By Brady Williams
When Brady Williams is not spending time with his especially large family hiking, playing croquet, or watching movies, he’s out and about trying to make a difference in this world—from relieving modern-day slavery in Guinea Bissau to teaching construction trades in Haiti.
Or, right-click here to download the audio file: Progressive Polygamy
For decades, I was a member of the Apostolic United Brethren. I held the priesthood, received their ordinances, worked in their temple, was a “seventy apostle” and a bishop, and had five “united” wives. I was the “head” of the family and ruled with my wives by my side. I was taught that these five women were to be as “jewels in my crown” and that if I proved worthy, I would one day be their “Lord and King.”
However, after several years of introspection and rigorous study, my wives and I realized the error of our fundamentalist worldview. Where once we found stability in an unchanging God, we have now embraced a progressive mindset. We value our family unit, however, and want to find a way to embrace both our progressive ways and our current family. We have searched but have not yet found a version of polygamy that can help us do that, so we have set about creating one ourselves.
But is there a way to practice a progressive form of polygamy? Isn’t polygamy an inherently unequal marriage arrangement? Though it has been so for millennia, I’m going to argue that it doesn’t have to be, and that the inequality that casts its shadow across polygamy can be traced to a dysfunction that is every bit as rampant in monogamy.
The Evolution of the Family
According to Fredrick Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the abuses that seem inherent to polygamy actually have their root in monogamy.
In a very early form of marriage called consanguinity every woman was married to every man within the family unit. While this form of marriage made room for more symmetry between the sexes, it was also susceptible to the biological woes of inbreeding, which is why it eventually gave way to the punaluan family, which excluded “parents and children . . . [and also sister and brother] from sexual intercourse with one another.” An important aspect of this group family is the power that it necessarily gives the woman. Engels points out that, “In all forms of group family, it is uncertain who is father of a child; but it is certain who the mother is.” This means lineage can only be proven on the mother’s side and that “only the female line is recognized.” This way of identifying heredity kept the woman in a relative state of power within the family.
In the consanguineous and punaluan forms of marriage there was never a scarcity of sex partners, but that came to an end with the advent of the pairing family where one man lives with one woman. The woman became a commodity at this point, being the male’s only legal sexual partner—something to protect. “Hence it is with the pairing marriage that there begins the capture and purchase of women.”
Along with this social innovation came an economic innovation: property. As a family gathered wealth, the father wanted to pass it only to children who were biologically his. As long as the wife was having sex with just her husband, he was assured of the legitimacy of his heir. And, just as with “slavery and private wealth, it opens the period that has lasted until today . . . in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others,” writes Engels.
This is how patriarchy was born. Men became the controllers and women the controlled. Men became the owners and women the owned. Patriarchy has affected monogamy every bit as deeply as it has affected polygamy, it’s just easier for monogamists to see its workings in polygamy. In monogamy, patriarchy provides the context where women have difficulty gaining access to property, where men who have multiple sexual partners are called players while females who have multiple sexual partners are called sluts, where female-dominated professions are paid significantly less than male-dominated professions. In polygamy, patriarchy provides the context where men can decide that they can impregnate younger and younger girls, where daughters can be traded for positions of authority, where women can be kept isolated and frightened of the outside world.
More recent efforts to describe this patriarchal dynamic include Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which is Not One which explains the historical plight of women within the context of marriage, identifying them as objects of breeding, sexual desire, and trade value within the institution. Women as wives, or potential wives, have been used as tools of social control and exploitation by men for thousands of years. Simone de Beauvoir argues for equal access and empowerment of women in every sector of society and the eradication of the objectification and commodification of women.
Prominent third wave feminist bell hooks suggests a humanist approach. Enlisting the help of men, she calls for the liberation of all subjugated or marginalized classes, but most notably women.
Thus, it is patriarchy, not polygamy, that is the problem. Take away the social acceptance of men dominating women, and one solves both monogamous and polygamous moral problems. But how do we begin?
A good place to start is with Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” In other words, all participants in a marriage must have equal access to family government and resources: financial, social, and sexual.
But what does this mean on the ground, especially in a polygamous marriage? My wives and I have been trying to figure this out for a few years now. So far, we’ve identified four parts to making what we call “progressive polygamy” a viable option.
