SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – One of the most closely watched bills at the Utah legislature this year has been one aiming to decriminalize polygamy, S.B. 102. The bill would make practicing polygamy just an infraction; forced marriage, abuse, and sexual abuse would still be considered felonies.
But, a former polygamist who spoke to ABC4 News says, even making that distinction is misguided. The woman asked that we keep her name and voice hidden; a volunteer agreed to read her responses to my questions.
She said, “It is impossible to articulate here, the great harms that I have witnessed within the polygamist community of which I was a part for so many years. I saw incest, child sexual abuse, physical abuse, welfare fraud, tax fraud, medical neglect, educational neglect, malnourishment, theft, and the list could go on.”
The woman says one of the most common arguments she hears supporting the bill is that polygamous relationships are consensual and the government shouldn’t regulate consensual relationships.
Her response, “My polygamist group taught that if their followers don’t live polygamy they will be destroyed by God. As a young female approaching marriageable age, this felt like a metaphorical gun to my head, and not a free choice. Out of the thousands of polygamists that I personally know, all entered these relationships under extreme threat and duress. I have never seen what I would truly consider a “consensual” polygamous marriage.”
She says the protections for abuse and forced marriage are drastically insufficient because this legislation will embolden polygamist leaders.
“Polygamy, as a cultural attribute, only exists in concert with other crimes and cannot be separated from them. This is the equivalent to trying to stop the mafia by decriminalizing embezzlement.”
She says that there is no evidence that this action will encourage victims to report abuse and may actually jeopardize their ability to use victims’ reparation funds.
“What a slap in the face to those who have endured so much, to see the government who they may want to now reach out to for help, give an apparent stamp of approval to their abuse! Canada took 45 days of intense deliberation to evaluate all the evidence and concluded that polygamy is intrinsically damaging. How can Utah spend a couple of days and vote unanimously without taking any time to consider actual data and evidence?
S.B. 102 passed through the House on a vote of 70 to 3, and it back to the Senate to incorporate changes to the bill.
More of our conversation:
Q: Lawmakers have structured this bill under the assumption that there are polygamous marriages that are fully consensual and above board with the people involved; in your experience, do fully consensual polygamous marriages exist?
A: Almost all polygamist marriages are religiously coerced. Out of the thousands of polygamists that I personally know, all entered these relationships under extreme threat and duress. I have never seen what I would truly consider a “consensual” polygamous marriage. Even the families that are very vocal and public advocates for polygamy-such as Cody Brown and his wives, Brady Williams and his wives, Drew Briney and his wives (all of which I know personally), originally entered their relationships under threat of eternal damnation.
Q: Under this bill, forced polygamy, abuse, and sexual abuse are addressed. Why do you feel addressing them individually while decriminalizing consensual relationships is insufficient?
A: The percent of consensual polygamous relationships is insignificant. Decriminalizing polygamy will embolden and empower with a greater sense of “righteousness”, the leaders who dominate and control tens of thousands of followers. Polygamy, as a cultural attribute, only exists in concert with other crimes and cannot be separated from them. This is the equivalent to trying to stop the mafia by decriminalizing embezzlement.
Q: How do you feel groups practicing polygamy will react if it is decriminalized?
A: This will be considered a victory for polygamist communities and will be celebrated by their leaders throughout the state. We already hear that this is happening. In comparison, this will be viewed by many victims as a betrayal by the government, whose job it is to protect citizens.
Q: This bill has passed through committees and the Senate with relatively little backlash; lawmakers seem to be decided. What alternative would you steer them toward instead of decriminalization?
A: Provide immunity from prosecution for those leaving polygamy, increase victim’s reparations. and provide funding for organizations that help people transition out of polygamy.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to address here that I haven’t asked?
A: Canada took 45 days of intense deliberation to evaluate all the evidence, and concluded that polygamy is intrinsically damaging. How can Utah spend a couple of days and vote unanimously without taking any time to consider actual data and evidence? The victims of Utah’s polygamist communities deserve to be considered with the same seriousness.