Polygamy's Latter Day Toll
A fellow blogger and fellow contrarian wrote a brilliant post on polygamy…well also on the number four and fucking and…well, you’ll just need to go read it. Anyway, I think he’s brilliant. And I love debating with him. As I started to respond via a comment, I realized my comment would take up a whole lotta space, so I decided to blog about it.
He asks the question why? Why are we so bent on polygamy, so bent on the Victorian attitudes of the Mormon church? Why, instead, don’t we examine the way in which it “plays out in our lives” today? An excellent question, I think. I can’t understand why some people get so upset about what Joseph Smith did (or who he did) and they don’t seem to integrate how the whole history of polygamy has framed and created who we are at this moment. Well, I can’t tell you, as a post Mo, how polygamy plays out in “our” lives; I can’t because I can’t speak for all ex-Mormon women, or my friends, or my sister or my other Mormon family members or anyone else. But I can speak for myself.
I have a unique perspective from men in that I have never been anything but a woman (stay with me here) Men can speak from their experience and can talk about polygamy from their point of view, but they have never been a woman and will never know the impact and implications that are inherent in regards to this practice historically and spiritually.
First, let me macro-out a bit. Women and men have different needs emotionally in regards to sex and relationships; my mother (the brilliant sage that she was) used to say “Men give love to get sex and women give sex to get love.” I don’t know if that’s as inaccurate as some of her other weirdo axioms to which she prescribed. I do know that biologically men are more geared toward planting seeds into many, and women are more geared toward getting planted and kept by one man. Social conditioning enters into the picture, along with oxytocin, and men and women settle down, have three kids, get an itch, divorce, whatever; that’s how it goes. We, as a society, still view marriage as a permanent institution–which I find amusing since over half of them disintegrate. (notice I did not say “fail” here?) Sorry, I digress.
Women need to feel like they are special in a relationship. We need to know you want us, and only us. Ridiculous? Hmm, let’s look at that. You may say that that is an unreal expectation; men obviously like seeing what’s on the menu. True. But say you are out shopping with your sig. other and a hot young blond walks by. What would the rest of the day look like if you turned and obviously ogled her and said “Damn, I wanna have me somma that!” Yeah, guys, that would go over like prime rib and Chanel 5 at a vegan potluck.
Men spend most of the courtship doing things to make the object of their affection feel special. She, in turn, calls you when her car needs oil or she has a couch she needs moved. Men want to feel needed and useful as well as respected.
So here we are, with this biological and social conditioning, and we enter into the Land of Zion.
Now here I am, as a Mormon woman and I am being courted by a Mormon man. We get married, have babies and then someone gives me the red pill. I start learning about polygamy. As I am learning, my man is being useful in his callings, and had been useful as a missionary, bringing the Gospel to the multitudes. He is needed because he has the keys of the Kingdom via the Prieshood and he will pull me through the veil; he is respected why? Because of the mere fact that he has a PENIS. His gender (and let’s not mitigate his conformity to the rules and commandments) gives him the ‘honor’ of the Priesthood and all of the innate respect that accompanies it. All you have to have is a cock in Zion; that makes you eligible to have respect via the Priesthood “authority”. It is no accident that in the Book of Mormon, men are the major players. Today and as always, men run the Church. It doesn’t take a real genius to figure out who literally ‘wears the pants’ in this religion. It is a message that is neither subtle nor restrained. Men rule. Penises rule.
Now, still as this young Mormon wife, I find out that there will be polygamy in heaven–oh, wait, NOT FOR EVERYONE. Riiight. Since we have SO much say in the Land of Zion now, I’m sure well have lots of say in the Celestial Kingdom with a Male God and his obsequious Mother in Heaven that is never talked about ‘out of respect’. Well don’t I feel special? I get to spend eternity with a man that I love and married here on Earth and if I die early, he’ll bring with him wife number two, and there may be more waiting up there for him. But I am supposed to be okay with that because I get to have BABIES!!!
Let’s back up to when polygamy was practiced here on Earth. As a man, you get all of your needs met in terms of feeling useful, respected and needed. As a woman, you get to have babies, take care of the house, navigate being in close quarters with other women–who have sex with your husband by the way–some younger than you, some older. You get to help take care of their children and your own, and as the topping on this cake, you don’t ever get a real partner to yourself because he’s always working to keep food on the table or with wife #8 who is the new and ‘special’ one since he just married her a month ago and she’s expecting her first child.
