Polygamy by any other name

An extraordinary child welfare case is unfolding in the United States of America -- or at least that part of the US where the children in question have been living in a community of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Starting four years ago the sect built a small gated town outside Eldorado in West Texas and proceeded to live according to their belief that men must have at least three wives to reach heaven. To reach their quota men have to take young girls as wives and surplus adolescent boys have to be evicted periodically.

Early this month, however, law enforcement agencies swooped on the YFZ (Yearning For Zion) Ranch and carried off more than 400 children to protect them from the sexual mores of their elders. This week the children, who range in age from infancy to 17 years, have had DNA samples taken as a means to establishing their parentage and they are now being shipped off -- in most cases without their mothers -- to various temporary destinations. The trauma for the younger children and their mothers must be considerable.

It is difficult, however, to feel sympathy for the leaders of the sect and its Eldorado branch. The idea of middle-aged men taking young teenagers as wives, as appears to be the case here, is repellent to Western instincts refined by Christianity. No wonder it is illegal. Marriage is meant to be a covenant between equals, not a form of paternalistic clan-building, even though the latter may be dignified with religious concepts.

Yet we have to admit that marriage in the mainstream of society presents a confusing picture: so often preceded by youthful experimentation with sex and cohabitation, so often followed by infidelity, divorce and remarriage. And more divorce and more remarriage. The President of France has just taken a third wife and the world in general seems amused rather than scandalised. Popular media present a daily parade of so-called celebrities who have just divorced or just remarried for the umpteenth time and this is considered entertainment. Polygamy, anyone?

As for under-age sex, it is so common that most people just shrug it off and insist that the authorities deal with the consequences. Haven't we lived with the idea of teenage pregnancy for decades? Aren't there over 700,000 of these pregnancies each year (2004 figures) in the USA and isn't the median age of first intercourse there 16? Do we not now offer to vaccinate 11- and 12-year-olds against the disease they are most likely to get when they begin, as their elders expect, to experiment with sex?

About six months ago a middle school in Maine, Eastern USA, made national headlines when parents objected to a plan for the school nurse to give out "a full range of contraception" to children whom she considered needed it. Most middle schoolers are aged 11 to 13. All the same, about 13 per cent of them reported being sexually active in 2005. Who are they having sex with? Who cares, so long as the evidence can be buried by means of a morning after pill or an abortion?

In view of these patterns of mainstream sexual behaviour the official crackdown on the FLDS community is not only extremely heavy-handed; it is also futile and somewhat hypocritical. If the authorities are serious about saving young girls from sexual abuse they will have to put half of America on notice of prosecution. If they are worried about the effects of on children of men begetting children by several wives concurrently, they should worry even more about those who take wives/partners and beget children serially, because they vastly outnumber the individuals who formally embrace polygamy.

The polygamy effected by cohabitation, divorce and remarriage causes widespread misery among children. A report published last week in Britain found that a quarter of children under 16 regularly feel depressed, and the leading cause of their unhappiness appears to be family breakdown. "Young people don't like being in different homes on different days of the week and get upset by strife between their parents," commented one of the experts on the report team. A new study from the US shows that adolescents living with half-siblings or step-siblings tend to do worse both in their studies and behaviour at school. These "blended families", says researcher Kathryn Harker Tillman, "may not be in the best interests of the children involved", and yet they are very common.

No doubt the polygamous parents at YFZ Ranch would compare the situation of their own children favourably with the brokenness and forced togetherness of so many households in the mainstream. Of course, we do not know how happy or otherwise the children and young people of the sect are -- yet. But we do know a lot about other children and we know that they many are suffering because of the sexual mores of their parents. What are we prepared to do about these children?

Prosecution of the FLDS sect would be mere tokenism if it did not signal an awareness that society needs to do much more to protect all children from sexual precocity and the breakdown of monogamous marriage.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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