TLC’s Sister Wives Support Gay Marriage, Should We Support Their Polygamy?
TLC’s Sister Wives stars Meri, Janelle, Robyn and Christine Brown are all married to the same man: Kody Brown. Many critics have scoffed at their unconventional marriage arrangement, but when the stars of the show followed in President Obama’s footsteps and came out in support of gay marriage last month, a new question surfaced: are gay marriage supporters hypocrites if they don’t support marriage equality for the Sister Wives?
“I feel like we should be more enlightened as a society,” said Kody Brown, 44. “I married four women and I love them. I chose this out of love and out of faith. I feel like I want to extend that to all people…Let individuals define their love and their marriage. I don’t want the government doing that.” When asked if such rights should be extended to gay couples, Kody responded, “Let individuals define their marriage and let individuals choose who they love.”
Christine added, “I think marriage is a wonderful opportunity to share your life with somebody that you love. I want all our children to marry who they love, too.”
Technically, bigamy is illegal in Utah, where the Browns resided last year (they have since moved to Nevada). In January 2011, Utah authorities launched a bigamy investigation into the Browns – and according to CBS News, the family responded with a lawsuit claiming the state’s bigamy statute violates their constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, free exercise of religion, free speech and freedom of association. Two weeks ago, all charges against the Browns were officially dropped, as both the county and the state have adopted a policy that consenting adult polygamists won’t be charged as long as they’re not committing other crimes.
Meri Brown was the first to marry Kody; she is the only Sister Wife legally married to him. The idea that “everyone should marry who they love” is a nice sentiment, but becomes much more complicated in the legal sphere. As marriage equality activist Zach Wahls wrote about in his memoir My Two Moms, legally married couples are afforded about 1,200 rights, ranging from hospital visitation to death benefits. Additionally, the fact that plural wives aren’t legally considered wives has some unexpected consequences: according to CNN, 65% of these “single moms” collect welfare, compared with 6% of the general population (there’s no word on whether Kody’s wives specifically collect welfare).
The Sister Wives don’t seem to be fighting for legal recognition of their marriages; they’ve instead focused on social acceptance (and in their lawsuit, protection from being prosecuted). Should we support them, on either a legal level or a social level? If gay couples deserve the right to be legally married, do plural couples do too? Is there a difference between one-partner marriages and polygamous marriages?
It would be easier to support plural couples if polygamy wasn’t historically an instrument of domination over women and girls. While the term “polygamy” is common, we’re usually referring just to polygyny – the practice of one man taking many wives. Have you ever heard of a woman with multiple husbands? Over the past six years, polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, for example, has been charged with rape, incest, sexual conduct with minors, sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of children. Certainly the Sister Wives are over the age of consent, but even their consensual marriage arrangement could have negative effects; a 2006 study in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry found that “women in polygamous marriages showed significantly higher psychological distress, and higher levels of somatisation, phobia and other psychological problems. They also had significantly more problems in family functioning, marital relationships and life satisfaction.” Polygyny is also harmful to young men, since “polygynous societies create large numbers of unmarried men, whose presence is correlated with increased rates of rape, theft, murder, and substance abuse.”
Ultimately, the fight for same-sex marriage is about equality – but it’s hard to argue that women in polygamous relationships are being treated as equals alongside the male partner they share.