This may be a totally millennial question, but I am going to ask it anyway:
WHAT IN THE HELL IS IN IT FOR ME???
Eternal salvation? Why? What’s the point? If I wanted to have eternal salvation with a group of women, I’d do it with my coffee clatch, not with a bunch of women my dolt-head husband chose.
So back to the original question: how does polygamy play out in our lives today?
It plays out in our lives today by UNDERSCORING the fact that women are not important for who they are, but for what their bodies can do (have babies). This mind-set coincides, interestingly enough, with our current society’s view of women as objects, although objectification occurs sexually as opposed to prolifically; the Church would never have such a banal attitude as that. Having babies is glorified and an honor, so we should feel proud that we are born women. Right? But it is still our bodies, not who we are, that is the focal point. We are not special, we are one of many.
That is why women focus on polygamy in the Church more than men. Because there is nothing in it for us. Human beings are simple creatures, really; we seek pleasure and seek to avoid pain. Have you ever HAD a baby? And pleasure for me is having that one and only special someone that makes my day simply by calling to say he’s thinking about me. Someone who tells me he loves me, someone who wants to have a partnership with me and only me, who brings me flowers on occasion just because he appreciates me.
Sorry, to me, that’s heaven.
That is an amazing post, JulieAnn. I have never seen anyone argue as tightly why Mormon gender stereotypes dehumanize women as you do in the final two paragraphs.
In the old days, of course, polygamy was also about dominating men as priesthood leaders used their position to encourage other men’s wives to trade “up.”
Joseph Smith became just another alpha male who did what alpha males do: have sex with their followers. That’s fairly typical for the jungle and charismatic religions.
Such behavior amounts, of course, to a civilizational catastrophy. Humanity has spend a lot of effort to disentangle sex and power. I cannot quite say that we have arrived but Joseph Smith undid a lot of progress.
Of course, it is no accident that Joseph Smith was killed over polygamy. When sex becomes a matter of power then power becomes a matter of life and death.
According to the philosopher Karl Raimund Popper, democracy is about the peaceful change of government. Unless a society protects families and women from the sexual intrusions of the powerful, there can be no democracy.
If your last sentence is true, and I think it is, we’re screwed. But today, the “powerful” is not just an adjective for a person, “power” is money. More on that another day…
This is only slightly related to sexual politics, but since you cite men and women’s different sexual and needs, I figure the following is on topic.
Just this morning, I read The Orgasm Wars. Since we’re talking about the emotional and sexual needs of women, this article about the psychology and possible evolutionary role of female orgasm is a nice counterpoint to our cultural assumptions about what constitutes typical female sexual behavior and attitudes. The author asserts that female orgasm is most likely an adaptation to encourage the sperm of her most desirable sexual partners. The author concludes that:
Further, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature cites studies that show that women orgasm more often with their illicit partners than with their primary partner and that the nature of the orgasm is such that copulation is more likely to result in fertilization and pregnancy.
This doesn’t paint a pretty picture about human sexuality, at least from the committed monogamist’s perspective. Men and women are both conditioned by nature to have a variety of sexual partners. Men attempt to monopolize a group of fertile women and have as many secret affairs with other men’s partners as they can safely manage. Women’s strategy is to monopolize a single man who will care for her and her children while simultaneously carrying out secret trysts with more desirable (genetically fit) mates who will be slightly more likely to be the true father of her children. Those more desirable males have less incentive to stick around and be a doting mate. Translation: sleep with the bad boys, marry the good guys.
I’m not advocating that we follow the dictates of nature. I’m not sure that civilization could endure such an experiment. But it highlights how truly complex our sexual psychology truly is, and it is interesting in light of the early church leaders’ attempts to justify polygamy by appeal to biology. I don’t think they knew where that argument would ultimately lead. 😉
That’s interesting, Jonathan. Our selfish genes and the fact that we are a species whose off-spring requires more than a decade of nurture establish a contradiction with respect to human sexuality. The selfish gene wants to cheat, the babies require commitment.
Life scientists told me a couple of years ago that they refer to humans as an altricial species, which means that our off-spring requires nurture. The implications of that aspect of human nature are the root of many intractable problems.
For example, libertarianism cannot work for an altricious species. While markets can provide a lot of benefits to human survival, we cannot well charge babies in return for nursing.
