Consent, Power, and Marital Polyamory: Look to Our Own History and Practices First
Today in an opinion piece for the Church-owned newspaper the Deseret News, two professors and a graduate student of Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life wrote, “The Courts are Coming for Monogamy. We Should Resist.” Alan Hawkins, Daniel Frost, and Megan Johnson look at some instances in which cities or states in the US have given legal recognition to polyamorous unions, and they argue that the arguments present in the legalization of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges already are and will continue to be used to extend legal rights to polyamorous unions. They fear the courts have their sights set on destabilizing marriage through the legalization of marital polyamory.
They write, “Before the dam of monogamy breaks and ushers in a new era of legally endorsed polyamory, we think it would be wise to pause and evaluate whether families and society would be better off for the change. Regardless of what one thinks about same-sex marriage, the move to polyamory is a breathtaking change to the public understanding of modern marriage and can be expected to have significant consequences.” They go on to discuss concerns around consent and power imbalance potential in marital polyamory and how any monogamous marriage is at risk when marital polyamory is a legal possibility.
Somehow, they managed to write the entire piece about marital polyamory without mentioning the big p word for Mormons: polygamy.
And while there is a certain irony in BYU faculty writing about the legal threat of marital polyamory after the Church’s many decades of fighting for the right to practice polygamy and only abandoning the practice after intense legal pressure, I am not here to suggest that members of the LDS church have no place in this argument because of their Church or family history. Rather, I think that their arguments should be informed by and acknowledge that history.
The writers suggest that polyamory is problematic for the “meaning of consent when there is an imbalance of power and equity.” I agree. How do we know that polyamory can be problematic around consent when there is an imbalance of power and equity? Because we have seen it thousands of times in our own history, starting with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo. Most of Joseph’s plural marriages were enacted without Emma’s knowledge or consent. But moving past Joseph and into the Utah period, it was not uncommon for a first or subsequent wife to learn about a new wife after the marriage took place. A lack of consent and gross power imbalances led to heartbreak, abuse, and neglect of many plural wives. The book The Polygamous Wives Writing Club by Paula Kelly Harline and the Year of Polygamy podcast hosted by Lindsay Hansen Park are both great, accessible resources to learn more about this abuse and heartbreak. Park’s work also includes information about current Mormon fundamentalist groups that practice polygamy and why decriminalization of polygamy helps reduce harm and bring resources to vulnerable communities.
A lack of consent and power imbalances around polygamy is baked into LDS doctrine of the practice. D&C 132 is still part of LDS scriptural cannon. In it, Emma Smith is told to “receive” all the virgins who have been given unto her husband, and if she does not abide this, she will be destroyed. Husbands are instructed to seek their wife’s consent to marry another, but under the “law of Sarah,” if the wife refuses, the husband can do so anyway.
D&C 132: 64-65
64 And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.
65 Therefore, it shall be lawful in me, if she receive not this law, for him to receive all things whatsoever I, the Lord his God, will give unto him, because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife.
When looking at LDS history and scripture, we see some of the potential problems regarding consent and power imbalances in polyamorous marriage. Really, we see more than potential. We see the lived reality of abuses when men use the name of God to justify polygamy regardless of consent or the ability to support additional wives. Hawkins, Frost, and Johnson are likewise concerned about the “demands of time and energy” required by polyamory and how that may leave some spouses unsupported. LDS history shows how this was a heartbreaking reality for so many women who were taught that this was their only path to the celestial kingdom.
But beyond history and scripture, current LDS sealing practices leave LDS women living with what Carol Lynn Pearson so wonderfully named and wrote about in her book The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy. Current sealing practices allow living LDS men to be eternally sealed to multiple women without any cancellation of sealings, as long as they are only legally married and cohabitating with one living wife. Living LDS women are only allowed to be sealed to one man in her lifetime unless she receives a cancellation of sealing. This creates much anxiety and heartbreak for LDS women in a variety of circumstances. Some LDS women fear dying before their spouse and being forced into non-consensual eternal polygamy. LDS women who are widows have more difficulty dating and marrying LDS men who only want to marry someone they can be sealed to. Furthermore, while a process does exist for women to request and be granted a cancellation of sealings, the process is fraught with challenges that many women find sexist and dehumanizing. Telling women that “God will work it out” in the next life is patronizing and harmful when we can do something about this pain now.
Recently, Nathan Oman shared his incredible research into the history and current practice of temple sealings on the Mormon Land podcast and on his substack. He also makes the case that recognizing same-sex marriage sealings would be less theologically radical than many have assumed. I’ll direct you to his work for more details, but what fascinates me is that the policies creating the unequal sealing practices do not harken back to the 19th century, but were rather initiated in the 1920s and 1930s under President Heber J. Grant. While Grant attempted to move church members towards a monogamous, nuclear family model, he oversaw new sealing policies, perhaps viewing them as a path to maintain the theology of eternal polygamy while abandoning the lived practice. [side note – Grant, who died in 1945, was the last LDS prophet to live as a polygamous spouse, though he only had one remaining living wife at the time he was president of the Church.]
Unequal temple sealing policies were new 20th-century policies. They have gone through some adaptation over the last century, but they are still not equal and they still create incredible heartbreak and situations of manipulation, abuse, and non-consensual polygamous sealings.
Is it possible for marital polyamory to exist in a non-coercive, consensual way that works well for all parties involved? Yes, I think it is possible for some people.
Is it possible for marital polyamory to exist in a non-coercive, consensual way under a coercive theology that threatens women with destruction if they don’t “consent” and under policies in which women can be sealed polygamously without their consent? No, I don’t think that is possible. Yet that is the present situation that threatens LDS women.
LDS history and practice should inform arguments about marital polyamory in Church-owned publications. Concerns about consent and power imbalances should be used to remove the mote from our own eyes before we look outwards.