Saturday, December 17, 2005

Just in Time for Christmas: Hymen Restoration Surgery

"It's the ultimate gift for the man who has everything."

“Women can even redesign the look of their private parts.”

“Ms. Vanegas concedes her business is based on deception. But she says hymen repair is no different than other cosmetic procedures -- from waxing to Botox injections -- that women use to impress men.”

(Yup, I agree with that – though I think I draw the opposite conclusion.)

And the punchline:

"I'm a feminist," Ms. Vanegas says, "but there's a need for this and someone has to provide it."

Happy Shopidays!

(Thanks for Sara Butler Nardo at Family Scholars Blog, who shares my horror.)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Normalizing Polygamy: The Cultural Issue of 2020

From the perspective of 2005, the idea of a major social movement to normalize polygamy seems far-fetched. But from the perspective of 1975, even 1985, it would have seemed equally far-fetched to think that we would have legal same-sex marriage in some states and in a number of our allied countries. I don’t think that universal same-sex marriage is inevitable, nor do I think that even the current state of acceptance is guaranteed to be permanent. Cultural revolutions are made by free actors, even if not always in conditions of their own choosing, and could go any number of ways.

At the beginning of the 1990s John Frohmeyer, then the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, predicted that the cultural issue of the 1990s would be the normalization of homosexuality. He was right. Yet this was not inevitable. Homosexuals make up about 3% of the population. Most groups that make up only 3% of the population do not succeed in getting their issues front and center in the national cultural debate. There are not many gay men, and even fewer lesbians. There are, however, quite a few liberals and libertarians. More importantly, there is an even larger group who believe in “live and let live,” even when the other guy wants to live in a distasteful way. That is what “tolerance” really means.

Tolerant people probably make up a majority of the American population, though the size of this group varies a bit from issue to issue. If 3% -- any three percent – want to live some distinctive way, most Americans are inclined to tolerate them, as long as they don’t rub the majority’s nose in it. Homosexuals have long been tolerated in most large cities, and the laws prohibiting homosexual acts were usually ignored. What has been different since the Stonewall riots in 1969, and especially since AIDS became widespread, has been the rise of pro-homosexual activists who want more than toleration. The sexual-orientation culture wars have not been about tolerance, though that term is often used, nor about hate, which is the pre-occupation of a tiny minority. The issue has been whether homosexual orientation, and many aspects of gay and lesbian culture, are morally identical with – exactly as good and desirable as – their heterosexual and otherwise mainstream counterparts,

Polygamy is, at this moment in America, the orientation, desire, and practice of an even tinier minority than is homosexuality. Polygamy is tolerated in most places where it exists. The recent high-profile prosecutions of polygamists had the added crimes of forced marriages, welfare fraud, and even incest. Most marital arrangements, though, don’t become the concern of the police. The variant on polygamy that is sometimes called serial monogamy or sequential polygamy is now common; in Hollywood it seems to be the norm. (That may have been a cheap shot.)

Until this moment, though, there has not been a substantial cultural movement to normalize polygamy since the Mormon culture war in the nineteenth century. But the time may be ripe. Let me say clearly that I do not call for such a movement, and would not welcome it. But I think it is coming.

Americans love equal liberty above all else. We are inclined to tolerate other people’s practices if they don’t actively harm us, asking only the same courtesy in return. Social movements that try to expand choice and liberty have a built in advantage in our culture over movements that try to build commitment to any other virtue. Put another way, it is easier to get Americans to tolerate lower social standards than to get them require higher social standards.

Which is why I think that normalizing polygamy might be the cultural issue of 2020. And why it might even win.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Is Polygamy Protected by Privacy?

Polygamy is protected by the right to privacy only if marriage is private. I don’t think marriage is private. So I don’t think polygamy is protected by privacy. But I also think this will be an argument which will be seriously advanced, and it only takes a few judges these days to make it the law of the land.

