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I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do: Polygamy Raises Its Profile in America

Why once secretive plural families like the Dargers of Utah are coming out of the shadows and beginning to advocate for their way of life

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Polygamy is one of the few practices that still evoke genuine disgust in people. It’s a watchword for ignorance, sexual depredation, oppression of women and weird, culty outfits. But spurred on by the same-sex marriage debate and more-sympathetic portrayals of polygamists and polyamorists in our larger culture, some plural families are coming out of the shadows and beginning to advocate for their way of life.

One of these families, the Dargers, independent fundamentalist Mormons, invited me into their home to check out how they live. I report about it in the Aug. 6 issue of TIME, which subscribers can read here. The Dargers are a model non-monogamous family. They’re attractive, they dress well, and they labor mightily to provide for their 23 kids.

This helps because their setup is pretty weird: Joe, the patriarch, is married to three women, two of whom are identical twin sisters. He married one of those sisters (Vicki) and another woman (Alina) at the same time, after dating them at the same time, all at the women’s consent. It gets weirder. Val, the other twin, was married to another polygamous guy and had five kids with him before she fled. Vicki and Alina told Joe that he should marry her too, they say. So he did.

But for a deeply unconventional family, they look pretty normal. (Watch a video about their life here.) They live together in a cheerfully messy house outside Salt Lake City, with three master bedrooms, boatloads of items bought in bulk and eye-watering amounts of laundry.

Unlike the adherents of more closed fundamentalist Mormon sects, like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headed by Warren Jeffs, the Dargers are independent fundamentalists, sort of Polygamists 2.0. The way they live is a felony in Utah, but nobody is coming after them. (Arizona tried that in 1953, with rather dire results, documented in this fantastic LIFE photo-essay.)

The Dargers and Kody Brown’s family, who star in the TLC reality show Sister Wives and wrote the New York Times best seller Becoming Sister Wives, are on the front line of a campaign to destigmatize multipartner unions. Flanking them is a growing number of more vocal polyamorists — people who have multiple lovers by mutual consent. (Polyamorists have recently gotten their own reality show too.)

So, should polygamy be more accepted? As society re-examines what the institution of marriage is, should polygamy get a look-in? Who does polygamy really hurt? As it turns out, it’s not who you think.

MORE: Why a Little Less Marriage Might Be a Good Thing

84 comments
david56654040
david56654040

swm from canada i love this and like to see and here more on polyandry its all romantic

GeorgiaPeach23
GeorgiaPeach23

I don't care what relationships consenting adults want to enter into. I'm pro gay marriage. Heck, I wouldn't mind if polygamist marriage was legal-- I wouldn't mind taking a wife in addition to my husband. But I am very concerned about the relationship between a father and his children in the situations where there are 20+ kids for one father. Really, 23 kids? Gay or straight or polygamist or monogamist, I think that is WAY too many kids. I was one of 12-- my parents never ever had time for us individually and that was really difficult to handle. Kids aren't able to consent to being one out of a dozen or two dozen. I hated growing up that way. 

GeorgiaPeach23
GeorgiaPeach23

I don't care what relationships consenting adults want to enter into. I'm pro gay marriage. Heck, I wouldn't mind if polygamist marriage was legal-- I wouldn't mind taking a wife in addition to my husband. But I am very concerned about the relationship between a father and his children in the situations where there are 20+ kids for one father. Really, 23 kids? Gay or straight or polygamist or monogamist, I think that is WAY too many kids. I was one of 12-- my parents never ever had time for us individually and that was really difficult to handle. Kids aren't able to consent to being one out of a dozen or two dozen. I hated growing up that way. 