The human species requires more institutions than the market because markets don’t nurture. But institutions that have the capacity to nurture, such as the family or the government, are also the institutions with the greatest capacity to abuse.
That lies in the nature of nurture. It cannot be about reciprocity and is inevitably about dependence.
It is possible then to link the fundamentals of sex, the selfish gene and needy babies, all the way to the violence in Iraq and the corruption in Washington.
Jonathan — Why not go ahead and urge us to follow the dictates of nature? Sounds fun to me. And I’m curious about the finding that the women’s capacity to have an orgasm doesn’t depend on the partner’s sexual skill, mostly because I’m imagining how they tested the partner’s skill in the study — was it like a fitness test or tongue push ups?
On a more serious note though, your comments and JulieAnn’s post show just how incredibly complex the polygamy issue is for Mormons, post-Mos or any one simply interested in how the topic plays out. Contemporary scientific research, feminist ideology, and contemporary concepts of sexual morality converge on this dormant seed of Mormonism and it sprouts some awfully strange plants.
Interesting article. I wonder how the research would stand up from a purely behaviorist’s standpoint? Interesting.
I think Hellmut & TW are right in that it is such a complext issue, like trying to sort out all the veggies in a stew to see which one created what flavor. There is too much to take into account, including the cultural and socio-religious factors.
On a less serious note, how did they manage the research, and where the hell do I sign up? I’d like to volunteer for numbers 1 and 5, specifically, please. Oh, and 4. Don’t think I’d qualify for 2 (is that TMI?)
TWank, would not you say though that the various perspective arrive at remarkably similar opinions when it comes to Mormon polygamy?
Oh not at all, Hellmut (Your name always makes me think of Spaceballs btw). The popular opinion is that polygamy was bad, bad, bad and certainly modern sensibilities support that position, but the attempt at meshing sexuality and spirituality that occurs within early Mormon polygamy provides for perspectives that later Mormon Puritanism and modern concepts of marriage simply ignore.
It seems that the Post-Mo community in general establishes its own dogma to replace the previous dogma. Limiting responses to the impact of polygamy to “polygamy was bad and evil” is just as myopic as limiting its damage by blind faith.
JulieAnn, this was a great post. I like your thoughts about polygamy..they are very similar to my thoughts on the subject. It’s amazing how little women dwell on it in the church. I think it’s suppressed because it’s not so pleasant to think about.
No one has ever said polygamy was bad(bad, bad). I spoke merely of the impact it had on me personally as a woman. I don’t think it’s as simplistic as you make it sound in terms of people either vilifying or extolling the virtues of it based on their Mo or exMo status.
There isn’t dogma associated with every person–even in general. Keep in mind that there are exiting Mormons that are fighting their families, cultural/spiritual beliefs, inner fears, and a very powerful mind-fuck (courtesy of the Church); and yes, just like the Church or any other religion they feel they must immerse themselves in their new ideology in order to gain some foot-hold on where they should go next. Their seemingly dogmatic anti-views are part of the healing process of anger that every person must go through in order to grieve the loss of their paradigm. The pendulum, for most, eventually swings back to a more median point.
Not everyone, or every woman, leaves the Church based on polygamy, as you know. The ONLY reason I speak of polygamy now is because a close friend of mine is exiting the Church and she is hyper-focused on it for reasons I will state later*, and your post made me think about it (see? It’s your fault! LOL)
To say that some people create dogma surrounding polygamy is accurate to some degree in that people tend to seek out evidence to support what they believe. Based on the recovery process, this is normal. However, that does not mitigate the fact that as an ex-Mormon woman*, I am finally afforded the freedom to express how I really feel about polygamy; when I was in the Church, I suppressed it. It is healing for women to be able to express what has heretofore been repressed for fear of reprisals, or worse, loss of their status quo(safety)before they could consider leaving.
Women resonate with other women when it comes to suffering. I have read accounts of girls who were forced into polygamy because the “prophet” threatened their eternal salvations along with their families. This is nothing short of rape. When I read it, I felt physically ill; as a man, you can’t possibly know what it’s like to live with a vagina and the fact that one out of every 4 women are raped daily. We LIVE with that as part of our paradigm–everywhere we go. Polygamy makes me angry for many reasons, but the coercion used by Smith and others sickens me the most. Yes, there were many women caught up in the hysteria of polygamy and went willingly to marry Joseph and others. It was religious hysteria; a religious fervor had gripped the country as a whole during the American Reformation, and specifically the Mormon community; I liken it to people who dance in trance with snakes. They were doing something in the heat of the moment, the apogee of the fervor. The point is, even women who went into it willingly were duped on some level and that resonates and touches women on a core level that you may never understand.
