Facing The Reality of Big Love

Liberal support for gay marriage creates a dilemma when confronted by those who advocate legalization of polygamy. Most of us outside of Utah probably gave little consideration to the issue until it became popularized on HBO’s Big Love. Big Love, as well as an episode of Boston Legal last season, present polygamy sympathetically and raised the question of whether this is yet another case of needing to keep the government out of people’s bedrooms.

The Washington Post looks at the fight by polygamists to gain acceptance and legality. It it was simply a matter of privacy in the bed room there would be little controversy. After all, if a few adult women decided to shack up with one man it might raise some eye brows but very few would see any justification for government intervention. Divorce but continued cohabitation was the proposed solution on Boston Legal.

While I am reluctant to make decisions about a complex issue based upon a television show, Big Love does show both the positive and negative sides of polygamy. On the one hand, the main family on the show has a voluntary arrangement in which all members receive benefits. At times it seems like the husband has the worst end of the deal in needing to maintain three homes, and I wonder if he wouldn’t have been happier sticking with his first wife (who also happens to be the most appealing). The Washington Post does state that often it is the women who support polygamy due to the bonds with other women as well as the husband. “Usually the women tend to be the biggest advocates of this way of life and men enter it more timidly,” he said. “If you are going to do it right, it’s a huge responsibility.” On Big Love, I suspect Barb, the first wife, agreed to polygamy to avoid losing her husband, but once involved does seem to thrive as the first wife in charge of the others.
Big Love also shows the downside of polygamy, including banishment of young males so that they don’t compete with the more powerful older men for wives, and young girls being forced into arrangements with older men which appear more like child molestation than voluntary marriage.

One compromise solution which appears to be in place is to concentrate on the problems where there is a clear victim and ignore others, providing de facto decriminalization for polygamy. The Washington Post gives examples, such as, “in April, Washington County prosecutors in Utah charged Warren Jeffs, the 50-year-old head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with two first-degree felony counts of rape as an accomplice on suspicion that he forced a 14-year-old girl to marry her first cousin, who was over 18.” Prosecution of clear victims while ignoring other polygamists has even received praise from some polygamists.

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