Most of the discussion of polygamy at the moment relates it to the arguments over same-sex marriage. As I noted the other day, some argue that if the state cannot justify confining marriage to one man and one women, then it also cannot justify restricting marriage to one man and one woman. In fact, those who reject same-sex marriage because one of the fundamental purposes of marriage is having children, would have a hard time making a similar criticism of polygamy. Polygamy, as practiced in this country, anyway, does baby-making better than most other marriages.

Today, though, I want to take up another argument, one that links polygamy to another hot issue of the day: abortion. The Supreme Court’s abortion decision, Roe v. Wade, rests on a prior case, Griswold v. Connecticut. Griswold found a constitutional right to privacy, not in the actual words of the Constitution, but in its “penumbra.” There has been a long debate ever since about whether this was a just reading of the Constitution. However, after 40 years of relying on the decision in other laws and other court decisions, a federal right to privacy is well established in American law and custom.

In The Case for Marriage, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher begin debunking several myths about marriage. The most important and dangerous of those myths, in my estimation, is the idea that marriage is only a private matter between husband and wife. Much of the rest of their book, and of current marriage scholarship, is devoted to showing how wrong that myth is. Marriage, and the rate of marriage in a whole society, has enormous collective and public effects. Moreover, as Waite and Gallagher persuasively argue, marriage has the strong effect that it does on the couple because they have made a public vow that is publicly supported and has public consequences. This is why cohabitation is not the same as marriage, not for the couple and not for society.

Michael McConnell, a professor of law at the University of Utah and still on any Republican short list for the Supreme Court, argues that Reynolds v. United States, the foundational case that prohibits polygamy, represented judicial overreaching. The polygamist who was prosecuted, McConnell wrote, “asked only that the Government leave him and his wives alone.'’ Most of the argument about this claim has turned on whether McConnell was saying that religious practice trumps criminal law (which is not what he says). It seems to me, though, that on its face this argument is more clearly asserting a right to privacy about marriage decisions, including polygamy.

If the right to privacy about birth control within marriage, the issue in Griswold, is well established, then there might be a colorable case that there is a right to privacy about marriage in the first place. So, if liberals want to preserve a right to privacy, both for its own sake and to preserve abortion, they might have to swallow polygamy. The ACLU seems to have made this leap already. This could lead to some serious soul-searching for other liberal groups – which would be especially difficult for them since most polygamists are extremely conservative.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Polygamy Produces Crime

I oppose the legalization of polygamy in the United States.

I don’t think polygamy is irrational or barbarous. I don’t think we should coercively stamp it out in other countries and other cultures. But I do think that polygamy is deeply unsuited to American culture, and that it produces more social problems than it is worth.

Polygamy is already practiced in this country without legal sanction (in both senses), especially among renegade Mormons in Utah and surrounding states. Some of the problems found in those communities are:

Welfare Fraud: In their own eyes, the patriarch of a polygamous community has married his many wives and is the legitimate father of their children. This does not stop many such families, though, from telling the state that each mom-and-kids trailer represents a different single-mom family which gets no support from the non-resident father. The communities on the Utah-Arizona border known to have several polygamous compounds also have the highest welfare use rates in the West.

Incest: Polygamous communities quickly become inter-related to a much greater degree than other small communities are. A pattern that has been shown in court more than once is for polygamous brothers to give their daughters (their brother’s nieces) to one another as wives.

Coercion: In many polygamous societies, not just in the American subcultures, the first wife will be the same age as the husband, but the younger wives get progressively younger. Tapestry Against Polygamy, an anti-polygamy organization led by former, often escaped, plural wives, documents a number of cases of girls as young as 12 and 13 being pressured, restrained, or just given into plural marriages, usually as a later wife.

Cults: Cults tend to be run by charismatic men who draw their followers from socially subordinated people, predominantly women, who become their devoted servants. The cult leaders frequently have sex, and children, with many of their women followers. This also describes how many underground polygamous families work.

Even in societies in which polygamy is more normal, and not restricted to an underground fringe, there are bad social consequences, or social corollaries that make it unsuitable for America.