Sanjiv Bhattacharya
Sanjiv Bhattacharya

The Dargers are polygamy's show ponies, they've entertained hundreds of journalists over the years, trotting out the same talking points every time. If you want to know what polygamy is really like, you need to try a little harder - go to www.secretsandwives.com.

wdmll
wdmll

If two guys can get married and if two women can also get married, so what’s wrong with polygamy? I'm not for any of it, but hell anything goes now. Why not communal marriage, matter of fact why have marriage at all? I’m married and have two grown daughters and a granddaughter.  So the rest of the world can do whatever it wants to do.

Danny Graham
Danny Graham

The problem I have with this isn't moral, its just not practical.  If everyone was gay fine.  Roughly one partner per capita.  Want a kid go to a sperm/egg bank, no problem.  If polygamy is taken to that extreme, at 1 man to three wives, 2/3 of men will never have a mate.  So 66% of men aren't getting any EVER.  What do you figure over 100 million men who know they will never have a family, or even get lucky would do to the US?  We can already see a hint in China after years of preferring male children.  Predictably you end up with millions of bachelors with no real reason to work, take care of themselves, be sober, etc.  Also in practice these guys would basically have to be kicked out of their families so the top 1/3 can have enough wives.  So not only do you not have any chance of your own family, the one of your childhood is gone.  Unless what?  Do we abort 2/3 of male children?  There is just no way to make this mainstream without dire social consequences.

camkids
camkids

As long as it's consenting adults over the age of 21 and doesn't involve 9 year old girls I don't have a problem with it. It's the Warren Jeffs of this world that are disgusting and it doesn't have to do with polygamous lifestyle but a license for abuse of children, women and abuse of power. If the children of these polygamous marriages go to school and are brought up properly and not in danger of abuse, neglect then I think it's fine.  

footloose280
footloose280

funny how people are fine with one man having multiple wives and yet god forbid the gays and lesbians get one chance to get married to one single person.

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Why do they have three master bedrooms!

LeoBright
LeoBright

@OftenLate: Just curious, why do you immediately associate polygamy with Islam, when the family in the video is Christian?

Way-cool Junior
Way-cool Junior

Not sure why they don't mention it in the article but the third wife is also the twins' cousin.  

OftenLate
OftenLate

Why even consider giving sharia law and 4 wives at any given time any hint of a legal foothold in our nation?

RebekahB
RebekahB

What strikes me most about these photos is how the fathers appear to cherish their children. Walking hand in hand with them, cradling them. And then the man with his arm around his wife's shoulders. It's all very gentle and genuine. It's a show of affection I doubt was very common in white America in the 50s. 

Kimsbenn
Kimsbenn

The TV has recently presented polygamy in a more positive light. They show big families living together, and the father supporting them financially to sustain it all. These people are paid an enormous amount of money to allow cameras in their lives. Along with the Duggers and the Goslings we have become fascinated with a way of life very different from the norm. Most families in these situations struggle financially, often relying on commune living as a way to support multiple families or even public assistance. Legally only one is a wife, the others are unwed mothers who are often eligible for additional state aid. Rarely do women have multiple husbands; polygamy is mainly practiced in societies with more repressive views on the status of women. Polygamy in America is no different. Those practicing it now repress women and force marriage and sex upon young girls. In some areas it would definitely be used to cash in on another means of greatly welfare benefits. I live in such an area and see it everyday. In some counties the largest "employer" is welfare because the mentality is "why work if you don't have too?" Because there are some positive examples of polygamy does not mean it would be a good thing for American women.

LeoBright
LeoBright

The problem with polygamy is not the "weirdness" as seems to be suggested in the article.  What is "weird" is relative to cultural norms, and just because something varies from cultural norms does not make it good or bad.  The problem is polygamy is that it is almost always religiously motivated and often paired with opression of women. 

However, it's worth noting that fundamentalism of all sorts, including monogamous Christian fundamentalism prominent in the U.S. today, tends to opress women.  We can't deal with this by legislating who people can marry, but it is a problem that needs to be dealt with.  I think the solution is to legislate and enforce rights for children, because it is usually the children raised in these environments who suffer, because they have been isolated from other ways of life, and taught that their parents' way of life is morally correct. 

