daughters. I don't think I would ever condone it for my family," Bennion said. "But who are we to say other people shouldn't do it?"