Polygamy Culture, Pt II

My recent post regarding polygamy culture, followed as it was by this interview from Sisters Quorum, has raised some controversy. The discussion has rankled some LDS members who perceive the phrase as an attack on Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. In other quarters, some claimed “polygamy culture” is just patriarchy. Today I’ll address both these arguments in brief, acknowledging that, like any developing concept, growth and adaptation are likely ahead.

First, let’s revisit the term “rape culture.” It’s a descriptor attached to behavior in which a man excuses his sexual misconduct by blaming a woman for it. In other words, “she asked for it” because of what she wore or where she was, etc. The term rape culture doesn’t imply that rape is the inherent goal, hope, or aspiration of a man exhibiting rape culture behavior, though it could be. Two factors are present in rape culture behavior: 1) The man excuses/diminishes his misbehavior by 2) blaming the victim.

“Polygamy culture” describes another kind of inappropriate, sexually-motivated misconduct. It doesn’t imply plural marriage is the inherent goal of polygamy culture behavior, though it could be. In polygamy culture, two factors are present: 1) the man exalts himself spiritually while 2) denigrating a woman’s spirituality, all for the purpose of his sexual gain.  Just as the term “rape culture” grew from the way rapists blamed their victims, the term “polygamy culture” grows out of proven, historic, male behavioral tendencies associated with early Mormon polygamy.

I say proven because, even with minimal study, anyone can gain a clear view of how women were coerced into living “the Principle” by men who asserted spiritual dominion over them. The most accessible account occurs in LDS scripture. Here, Emma Smith was threatened with eternal damnation if she didn’t accept her husband’s many other wives:

And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment [of plural marriage] she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law. (D&C 132:54) 

A litany of other instances of similar coercion exists in early LDS polygamy, but that research must be the onus of my readers. In contemporary polygamy culture, a woman may be threatened with damnation, as was Emma Smith, or she may be accused of destroying her eternal family, of not understanding the sexual nature of Man the Patriarch, or of not being humble enough to recognize the witnessing spirit. Whatever the debasing accusation that befalls the target, she is often left some combination of feeling harmed, confused, belittled, and/or trapped.

I experienced polygamy culture as a freshman co-ed BYU. After performing in a ward talent show, dressed as one of several pregnant Mormon wives, an 18-year-old male in the audience asked me out. I accepted, but declined a second date. At that point, he informed me that, of course, I’d see him again because, while I was on stage, he’d received revelation I was to be his wife.

We would have twelve children, he said, so we needed to marry right away and start our family because childbirth ages women quickly; he wanted me to have adequate recovery time between deliveries. Also, he assured me, I needn’t worry about marrying a man who hadn’t served a mission. According to his patriarchal blessing, he’d be a great mission president someday, making me his honored lady. Then, of course, he admonished me to humble myself before God so I, too, could receive the same witness.

He persisted, frustrated that I never made myself right enough before God to agree to his scheme. Eventually he had no choice but to move on to his next revelation and a more faithful woman. Fortunately, I saw how off his rocker he was, but what if I’d been in love with the idea of marriage? Or convinced in early life that this was the order of heaven? That men received revelation for women, and that women were to obey men as men obeyed God? Under those circumstances, I might’ve chosen exactly like the young woman who accepted his proposal two months later.

How this young man behaved had all the earmarks of polygamy culture. He claimed a special relationship with God that I did not have and asserted revelatory authority over me that he expected would lead to intimacy. He suggested that if I did not receive the revelation, I was proud and, therefore, sinful. He exalted his own spirituality while denigrating mine in order to coerce me into a quick, unthinking, but sex-centric marriage.

This may occur in other religious cultures. In fact, I’d expect religious extremists of all stripes sometimes manipulate women like this. But in the LDS world, the historic practice of plural marriage not only institutionalized, but sanctified, such behavior, solidifying it as less-fringe and more-faithful than it could ever become in a culture without a polygamous past. The former sanction of polygamy has a long-reaching impact on the thinking of susceptible men and women. This pattern of faulty thinking and behavior deserves a name. Without a name, it can’t be classified and eliminated.

Is polygamy culture “just patriarchy”? Of course, it’s patriarchy. But it’s targeted patriarchy, an arrow shot from the entrenched thinking that a man, through revelation, can rightfully and spiritually assert authority (control) over a woman’s sexual existence. Not all things patriarchal are so specifically related to sexual conquest, but this is, and it’s roots, within LDS culture, are buried deep in the often coercive behaviors that typified much of 19th century Mormon polygamy.  And so it bears its name: polygamy culture.

The term may be a hard pill to swallow for devout LDS. I understand that linking rape culture and polygamy culture might be offensive, particularly to someone who feels anything negative linked to historic polygamy is a repudiation of the founder they love.  I hope, however, that the question of whether or not 19th century Mormon polygamy was a virtue or a corruption does not become the central question for most. I hope, as a people, we give serious consideration to how the name of God is sometimes used to manipulate women into sexual relationships. After all, names matter. And what we call something matters.

Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. (Matthew 5:15)

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