Polygamy Culture

There’s “rape culture,” and then there’s “polygamy culture.”

Most people understand that “rape culture” is a term that identifies ways a society blames female victims for the inappropriate (and often criminal) behavior of men. The classic example is the man who asserts a woman “was asking for it by wearing that short skirt.” Polygamy culture, on the other hand, is one in which a man is, essentially, justified (or too-readily forgiven) for inappropriate sexual behavior while the woman who refuses him is villainized.

Both rape and polygamy cultures are generous to the man and critical of the woman; however, polygamy culture excuses itself, not by blaming the woman, but by claiming, in one form or another, that the compassion of God rests with the man. In polygamy culture, the woman is either seen as unrighteous for not giving consent or not seen at all. Too many Mormon women are abused by polygamy culture.

These are a few examples of what polygamy culture looks like:

A young, single man at BYU approaches an attractive co-ed and, after a date or two (or 30), tells her he has received revelation that she is to become his wife. If she refuses, he tells her, though subtly, that she is disobeying God.

A Mormon husband and father develops a pornography habit, justifying it as “the way God made man.” When his wife discovers the hidden secret, he faults her for not understanding that his sexual desire is something a truly righteous society would sanction.

A philandering Mormon husband explains away his infidelity by pointing at the way Joseph Smith deceived Emma about his early polygamous relationships. Like Emma, his wife doesn’t accept his deep devotion to God.

A man with a felony sexual assault record is called into a bishopric, Sunday School presidency, or Young Men’s presidency. Even though his record is known by those above him, it is forgiven despite the risks his serving in that position imposes. Parents are expected to sustain him because his calling is God’s will.

A young sister missionary reports to local leaders, and then upper leadership, that her MTC Mission President sexually accosted her, something he had done to many other women and had even confessed to his leaders. They look at her; they look at him. He carries on as usual and she is ignored and then shamed.

Is the problem institutionalized? Yes. It’s institutionalized in the promotion of historic polygamy as God’s will even though our keystone scripture disavows polygamy. It’s institutionalized in the temple sealing ordinances that allow men to be sealed to multiple women, but disallows the release of women from sealings to abusive men. It’s institutionalized in male-only, closed-door confessionals. It’s institutionalized in the expectation of perpetual submission by women to male leaders who claim to stand in for the Savior. It’s institutionalized by the Mormon pedestal of perfect womanhood that encourages women to accept and expect dependency on a man. And it’s institutionalized by the continued teaching that a man’s priesthood authority exceeds any authority a woman may claim, even as she is guided by the Holy Ghost.

Growth is often painfully slow, and long-suffering is valued, but the endurance of LDS women must have its rightful end. This is our era, my LDS sisters. It’s our time to stand tall for truth and righteousness, to weed out toxic behaviors that are hurting other women even if they haven’t hurt us. It’s time we assume our mantle by using our voices to clarify fully and with conviction how the Savior and our Heavenly Parents want us treated and want us viewed. That doesn’t involve a pedestal. It doesn’t pretend we are better than men. And it needn’t be angry. It only must be true.

President Nelson has said he wants to hear our voices, that our local councils need to hear our voices. We will honor his request as we follow Jesus’ example and speak truth to power in whatever forum available to us, because, in the final analysis, falsity will fall away and those who chose it will now choose to get in line behind us. The onus belongs to Mormon women to name polygamy culture when we see it and to demand its correction, just as generations of women have been calling for the end of rape culture. This is how we sustain.

26 Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old.

27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none. (Jacob 2)

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4 thoughts on “Polygamy Culture

  1. Wally

    I agree that we have issues we need to solve in Mormonism, and I’m no big fan of polygamy, but there is a disconnect for me between your examples and the term “polygamy culture.” Some seem to have nothing to do with the issues surrounding polygamy. Maybe just labeling it patriarchy would be more accurate.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Wally. Surely this is a subset of the overarching patriarchal problems. I considered spending some time establishing, for instance, the ways in which early Mormon women were manipulated into agreeing to polygamous marriages that must have rankled their souls, but I opted not to, under the assumption my readers are relatively up-to-date on the history. Many more so than I. We are a religious culture with its footing in the spiritual blackmail of women. You don’t have to look farther than D&C 132 to see Emma Smith threatened with eternal damnation if she doesn’t embrace Joseph’s polygamous relationships. That’s from God, you say? That’s what they all say. 🙂 The stories from early Mormonism of women being reminded that, to refuse a polygamous marriage, would demonstrate their spiritual inferiority are abundant.

      Each of the examples I provide demonstrate contemporary ways women are still shamed by men who are claiming for themselves alignment with God. But not just alignment. They are using God’s name to manipulate women into sexual choices that they would not otherwise make. If there are sexually manipulative undercurrents to patriarchal abuses within Mormonism, it serves women better to identify them as something separate from run-of-the-mill patriarchy so that we have a language to address them succinctly.

      Of course some examples are more egregious, more obvious, than others, but Mormon women shouldn’t have to tolerate sexual manipulation that challenges their moral cores. Polygamy culture grooms women for abuse. But yes, it is more patriarchy, this time Mormon-specific.


  2. Pingback: Polygamy Culture, Pt II – Life Outside The Book of Mormon Belt

  3. Pingback: Polygamy Culture and Temple Rites – Life Outside The Book of Mormon Belt

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