Can U.S. law handle polygamy?

June 21, 2011 By Jessica Martin

HBO's Big Love and TLC's reality-TV offering Sister Wives have thrust polygamy into popular culture in the United States. Estimates are that somewhere between 50,000-100,000 families in this country are currently risking criminal prosecution by practicing plural marriage.

Proponents and detractors of polygamy use to support their arguments, but that’s just a distraction, says Adrienne Davis, JD, an expert on gender relations and the William M. Van Cleve Professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

“While the gay analogy may make for splashy punditry and good television, it distracts us from the main legal issue — polygamy challenges the regulations inherent in the conventional two-person marriage,” Davis says. “Putting aside whether you think polygamy is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ it is important to look at whether U.S. law is up to regulating marital multiplicity.”

In her recent article, “Regulating Polygamy: Intimacy, Default Rules, and Bargaining for Equality,” published in the Columbia Law Review, Davis approaches polygamy as a problem of bargaining, cooperation and strategic behavior.

She proposes some default rules that might accommodate polygamy, while ensuring against some of its historic and ongoing abuses.

“Polygamy creates vulnerabilities and opportunities for exploitative behavior, some of which we have seen played out in distressing fashion in recent high-profile conflicts, from Elizabeth Smart to Warren Jeffs and the raids on his Yearning for Zion compound,” Davis says.

She says that conventional family law, which limits its focus to “couples,” may not be up to the task of regulating polygamy, but a legal platform such as business law may address polygamy’s central conundrum: ensuring fairness and establishing baseline behavior in a relationship characterized by multiple partners, ongoing entrances and exits, and life-defining economic and personal stakes.

“Commercial partnership law has addressed these concerns through a robust set of off-the-rack rules,” Davis says. “There are already conceptual models for what might be thought of as plural marital associations. These include how new parties are admitted, how the association governs itself, and how people can leave.”

What about the kids?

Davis says that with regard to how marital multiplicity affects economic and emotional child support, it is unclear that polygamy generates more problems for children than the standard alternatives.

In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that over 39 percent of children were born to unmarried women.

“While some of these mothers will subsequently marry, others, particularly poor women, will not,” Davis says. “Instead, the fathers of their children will subsequently father children with other women, leading to multiple non-marital families, or de facto polygamy.”

In addition, a substantial percentage of married couples divorce and remarry, starting new families.

“These successive divorces and remarriages have led to what some have called serial polygamy, or polygamy on the installment plan,” Davis says.

She notes that competition among families for emotional and economic resources is not unique to what we might think of traditional polygamy.

“With regard to children, family already accommodates intimate multiplicity, or what might be thought of as ‘de facto’ and serial polygamy,” Davis says.

“Is it better to channel legal energy into continuing to root out, repress, and punish polygamy, or into admitting it into the pantheon? The answer may hinge on whether could be effectively regulated.”

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1 / 5 (2) Jun 21, 2011
Why would any women in her right mind want a cheating man? Maybe religiously brainwashed little girls who know nothing else or have no education.

But I can see where religious fundamentalism would be ok with this.

But I am ok with having women have multiple husbands I wonder if that would be ok for the fundamentalist?
5 / 5 (5) Jun 21, 2011
Perhaps the number of women or men is irrelevant, as long as everyone (especially the children) are treated fairly. Given the number failed marriages out there, maybe looking at marriage as a contractual issue (rather than a religious issue) would make things fairer.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 22, 2011
The US needs to stop enforcing the Christian view of the world and allow people to express their religion or beliefs. I think polygamy should swing both ways, more than one woman for each man or more than one man for each woman. Just because it's not for you don't tell other people they can't. (But it very important to protect the young and children)
not rated yet Jun 22, 2011
The comment by Kiljoy616 shows exactly what's wrong with the polygamy debate. There's misinformation on both sides. The only type of poly relationships the government or media focus on are polygynous ones (one man, several women) entered into by religious fundamentalists and cult members. This doesn't represent the majority of poly relationships, and doesn't represent me at all.

I'm in a relationship with a gay man who has a husband and several other boyfriends. I obviously wasn't "brainwashed" into this by religious fundamentalists; it's just the type of relationship that suits me best.

I think if people recognized the diversity of relationships, it would throw a wrench in the spokes of this debate.
1 / 5 (3) Jun 22, 2011
If the state owns all the property and individuals have no property rights, there is no need for any family laws.
1 / 5 (5) Jun 22, 2011
The US needs to stop enforcing the Christian view of the world

The success of Western Civilization for the past 2000 years was dependent upon the Judeo-Christian world view.
So ronald wants to see the US fail so more viscous socialist world views can dominate?
5 / 5 (3) Jun 22, 2011
viscous socialist

Do you even know what socialist means?
So for 2000 years, wow. So we should go back to having kings and queens rule countries because that was the norm for 1800 of those years?
1 / 5 (5) Jun 22, 2011
viscous socialist

Do you even know what socialist means?
So for 2000 years, wow. So we should go back to having kings and queens rule countries because that was the norm for 1800 of those years?