If several women want to marry one man for religious reasons, that is their choice as consenting adults.  But their children did not make that choice, and should not be pushed into their parents' lifestyle, as often happens in religious households.  This is one important difference between gay rights and polygamist rights; gay marriage is not religiously motivated, and gay parents do not generally teach their children that they should be gay.

So, yes, adults should be able to marry other consenting adults however they like, in whatever combinations they like.  The spousal rights and federal benefits might take a bit of working out, but that's not necessarily a reason to oppose such marriage.  However, the kids should be allowed a normal education and normal social opportunities; I'd even suggest that religious advising should be available for any child (from a religious home or not) who wants it, so they can get information on various religions and various forms of secularism, rather than just going with what their parents believe.

SixSixSix
SixSixSix

Polygamists (and Polyandrists) are just Polyarmorists with limited imagination whereas monogamists have no imagination at all, except serial monogamists who are Polyarmorists who can't multi-task. And that's that.

So rather than turtles all the way down, it must be Polyarmorists from which all others evolve.

GregAbdul
GregAbdul

There is huge hypocrisy going on here from the author, Ms Luscombe. She sits there on video dryly citing statistics To rationalize her media prejudice on why  she approves of gays getting married but disapproves of polygamy. This is not an issue of statistics. If it is, then we should certainly ban heterosexual monogamous marriage, with its 50% divorce rate, and it should have been banned a long time ago. The real issue on this one is freedom of choice. If you believe marriage is a private matter between free and consenting adults, as you do when you defend gay marriage, then just like you don't cite negative gay stats and you holler the issue is freedom to marry for gays, it is media hypocrisy and discrimination to try to justify your love and preference for gay people to  have some special right for gays that you fight to  deny to the rest of the world. If you believe marriage is a state sanction and license and an exercise of the community approving of healthy relationships that are in the interests of the community, just as people have the right to outlaw polygamy, we the people have the right to ban gay marriage. Ms Luscombe, PLEASE QUIT BEING A HYPOCRITE BIGOT.

joe blow
joe blow

If they are so open, why don't they tell people how they financially support such a big family and how their children get attention from their mom and dad they deserve.  I think the women are brainwashed religious kooks

CammyMas
CammyMas

Polygamy wouldn't disturb me so much if only it were fairly practiced for both men AND women. If we decide not to be judgmental about a man having more than one wife, then we should not be judgmental about women having more than one husband, as well. 

Jonathan Lu
Jonathan Lu

I think this effectively strengthens the old social conservative arguments that legalizing gay marriage only opens the door to polygamy and man-boy love. Not that I'm taking a moral stance against any of these lifestyles... just pointing out that the argument so frequently derided by social liberals as a "slippery slope" fallacy (just because it forecast into the future) seems to have some merit. 

Mary Della Valle
Mary Della Valle

The problem with Joe Darger and Cody Brown is that they attempt to represent a man's "ideal dream." However, this is so far removed from the truth: men never wish for more than one wife (most men think one wife is more than enough, much less two, three, or more wives.) 

The truth is most men would prefer to have a beer instead of a wife.

Geraldo Dias
Geraldo Dias

WHEN YOU FACE YOURSELF WITH MATTERS LIKE THIS, YOU ARE FORCED TO ACCEPT THE NOTION THAT THE END IS NEAR. PEDOPHILIA; RAMPANT VIOLENCE; AND NOW, POLYGAMY. THAT'S REALLY DISGUSTING. WHAT NEXT? HEAVEN HELP US ALL.

Adnan7631
Adnan7631

I don't know if it should be legal in the US but I personally believe it would be better for a man to have 2 consensual wives than 1 wife and a mistress. 

Raj Datta
Raj Datta

if this family wasnt attractive i doubt the writer would be so understanding

LeoBright
LeoBright

Your scenario assumes polygamy becomes the norm.  I don't think most modern women would go for that, however.  It would likely remain a minority practice, particularly if divorced from its religious elements.

