Faculty of Social and Human Sciences (UNL) Conference System, 1st Non-Monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies Conference

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Is Polygamy the Next Marital Rights Issue?
Janet Bennion

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Date: 2015-09-27 11:30 AM – 01:00 PM
Last modified: 2015-08-08


Polygamy is now spotlighted on primetime television and in the courts. This paper identifies the various harms and benefits of North American polygyny and addresses key questions about legalization: If the alleged harms of polygamy stem from the institution itself, how could it be regulated by the state?  If there are forms of polygamy that enhance the possibilities for a satisfying life for its participants, could the practices of these groups be separated from abusive forms of polygamy through regulating subsets of abusive behavior, rather than polygamy per se? Should this regulation take place through refusal to recognize polygamous marriage, through regulating the processes for entry and dissolution of polygamous marriages, or through criminalization of such unions? The author disaggregates the diverse forms of polygamy practiced in North America (via ethnographic fieldwork and interview) and charts the variable impact these models of polygamy have on men, women, and children--whether they are independent individuals or members of relatively coherent fundamentalist communities. She finds that though some forms of polygyny are linked to domestic violence and poor maternal and child health, most cases reveal an absence of harm and abuse. She asserts that when polygamy is criminalized, female victims of abuse under-report for fear of being charged or jeopardizing their family. In this way, prohibition, which is designed to protect women from abuse, arguably in fact puts them at greater risk. Criminalizing polygamy is an ineffective way to address the harms of certain forms of polygamy to women and children.