Rather than scold for a myopic view, perhaps take into account where people might be in their grieving/recovery process, and understand that they will eventually swing back to a more balanced view. Mostly, there is enough wrong with Mormonism that the easy target of polygamy will be replaced by other things they’ll need to reconcile.
Obviously I need to clarify. I purposefully chose the word “dogma” because of the religious connotations for a word that essentially means “concepts established according to a particular point of view.” Any point of view that is immediately requires a particular point of view feels dogmatic to me, whether it be the Mormon religion or the ex-Mormon crowd.
I took Hellmut’s comment to be that everyone leaving the church comes to the same conclusions about polygamy and its impact (and that conclusion is essentially that polygamy is harmful). I felt that there were aspects of the meshing of sexuality and religion that are at least raised in early versions of Mormon polygamy and I’m not completely convinced that such a combination is completely harmful.
I think your posts JulieAnn have brought out (as evidenced by the female Amen choir of voices) the subtle and detrimental effect polygamy has on the Mormon female. I also completely disagree that I can’t empathize with women, simply because I don’t have a vagina. Human capacity for empathy has evolved to where gender differences can be overcome.
You actually touched on the aspect of polygamy that remains largely unexplored when you wrote: “there were many women caught up in the hysteria of polygamy and went willingly to marry Joseph and others.” What was that? What gave polygamy the appeal? Our natural abhorence and the pain that comes at feeling duped masks the fact that something is going on here that needs to be analyzed.
When I asked not to be myopic, I was not disagreeing with you or saying that I’m a closet fundamentalist (Not even close), I was going back to the question that prompted your post and was asking for even more contributions — in what ways does our culture’s one time acceptance of polygamy and its permeation into cultural doctrine affect our relationship to sexuality and spirituality today. I think you’ve given us one great answer. Other answers could include the male point of view, the sex/spirituality point of view (which could have sub-parts), and the homosexual and lesbian point of view.
Analyzed from all those versions, the impact becomes more clear and more understandable.
Understood, and thanks for clarifying. I actually didn’t think you were disagreeing with me; I concluded from your post, perhaps hastily, that you were lumping all ex-Mo’s into the anti-polygamy category. Clearly you weren’t. I know that when you post you do it to spawn further discussion. No worries on that. I get you. :0)
In terms of the hysteria, one must study the time in which polygamy occurred. People were seeing God all over the place; hell, they were BEING God, all over the place. A couple of women said they were Jesus Christ; one guy didn’t bathe…it was mayhem. LOL There were some pretty wild sects (ha ha) going around. People were caught up in that excitement, and Mormonism offered something more than just visions and a belief system; it offered a sense of safety and community, and strict parameters that many people were lacking as they migrated west from New England. It offered order and the promise of security in this life and the next.
One notion for why polygamy was so popular with many of the woman (we know why it might have been for men, right?)would be status. As a woman, what would be a higher status in their social system but to be able to say that they were married secretly to The Prophet–the ‘King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on Earth’. It was better than marrying a doctor! LOL
We know also that Joseph denied being a polygamist and that he did so because of outside social pressures, among other things (Emma). He kept it a secret. What’s more alluring that that? This is my own conjecture: since many of the women didn’t live with Joseph, he would had to have visited them, probably stealthily as to not arouse (huh) suspicion. So when he did get to see them and consummate the ‘marriage’, it would have been like a forbidden tryst; what’s more potent than that? And if he was as charismatic as they say, he must have been a total ladies man. As you have pointed out many times, sex and religion can be a powerful concoction. :0) These are just my conjectures and opinions as to why (other than being duped into believing they had to do it because God commanded it through Joseph) women would go for polygamy at the time.
Oh, and I disagree with you on the empathy thing. I will never know what it’s like to have testicles, and when something flies through the air and I cover my face and turn, most men cover their jewels and turn. I will never know what that’s like to have a vulnerability there. I can empathize as a human being that to be whacked in the balls hurts, but to actually know how it feels to live with that vulnerability? Nope, no clue. You don’t actually live with the ides that when you walk out to your car at night, you are a moving target for a rapist if he’s out there. It is a different reality, and empathy can only take you so far.