GregAbdul
GregAbdul

"Sharia" is already here (freedom of religion ring a bell?). The Sharia scare is for ignorant people. Sharia is the Islamic equivalent of kosher law. No law can supersede  the Constitution. That is already established US law. The issue is religious freedom and these days so many people in America are into non think it is staggering. You really think you can ban my religion because you don't like it? I know, you are not going to bother to think it through. Sounds tough, "stop the muzzies." Problem is, you have placed yourself beyond any difference with me and you are really aligning yourself against Jefferson and Washington. Good luck with that one.

OftenLate
OftenLate

Most often they don't really even know whose child one is, the child's name or age, and don't even provide food, clothing, shelter, let alone healthcare for their children.

GeorgiaPeach23
GeorgiaPeach23

But can we please limit how many kids each family unit can have? Really, I don't care about polygamy. But I do care about families with that many kids. It was bad enough being one of twelve. I think the Duggars and this family are doing real harm to their kids by having so many of them. 

OftenLate
OftenLate

THese women and children are told they'd be denied to "heaven" without their priesthood head, you dolt, that's a threat and coercion, and ABUSIVE. 

SixSixSix
SixSixSix

Ah, that would be called polyandry. Actually Mormonism doesn't go for the "death do us part" limitation and allows for polygamy in the eternal afterlife through serial monogamy in this life, and possibly polyandry and thus maybe even polyarmory. But modern Mormons unlike Mitt's family founder can't multi-task in real time so you sort of have to build it up one "sealing" sequentially after another.

wandmdave
wandmdave

While I agree in principle I think the reason this rarely happens is not due to sexism.  I'm guessing a high birth rate is the primary reason fundamentalist

Mormons (both male and female) subscribe to this living arrangement so 1 female and many males just wouldn't make sense.  It lowers the birth rate that can be achieved by the people in a family unit.  1 guy can impregnate many women in 9 months but 1 girl can only get pregnant once no matter how many husbands she has.

LeoBright
LeoBright

 There's a difference between allowing adult, consensual relationships that have been traditionally taboo, and allowing harmful relationships that result in a victim.  Gay marriage does not result in a victim.  Polygamy, when simply considered as the act of a man having many consenting wives, does not result in a victim (though as mentioned in my comment elsewhere in this thread, there are harmful trappings that usually accompany polygamy). 

Pedophilia and pederasty (what you refer to as "man-boy love"), on the other hand, do result in victims (the children/youths taken advantage of).

I'd like to think most people are smart enough to figure out the difference, and that society can learn to tolerate harmless behaviors without becoming a den of child-molesters. :)

wandmdave
wandmdave

Not really.  The slippery slope implies that once the standard shifts it will inevitably roll out of control until anything goes and nothing can stop it once it starts.  However, if gay marriage becomes acceptable it does not guarantee any other lifestyles that are currently culturally or legally unacceptable will become acceptable immediately or in the future even if it does make adherents of those lifestyles more vocal in demanding acceptance.

OftenLate
OftenLate

Personally I wouldn't want 1/10 of a husband or to have children that have only 1% of a father. 

SixSixSix
SixSixSix

 A good dog helps a lot too. Man's real best friend and "help mate".

SixSixSix
SixSixSix

 Because she didn't ask. Polyandry may have been more common in matriarchal societies where fertility had religious overtones. But then agrarian civilization ruined the mystique when men found that they could literally breed women pretty much like domesticated sheep and cows. As a reward for such progress, patriarchal societies bequeathed us the warfare state. Maybe polyandry is not such a bad idea.   

GeorgiaPeach23
GeorgiaPeach23

Pretty sure "heaven" isn't in the business of helping people. Or maybe the gods just can't hear the prayers of the kids in Africa. 

Pro tip: the "caps lock" key can be hit a second time to turn it off. 