The first is the abandonment of the gender binary and heterosexual requirement. We need to make room for marriage units of one man with three women or one woman with three men. Even just three husbands or five wives are okay; three husbands with two wives could also work. The numbers and gender of the marriage make-up shouldn’t matter.
Second is the empowering of women outside of the maternal role. With this, the children of a polygamous marriage can be better cared for because more adults are available to provide income and child nurture. The division of labor would be planned out according to the strengths, abilities, and hopes of each adult. One spouse does not need to be confined to only a provider or nurturer role, especially since all spouses would equally share responsibility for providing for the day-to-day needs of the family.
For example, in my own family, it was once impossible for one of my wives to go to university or to pursue a career. But now we have set up an environment where all spouses share in nurturing duties, giving anyone the freedom to also do work outside the home. This setup supports the feminist ideal of honoring the maternal as well as the professional.
Third is to abandon all vestiges of patriarchy. I was once part of a tradition that believed that the shape of one’s body dictated one’s social and spiritual power. Because men had dangly bits between their legs, they were called by God to rule over the people who didn’t. The progressive polygamist must not suffer from these delusions. Whether female or male, each spouse in a progressive polygamist marriage must be treated as an intrinsically valuable, whole individual who has the potential to take on any role. Otherwise, the marriage will inevitably descend back into the abuses of traditional polygamy.
The fourth part of establishing progressive polygamy is probably the most difficult: replacing the hub-and-spoke model of traditional polygamy with the egalitarian marriage unit (EMU) model.
As Gregg Strauss1 shows in his Ethics article “Is Polygamy Inherently Unequal?”, even after the moral questions of polygamy are answered, a structural problem remains. Even the most conscientious husband is physically incapable of devoting as much time and energy to multiple wives as his wives can devote to him. The indigenous polyandrous tribes of Mongolia suffer from this same deficiency. Even if the wife of three husbands operates in the most compassionate way, adhering to every feminist and liberal ideal, she can still be available to each husband only a third the time. The most dutiful Mongol wife will still be having three times as much sex as her three husbands. This is the structural flaw of the hub-and-spoke model in all traditional plural marriage situations.
Strauss proposes two models that can address this inequity. The “molecular model” and the “polyfidelity model.”
The molecular model looks like the diagram of a molecule, with a network of relationships webbing out without a central spouse. In this model, each spouse has the option of marrying other spouses, which can create multiple marriage clusters operating independently from the other clusters except for when they share a spouse. Where once there was a central hub, there is now a network of married individuals all with an equal opportunity to marry multiple partners.
The polyfidelitous model takes the hub-and-spoke model and turns it into a wheel. All spouses are equally married to all other spouses. Each enjoying the love, devotion and commitment of all other spouses. But what about sex? Does everybody just have sex with everybody? Well, yes and no.
I have a cousin in a closed, polyfidelitous, lesbian marriage with two other women. Thus, they share financial and emotional commitments, and each has an equal right to sexual union with one another. However, this model doesn’t address my particular family. We are all heterosexual, so my wives are only interested in participating in sex with a male. And none of them say they want a second husband. So, how do we create a marriage with sexual equality?
The answer is the egalitarian marriage unit (EMU) model. In this marriage every spouse is married to every other spouse much as in the polyfidelitous model. Thus, each spouse is concerned with the entirety of the marriage, loving everyone in the unit rather than focusing on just one central spouse. It is the same politically: every spouse has an equal voice in the determination of family policy.
As for sex, that is more problematic.
In my family’s case, we did away with our original marriage contract, deciding that, in the spirit of equality, if I can have more than one sexual partner, then my wives can as well. Though we have all agreed on this arrangement, we haven’t tested it yet. Honestly, I’m worried that I will get jealous if one of my wives starts having sex with someone else, too, and I worry that my feelings may dampen their willingness to act on this right. But in order for this to be a truly egalitarian marriage, this right, whether it is exercised or not, must exist.
Building equality into a polygamous marriage that was originally founded on patriarchal values has taken a lot of time, thought, energy, and change. And doubtless there will be much more in the future. We feel like pioneers, heading toward unknown lands. We make this journey because we love each other and feel that the greatest manifestation of that love will be cultivating true equality amongst ourselves, no matter how difficult that may be. We’ll see what the future holds.
- Gregg Strauss, “Is Polygamy Inherently Unequal?” Ethics 122, no. 3 (2012): 516–44.