Wrong economy: Polygamy is most often found in societies in which women do much of the primary economic production in or around their homes. The compound would typically have the patriarch, often in his own hut, surrounded by his wives and their children, each in separate huts, surrounded by each wife’s garden or other source of home-production resources. In the rare polyandrous societies, the one wife stays in one place with the children, while the brothers, who are also co-husbands, travel with the family flock. Neither of these models fits well with the American economy – which is one of the reasons that the wives and children are often on welfare.

Sexism: In principle, there could be polygamy based on equality of men and women. Most polygamous societies, though, are based on a strongly patriarchal theory. The management of a complex polygamous household pushes polygamists toward patriarchy even when they are not already ideologically inclined that way.

Unattached men: Polygamy means that rich and high-status men get many wives, and poor, low-status, young men don’t get any. Poor, low-status, young men, especially if they hang out together and have few prospects of finding wives, are about the most dangerous group in any society. Some have argued that such groups have been rich sources for terrorists to find suicide bombers in – especially if the terrorist mentors promise multiple, virginal wives in the afterlife.

High-achieving women left high and dry: Patriarchal polygamists are unlikely to marry educated, independent, high achieving women. In societies where polygamists are not marginal and underground, but actually rule, women’s education, independence, and achievement tends to be highly restricted.

As I said at the outset, I oppose the legalization of polygamy in the United States. This is not a very controversial position now.

But, as I will argue tomorrow, I think it soon will be.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Polygamy Crisis May Come Sooner Than I Thought

Yesterday I raised the question of why, exactly, polygamy is illegal. The old reason, that it is un-Christian, is not likely to fly as a legal argument anymore.

Well, I may have been too optimistic about how long we have until this crisis is upon us. As I was posting, the Washington Times was running “The marriage of many,” by Cheryl Wetzstein. She reports that there are already tens of thousands of polygamous Hmong refugees living in the United States. Moreover, the Libertarian Party and (surprise) the American Civil Liberties Union already support legal polygamy.

Am I making this up?

"Polygamy rights is the next civil rights battle." So goes the motto of a Christian pro-polygamy organization that has been watching the battle over homosexual "marriage" rights with keen interest. "We're coming. We are next. There's no doubt about it, we are next," says Mark Henkel, founder of

This is not simply conservative opponents of gay marriage inventing a scary, slippery-slope scenario. The proponents of polygamy – even Christian polygamy – are already here. The test case has already been filed in Utah by a married couple who want to marry another woman.

So much is written about same-sex marriage now that a handy acronym, SSM, is widely used by bloggers. Can MMM (multi- mate marriage) be far behind?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Why, Exactly, is Polygamy Illegal?

Polygamy has always been against American custom and culture. Polygamy is against the law in the United States, though, due to the long struggle in the nineteenth century over Mormonism. As a result of this struggle, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints condemned polygamy, and, in the early years of the twentieth century, actually abolished it. Today the Mormons are so monogamous that the church’s Relief Society manual tried to portray Brigham Young with one wife – neglecting to mention the other 50+. Renegade Mormon sects do still practice polygamy, but without the blessing of either church or state. Utah could be admitted to the Union only after it condemned polygamy. Monogamy is settled law in the United States, from top to bottom.

There was another important effect of the struggle against Mormon polygamy: the Supreme Court based its rejection of polygamy on the claim that the United States is a Christian nation. In the nineteenth century, it was a legal commonplace to claim that Christianity was part of the common law of the United States. It was only in the past fifty years or so that this claim has been seriously challenged. Today, no court would declare that America is a Christian nation.

So, why, exactly, is polygamy illegal in the United States?

Something like the original Utah law would be rejected because it allowed men to have multiple wives, but not the reverse. Equal protection would take care of that statute. But suppose a neutral law were written, allowing both polygyny (multiple wives) and polyandry (multiple husbands)? William Galston, in Public Matters, notes that the Defense of Marriage Act, which was written to prohibit a federal recognition of same-sex marriages, specifies that legal marriage joins one man and one woman. If the law is challenged successfully, both the man and woman part, and the one and one part, could be rejected.