Karabis
Karabis

Then what happens to the other men who can't find committed partners because a small portion of the male population took all of the available women? I'll tell you... they join extremist organizations and start jihadic wars, that's what. The most violent and socially primitive societies in the world tend to also allow polygamy, whereas the most peaceful societies value monogamy. That's no coincidence. 

When large bands of young males can't find mates, that unfulfilled need has to get directed somewhere else, and it's seldom toward anything positive. The only way polygamy could ever actually work in a peaceful society is if we killed off enough male babies so that each boy could grow up to expect to have multiple wives... but considering that girl babies are the usual victims of gender-based infanticide, some countries already have the problem of too many males without adding polygamy on top of it!

footloose280
footloose280

Would it be also better if a woman can have two husbands rather than one husband and one lover or are you saying the "privilege" should be reserved just for men?

Raymondqa
Raymondqa

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SixSixSix
SixSixSix

 Are you sure the mistress would agree?

GregAbdul
GregAbdul

being told you are going to hell for not doing what I want is not abuse the last time I looked. In fact it is said on Christian TV about a thousand times a day. Should we go arrest all the televangelists for preaching fire and brimstone?

OftenLate
OftenLate

Children of polygamous unions are NOT given options any more than children of any other unions with any other flavors of felons. 

Adnan7631
Adnan7631

There's actually more women then men because women live longer and are better at resisting disease. Men also are, er, accident prone. Men are also more likely to get them selves involved in dangerous situations/professions. I'm referring to the army (where women aren't allowed to have combat roles currently), police force, crab fishing, and drug dealing. The fact that Mistresses exist implies that there are more than enough women for every man. 

 Your statement is rather ironic when considered historically. The witch hunts (witches were overwhelmingly female and unmarried) were caused by a surplus of women. That surplus came because more girls survived the black plague. In this case, polygamy would have actually saved many lives. 

Finally, your point on marriage and "jihadic wars" is unfounded. As I've said elsewhere, most men do not have the means to marry more than one wife. Most men get just one. In addition, the recent event called the "Arab Spring" was not caused by testosterone full males looking for wives, it was caused by testosterone full males looking for jobs. If what you said was actually true about not having enough women equaling a revolution, then Northern India would have already revolted because, in some areas, there are not enough women for 2 men thanks to female infanticide. 

And thank you for distorting a comment that was supposed to be funny.

Adnan7631
Adnan7631

Can't anyone take a joke?

There are actually several reasons for men to have more than one wife while not vice versa. 

Firstly, there is a smaller population of men than women. Men get themselves killed by jobs, accidents, disease, etc. at a higher rate than women. If guys had more than one wife, then every girl could get married. Not so if women married more than one man. That presents biological problems. 

The obvious obvious biological problem is the group of unmarried women who are not having babies. Naturally, nature will have a problem with that. The less  obvious problem comes with the guys. They will now be competing with each other for the chance to have the kid. To get a better shot at passing on their genes, the guys go to the unmarried women. So, you get back to monogamy. 

The reason that doesn't happen in husband and wives is because the women and the men all have no trouble passing on their genes. So, nobody is interested in leaving. 

LeoBright
LeoBright

 Read my comment elsewhere in the thread.  The problem with polygamy is that it is usually hand-in-hand with religious indoctrination.  The essence of polygamy (a man with multiple wives), however, could be practiced harmlessly if separated from these aspects.

GeorgiaPeach23
GeorgiaPeach23

But as a woman, I struggle with the burden of child care, having a career, and regular house work. Making a healthy meal for my family every night after work is a real challenge. My kids would be much healthier if I could marry another woman to help with the kids. She would be my wife, not my husband's. She and I could have really excellent sex. And split the housework. Or I could take another husband and have his income in addition to my current husband's. I'm a middle class woman, so the men in my demographic aren't getting killed off very much. I know more men who are single than women, so the numbers seem to favor polyandry. Your arguments, then, pretty much suck.