In late 2003, a little known issue caught the attention of my wife and me: Polygamy. A story on the subject caught my wife’s attention on the Oprah Winfrey Show. On the show were women who grew up in the polygamist community in Colorado City, Arizona. Prior to the show we didn’t think too much about the polygamist lifestyle. Our attitude was that consenting adults should be able to engage in any relationships they want. The problem is; however, many of these ‘wives’ are not consenting adults but minor children forced into an incestuous lifestyle where they are forced to bear as many children as their bodies will allow.
The following is a research report my wife completed on the subject. She originally wrote this paper November 3, 2003, but I think most of the information is still relatively current, although there have been some developments since then. This is the type of issue that we should all be more aware of so I felt this paper was important enough to add to my BLOG as a guest post. Please welcome my wife Aimee as the first guest blogger of Fearless Philosophy for Free Minds.
Imagine that there is a world far away where young girls are brides, married to men that are two to three times their age, expected to conceive for many years to come, and cut off from the outside world. Sounds like a fiction novel, but it is right in our back yard. This reality is what young girls face everyday living in a polygamist community. What is polygamy? According to the Oxford English Dictionary (second edition 1989), the definition of polygamy is as follows: 1. Marriage with several, or more than one, at once; plurality of spouses; the practice or custom according to whish one man has several wives (distinctively call polygany), or one woman with several husbands (polyandry), at the same time. Most commonly used of the former.
To this day large polygamist communities are found in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. Mormon pioneers who practiced polygamy were the founders of much of Arizona and Utah. Despite the Mormon Church in 1890 officially rejecting the practice of polygamy, and eventually having it outlawed in 1896 as a stipulation of joining the United States, the desert communities still prospered. The Arizona National Guard launched an invasion at a large polygamy compound in 1953 at Short Creek, Arizona (now called Colorado City). This was headed by Arizona Governor Howard Pyle (the authorities in Utah did not take part). As a result of the invasion, the adult males were in jail for a short time. Because of the women being trained to obey the males, they had declined to testify, and there would be no prosecution. The women had also brought up the fact that without the males, they would have no way to support themselves and their children. U.S. readers caught a glimpse of these women and children living in poverty from pictures that ran in the newspapers. Unbeknownst to most of the public, they were not aware of the alarming abuses towards the women of polygamy and saw Governor Pyle as a hard-hearted destroyer of these families. Because of this, the Governor’s career in politics was ruined. Ultimately the males were released from jail and were allowed to go back to their lifestyle as polygamists. Since 1953 no other politician has even mentioned an invasion into the compounds (Betty Webb).
At this date, there is no law in Arizona making polygamy a crime, even though it does violate the Arizona Constitution. Arizona has among the strictest laws in the nation against sex offenders, but sadly they have not touched polygamists committing statutory rape (John Dougherty). In the Salt Lake Tribune, an article that appeared on the front page published May 20, 2001, William J. Ekstrom Jr., an attorney for Mohave County (Arizona) said, “We don’t view polygamy as prosecutable crime. There is no driving desire to prosecute people for these types of things. We see it as consensual relations between adults” (qtd. in Betty Webb). Utah is taking initiative by aggressively working to arrest and prosecute polygamists that have engaged in sex illegally with minors.
Utah’s Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, vows that the polygamous leaders can also be charged. Arizona officials and Governor Napolitano are dragging their feet, basically giving the polygamists a free pass by not enforcing the laws to protect children when the local officials refuse to do so. In Colorado City most of their officers are polygamists, including the Chief. They hold jurisdiction on both sides of the state line with the population close to 6,000. Shurtleff has every intention to keep prosecuting cases of sexual misconduct in the Hildale area as more facts are retrieved. The top leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints could also face charges. “I cannot believe that officially we have been turning a blind eye to all this stuff for all these years,” Shurtleff says. “We just can’t do that anymore” (qtd. in John Dougherty).
The women in polygamist communities fear that they have no safe place to run to if they are able to escape. Distance is also a big problem; very few victims have the independence, let alone the financial resources to travel that far. The Mohave County seat in Kingman is more than 240 miles away from Colorado City. Recently, Arizona political leaders have shown interest in studying a proposal to build a justice center. In this center there could be a children’s facility. According to John Dougherty, this would include, a child protection services office, a department of economic security office (to oversee welfare programs that now hand out more than $10 million a year to the polygamous community on the Arizona side of the border). Also a Mohave County sheriff’s substation, a county attorney’s satellite office and most importantly, a sexual assault victims’ advocacy office.