This is not a hypothetical case. There are already renegade Mormons practicing polygamy underground in the West. African immigrants bringing traditional tribal religions could argue for accommodation. Most importantly, the growing Muslim community in the USA could argue that their long-established recognition of limited polygamy, which is practiced by millions of Muslims worldwide, should be accepted under the “free exercise” clause of the first amendment. No such case has been filed yet, but it is only a matter of time.

I think polygamy is a bad idea for society. With a couple of exceptions, polygamy is really polygyny – one man, multiple women. What happens in polygynous societies is that low status men don’t get to marry at all. This, it seems to me, is just unfair and un-American. Moreover, in every case I have read about of polygyny, even in societies in which it was well established, the wives are never really ok with the fact that their husband has other wives and other children. Polygyny is one widely used way of settling the conflict between male and female strategies in mate selection and childrearing. It is not crazy, nor do I think it is barbarous. But I do think that it is unwise anywhere, and deeply unsuited to our culture and history.

It is not likely that American legislatures would ever legalize polygamy, no matter how many marriages and mistresses individual legislators have. But it is hard to see exactly how a court would now justify forbidding religions that do accept, even encourage, polygamy, from doing so here.

When we look at the numbers, there are many more polygamists in the world than there are people who want to have a same-sex marriage. It is not way out to imagine a polygamy crisis in America in, say, the 2030s, as there was in the 1830s. Polygamy, more than same-sex marriage, is, I think, more likely to result in a constitutional amendment defining marriage.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Is Happy Holidays Worse Than Merry Civil Religion Christmas?

The annual battle over the public celebration of Christmas took an interesting turn this year. When a Wal-Mart customer complained that Wal-Mart was replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” a customer service writer identified only as “Kirby” replied that Wal-Mart was a multi-national and multi-cultural concern, and that Christmas was pagan-based, anyway, so what was she all hot about? This reply led the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to declare a boycott on the grounds the “Wal-Mart Bans Christmas.” A month later, Wal-Mart fired “Kirby,” changed its website to not automatically redirect “Christmas” inquiries to a “holidays” page, and apologized. They also affirmed that they serve all cultures and don’t celebrate any particular religion’s holidays. The Catholic League declared victory – “Wal-Mart Caves; Boycott Ends” – and called off the organized diminution of enthusiasm.

In our household we do celebrate Christmas. We put up a tree and a wreath, but go lightly on the whole presents and orgy-of-stuff aspect. We will be in church on Christmas Eve. I like the family getting together, the twinkly lights, and the uptick in niceness.

As a Christian, though, I think Christmas has become a National Holiday more than a religious one. What is, by rights, a secondary holiday in the Christian calendar has become a big deal by its association with civil celebrations, first with the pagan Roman year-end holiday, and then with the modern commercial spree. Christmas in America is, I think, more a holiday of the civil religion than of the church. Ironically, the gravitational pull of the civil-religion Christmas has had a similar effect outside of Christianity. The even less-weighty holiday of Hanukkah in the Jewish religious calendar has been transformed into a similar family-and-presents holiday. And the entire holiday of Kwanzaa was invented as a quasi-religious African-American celebration of the same sort. I think it is only a matter of time before American Muslims and Hindus find a reason to have a family-and-presents event in late December, however much they have to twist their religious calendar to get there.

I am a fairly traditional Presbyterian. I try to keep the pagan elements of the Christian holiday celebrations to a minimum. As it happens, Helen Walton, Sam Walton’s widow and head of the Wal-Mart clan, is also a traditional Presbyterian. And it is true that in American tradition, the Puritans forbade Christmas celebration altogether because of its pagan associations. The Quakers who founded my hometown of Plymouth Meeting, PA, likewise would not have countenanced Christmas celebrations. Swarthmore, founded by those same Quakers, would not break for Christmas even at the end of the nineteenth century. When they were finally obliged to have a winter vacation, they pointedly began it on December 26th, lest anyone think they had gone soft on the pagan and Catholic Christmas.

So, I celebrate Christmas. But I don’t expect the state to. The state celebrates only the nation, not Jesus. Nor do I expect the market to celebrate Christmas. The market celebrates only commerce. So Merry Christmas from me, and Happy Shopidays to Wal-Mart.