The only 'norm' was the Ten Commandments and Jesus's words that the political class twisted for their benefit.
Truth persists. It was well explained in the Declaration that every individual human has inherent and unalienable rights from their Creator.
It is true that state power, socialism, never rests and continues its attempts to take those rights, but they are opposed by a philosophy that has 5000 year roots.
So ronald, are you opposed to the inherent, unalienable rights of every human being?
5 / 5 (2) Jun 22, 2011
Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Nope, my Creator wants me to be happy and have as many wives as I want.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

So are you opposed to freedom of religion?
1 / 5 (4) Jun 22, 2011
I am not opposed to freedom of religion at all.
If the state decides it wants to promote families that protect children and mothers by granting special privilege to marriage, then the state has the obligation to define marriage.
King Solomon had hundreds of wives, Muslims can have 4, Mormons used to officially practice polygamy. I don't care.
I DO care when the govt decides it wants to grant special privilege to marriage but is prohibited from defining the term.
Imposing homosexual marriage via courts must then lead to the state allowing, and granting privilege, to any definition of 'marriage'.
Let's open the door to all definitions of marriage. It will lead to the demise 'progressives', who prefer to abort their babies, and the rise of Mormons and Muslims. Mormons have a very solid reputation supporting liberty and prosperity.
Maybe the Catholic church would open the door to polygamy as well.
1 / 5 (4) Jun 23, 2011
^What The Fuck?^
1 / 5 (3) Jun 23, 2011
US law can handle polygamy now. Marry the first wife, divorce a few months later, marry the second, etc. As long as the wife and ex-wives accept the arrangement, what could the govt do about a wife and several ex-wives sharing?
1 / 5 (2) Jun 25, 2011
whether you think polygamy is right or wrong, it is important to look at
...It's important to look at what purpose polygamy is meant to serve. Polygamy is an excellent way of recovering battle losses after chronic intertribal conflict decimates the males in a tribe. Men who were skillful and clever enough to have survived conflict are worth propagating maximally. Successful tribes also inherit the conquered females, and the institutionalization of polygamy enables them to be utilized with a minimum of resistance.

Oscar Wilde said "A woman would prefer to have 1/10th of a champion than all of a mediocre man." In light of the prevalence of tribal warfare in our formative years the institution of monogamy might be the more unnatural state.

As its purpose is to grow pops quickly, western laws uniformly punish it. This is also why homosexuality is now legal. Any sort of sexual behavior will always naturally offend someone; which makes their use in modulating pop growth easier.
3.4 / 5 (5) Jun 25, 2011
Mormons have a very solid reputation supporting liberty and prosperity.
Yah especially those who still strive to practice polygamy like Warren Jeffs:

-That was SARCASM marjon.
1.6 / 5 (5) Jun 26, 2011
You would be surprised at how many women want a man that they know cheats. They also know that the cheater is/was an abuser of women and do not care. What they do care about is that the man had too much upper body strength for their own good, had a big mouth, and was into fighting...winning enough of them to attract the women on that basis alone. Have seen too many battling bums get women with good educations that should know better, and too many decent men go without companions simply because they lack the capacity to be assholes. So guys, get in fights in women's presence and win any way possible including cheating, do not spend a dime on the women...gets you disrespected by them; be as sexually bad as ya wanna be, cheat at the drop of a hat. The women will fall all over you. Especially if you weigh over 250 and have lotsa muscles. Intelligencs actually works against you. Helps if you are a minority too. Know this sounds misogynistic, but experience has shown it to be true.
1 / 5 (6) Jun 26, 2011
And by the way, we will legalize polygamy. It is mathematically certain. Insamuch as we are dependent on imported petroleum products seriously enough to render us impotent in case of a war and the supply was disrupted. And inasmuch as the supplier nations are mostly Islamic. It stands to reason that our Constitution is a dead man walking; and the new Constitution will be based on the Qu'ran. Islamics will demand it as a condition of continued 'fixes' of our addiction to Arab oil. The change will start with a hidden blackmail of successive administrations to look the other way at Islamic Arab nationals practicing child marriage, female genital mutilations, honor killings, 'in-yer-face polygamy' going unprosecuted, etc. Forget Geert Wilders, read Ayaan Hirsi Ally's books and learn how to fight this before it is too late. Your freedom of religion is going to be under assault from a Middle Eastern Crusade to replace your values with theirs....whether you like it...or not.
5 / 5 (4) Jun 26, 2011
Wow, @StandingBear , reminds me of those white men telling stories where the black man is going to take your wife and kids from the 40, 50, 60 and 70s....
2.3 / 5 (6) Jun 26, 2011
StandingBear, you're a fucking moron.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 26, 2011
"Why would any women in her right mind want a cheating man?" - Killjoy

Most likely because she doesn't buy your application of the word "cheating" to the relationship.

Your application of the term shows how myopic and confused you are about human relationships.

I blame that on a limited world view, and a lack of education and vision.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 26, 2011
The illegality of polygamy has never made much sense to me. I presume it stems from an era where women were in short supply due to hoarding and the have nots started burning Christian churches in fits of sexual frustration.

Now... Where's da whites women at?

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