Why is Polygamy Illegal in the US

By Vicki Larson

In Monday's inaugural speech, President Obama strongly hinted that he may endorse marriage for gays and lesbians as an equal right under the Constitution:

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

If more states agree to allow gays and lesbians to marry, we will have expanded the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. But what about people who would like to define marriage as a union among one man and several women or one woman and several men? No, that kind of marriage is not OK.  Big_Love

Why is polygamy illegal in America?

Honestly, I had never given polygamy too much thought — it always seemed as if the people practicing it were a bit, how shall I put it delicately, looney, with underage women forced into it, despite the somewhat-normal spin it was given on the HBO series “Big Love” (which I’ve never watched). But I’ve been reading “Marriage at the Crossroads: Law, Policy, and the Brave New World of Twenty-First-Century Families,” a compilation of intriguing essays authored by social scientists and family law experts and edited by Marsha Garrison and Elizabeth S. Scott (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and among the many issues discussed is polygamy. And so I find myself thinking about polygamy.

Although 92 percent of Americans say adultery is morally unacceptable, there are no legal sanctions against those who indulge anyway. But if two (or more) women are happily simultaneously married to a man or a man is happily simultaneously married to two (or more) women, not only will they likely be ostracized, but they also can face criminal charges in many places in the United States and Canada.

As University of Michigan sociology professor Arland Thornton writes in one of the book’s essays, “This clash between support for sexual freedom and the condemnation of polygamy is seldom acknowledged.”

For the record, I’m not interested in having more than one husband (or any, for that matter); one husband at a time was more than enough for me! Nor am I interested in being a second or third wife to a man. But I was curious why polygamy — which is legally practiced and accepted in some 850 societies across the globe, particularly in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands — is illegal here.

Well, that’s because the Supreme Court doesn’t much like it, determining more than 100 years ago that polygamy was “an offence against society” (Reynolds v. U.S.) and compared it to “murders sanctified by religious belief, such as human sacrifice or the burning of women on their husbands’ funeral pyres,” or so writes lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer.

Yet it seems somewhat hypocritical of us that although we seem to be OK with serial monogamy, we aren’t OK with people who seek alternative lifestyles to get their needs met while also being committed, loving and honest with their partners. We struggle with monogamy yet blast adultery (while at the same time suggesting infidelity can “be a path to a renewed, and even stronger, relationship“), but think people who seek consensual non-monogamy are deviant. But perhaps things are changing

A new study suggests that young adults’ attitudes toward polygamous marriage are neutral, although women (perhaps not surprisingly) are more opposed to polygamy (as well as marriage for gays and lesbians).

  • Do you oppose polygamy?
  • Why/why not?
  • Whether you oppose it or not, should it be illegal?
  • Why/why not?


Vicki Larson is the lifestyles editor at The  Marin Independent Journal, and writes for  Single Edition, Mommy Tracked,  Huffington Post, ModernMom, The Working Chronicles, a national project that explores what Americans think about work, as well as other places. She is co-writing a book on marriage with Susan Pease Gadoua, a longtime Marin divorce counselor and author of Contemplating Divorce, called The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers, a cutting-edge book that challenges our one-size-fits-all, till-death-do-we-part version of marriage and offers new models that work better for who we are today. 


image: margot.trudell cc