The advocacy office would specialize in assisting sexual assault and sexual abuse victims in what authorities say would be a protective and nurturing environment. The center would have medical equipment for examinations and would be staffed with trained interviewers who would gather videotaped evidence needed to competently prosecute cases. Theoretically, because the proximity of the center to Colorado City would be so close, and the statute of limitations is longer in Arizona than most states, a large number of victims would feel like they could come forward. With this new center, the authorities there would be unbiased and would have a greater advantage of gathering satisfactory evidence to prosecute. “This problem is not going to be solved by criminal prosecution,” maintains the new Attorney General for Arizona, Terry Goddard. “It’s going to be solved by individuals who have a grievance having a safe place to go” (qtd. in John Dougherty).
In an article published by the Associated Press in 2001, a 15-year-old girl had tried to flee her community in April of 2001. She had informed the authorities that her parents were going to force her into a polygamous marriage to a man already married several times over, by the name of Warren Jeffs. He is the No.2 leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and holds the title of Prophet. He is also the son of the groups founder, Rulon Jeffs, who had recently died leaving behind a reported 75 wives. The young girl begged the sheriff’s department to help her; instead they returned her to the compound. In a statement to the media, the sheriff explained that her parents had the right to decide how their daughter will live since she is a minor (Betty Webb). Hopefully with a justice center that is unbiased, situations like these can be avoided.
Polygamy is continuing from one generation on to the next in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Montana, California, Idaho, Montana and elsewhere. Shockingly, polygamist numbers are on the rise in North America, an estimated 50,000 or more, and every decade it is doubling. What is even worse is that with the help at the federal and state levels, these compounds will thrive. Many of the women are considered single mothers since a majority of the marriages are “celestial”. With this, the women can beat the system and apply for WIC, Medicaid, and food stamps in order to survive. Very few families can afford health insurance. There is no screening for genetic defects. The children in these communities are in very poor health. Herpes is a common disease among these young kids (Suzan Mazur).
The way polygamy works is that a male will legally marry his first wife, then in a ceremony involving the church elders and the first wife, the male and his first bride will marry his new “celestial wife” and she will now become the “sister wife” to the legal wife. The men are told that they may take a bride for each rib. Because of the close community, it is rare to have outsiders to marry. Often times a young girl will be forced to marry her own relatives. In doing so, they have dozens of imbred children. Many die shortly after birth, or they miscarry. According to an article written by Greg Burton, of the Salt Lake Tribune, one girl was born with two vaginas and two uteruses but no vaginal or bowel opening. Congenital blindness and dwarfism are common among the Kingstons, as are microcephaly, spina bifida, Down syndrome, kidney disease and abnormal leg and arm joints. The Kingstons are a polygamist family that was founded by Charles Elden Kingston (Betty Webb).
For these girls and women violence is common place, what is uncommon is being able to escape it. It is rare for the Mormon religion to let the women exercise their right to use birth control. The husbands will keep a fertility chart so that it will be easier to get their wives pregnant. It is not unusual for the women to be expected to give birth every year until her body is no longer able. In doing so, this assures that the husband will receive his place in the “Highest Heaven” (Betty Webb).
Many of the families will have more than 20 children from different fathers and mothers all living within the same home. The children often times have to share the same bathrooms and bedrooms. What most consider to be the norm, the polygamists consider “evil”, for instance, they can not listen to music, read the paper, or watch TV. The girls are not supposed to talk to the boys and vice versa. There are no programs to develop social skills, no dances or activities. To even look at a girl is considered evil. These women are uneducated and live a life of isolation with very little knowledge of the outside world. Because of this, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to having the right skills to find a job (John Dougherty).
Even though there are not set laws or currently any major projects in the works, there are ways to help out. There are a couple of websites that are useful, like http://www.polygamy.org/ and,www.helpthechildbrides.com. The polygamy site is Tapestry against Polygamy. And a woman named Flora Jessop founded the child bride site. She was able to escape the polygamous life and is now living in Phoenix. Through this site, she had started out on a mission to save her sisters and others like her from becoming child brides. Unfortunately, she was unable to save one of her sisters in time. Ruby Jessop is now married and pregnant, but Flora is still hopeful.
Dougherty, John. “Eyes Wide Shut.” Phoenix New Times 7 Aug. 2003. 27 Oct, 2003 http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/issues.
Mazer, Susan. “Fighting the culture of polygamy.” Philadelphia Inquirer 13 Oct, 2001.
27 Oct, 2003 http://www.polygamyinfo.com.
Webb, Betty. The True Story Behind “Desert Wives”. 29 Oct, 2003 www.bettywebb-mystery.com/polygamy.org.