The Sister Wives Effect: Can the U.S. Rebrand Polygamy?

Would Polygamy in the U.S. look like "Sister Wives’" chaotic yet loving synergy?

The Brown Family. Photo Credit: Celebitchy 

Earlier this month, TLC brought back "Sister Wives," a reality show featuring Utah-based polygamist Brown family of four wives and 17 children, for another season. Since last season, the Browns struck down a major piece of state legislation that may pave the way for the legalization of polygamy under the guise of “religious freedom.”

In a nod to anti-gay marriage advocates who warned the legalization of same-sex marriage would lead to other kinds of sexual freedoms, such as polygamy, the ruling is deemed a watershed moment for the rights of polygamist families— of which there is estimated to be around 45,000.

Susanna Barlow is the 23rd of 46 children from a polygamist family in Utah. Abused by her patriarch father and many mothers as a child, Barlow, lacking a formal education, left the community with her husband and first child at age 21.

“It’s part of the cultural mindset,” she says of her parents’ abuse, whipping and beating her and her siblings. “Let me put it this way: My oldest brother is 59. My youngest brother is 11. We have the same parents parenting a child in 2014 with the attitude of someone raised during The Great Depression.”

But Barlow doesn’t advocate against polygamy: instead she thinks its legalization would give women and children more rights and make it easier to expose and bring justice to abusive parents and child molesters. She says most polygamist children in her community didn’t have birth certificates and were taught to mistrust the police, a notion that is reflected on "Sister Wives.” When the Brown family is confronted for bigamy in Utah, they flee for Nevada, and their mistrust of the police is evident throughout the remainder of the episodes. Just as well, the Darger family, the inspiration behind the HBO series “Big Love” and activists for the decriminalization of polygamy, lived a very secretive lifestyle before the show.

“I’m a sixth generation polygamist,” Joe, the father, says. He says all of his grandfathers and his wives’ grandfathers went to prison for polygamy.

Just as it is with the prohibition of alcohol and marijuana, making it illegal won’t make polygamy go away. And with a newfound exposure to the vast array of lifestyles, denying reality is becoming an impossible task.

Dr. Logan Levkoff, a sexologist and representative from the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance says the inclusion of different familial lifestyles is a positive step for American society. She says seeing different kinds of families, of any kind, will aid in our tolerance and understanding of one another.
“These shows or these images help people understand that there’s more to the story about what it means to be a human,” she says.

But Drs. Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz, relationship experts who have studied love and marriage all over the world, emphatically disagree. They disagree that polygamy is making any comeback in the U.S., that its legalization would help endangered women and children and that the picture of it being normalized in the U.S. is accurate at all.They are just back from a trip to Tanzania where they studied the Maasai tribe, a patriarchal and polygamous tribe where cattle and wives are collected as prizes.

“It’s a third world condition [in Tanzania] because the status of women is so greatly reduced in the polygamous relationship and in the polygamous countries,” Charles says. “They do not have an education. They do not have a voice… They are treated as commodities.”

Maasai boys in hunting gear. The Maasai collect women and cattle to exert their power. Photo Credit
Polygamy’s exposure on reality shows in the U.S., he says, might look happy on the surface but does not show the inherent value of men over women.

“We ask people not to kid themselves into thinking this is some new lifestyle,” Charles says. “All it’s going to do is to lead to the same ends as the Maasai tribe and other parts of the world where they engage in these kinds of activities.”

Elizabeth adds that legalization would not necessarily allow for more help from authorities because of the nature of these communities.

“The kids and the wives have to ask for the help [from the patriarch] and that gets into the controlling aspect of the relationships in itself. They rarely go outside of that family unit,” she says.
To be clear, what we’re really talking about is called polygyny— the practice of one man having multiple wives. Polygamy is both genders having multiple spouses. Would allowing the women to have multiple husbands allow for an altogether different conversation?

Barlow, the ex-polygamist, said true polygamy would never happen: multiple partners for the women is not what the polygamist community is about. She says it’s about “a doctrine centered around the idea that a many could marry multiple women to bring a larger number of children through his lineage.” Marriages are not for companionship and relationship between adults, but instead about perpetuating people. True polygamy, rather than polygyny “would have to the take the religious component out of it and that could completely, completely change everything about it.”

Joe Darger, it seems, came from a more liberal interpretation of polygamy and advocates on behalf of all types of relationships, including true polygamy, or polyamory. He says that there is indeed a sacredness to their relationships, but not that his intention is to “spread his seed.”

So is using the example of the Maasais, a barbaric deep African tribe, justifiable for comparison to the contemporary American west? Could polygamy in the U.S. be the brand of “Sister Wives” polygamy- happy and, in a light, overtly progressive and synergistic?

Darger insists that it could and that it does: “In New York,” he says, “most relationships are based upon sex and not being alone. [Our] relationship is based on a spiritual commitment and love.”
He emphasizes that his brand of polygamy is one that is based upon unconditional love and that there are many more polygamous unions that look like his rather than the Warren-Jeffs type. Melanie Heath is an Associate Professor at McMaster University in Ontario who is doing a comparative study on polygamy, and she says yes: comparing polygamy in Western cultures to those in Africa is like comparing apples to oranges.

“You have very different histories, very different economic systems and political systems within those countries,” so to say that polygamy cannot look different in the U.S. is rejecting many more facts about the countries and cultures.”