The 'sister wife' double standard (National Post April 22, 2008)

Barbara Kay, National Post

Published: Tuesday, April 22, 2008

REUTERS/Ron Batzdorff/HBO/HandoutThe stars of the new HBO cable channel
drama series "Big Love" (L-R) Ginnifer Goodwin, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Paxton and
Jeanne Tripplehorn pose in this undated publicity photograph.

My latest TV addiction is Big Love. The series, now in its third year, is about a polygamous family -- hardware emporium owner Bill Henrickson and his three wives: mature Barb, broody Nickie and gregarious Margene -- who live in protective secrecy, but not isolation, in a conventional Utah suburb. Their three houses back onto a common private yard, complete with barbecue pit and pool, allowing Bill discreet nocturnal passage amongst his wives in a fair and rigorously observed rotation.

Big Love is remarkable for the balanced tension it sustains between quirky appeal and repulsion. Bill is no pervert: He is a good citizen, an earnest believer and a morally striving man. Amongst themselves, the "sister wives" negotiate complex and believable routes to co-operation without sacrificing their individuality. But equally prominent are chilling plotlines exposing political and sexual corruption amongst the sect's power elites.

I missed half of last Thursday's episode, but in a cute coincidence my delayed return home involved a social event -- a gathering of academics and assorted other liberal types -- during which Big Love's themes came into direct conversational play.

Enquiring about the family of a Senegalese man to whom I had been introduced, I was cheerfully informed he was one of 14 siblings, with his guileless elaboration, "My father is a polygamist. He has four wives."

My questions tumbled forth (how often does a novel learning opportunity like this come along?). He answered without embarrassment: Yes, he was from the first wife; no, it wasn't confusing to have so many mothers -- it was fun; and oh yes, he feels close and keeps in close touch with all his brothers and sisters.

Understand that his white Canadian wife and mother-in-law (a left-wing academic) were benignly and respectfully auditing this conversation. Then, noting the series's philosophical neutrality, I asked if he had ever seen the show Big Love. At this his mother-in-law's expression turned from one of approval to acute indignation. "But that's an abomination!" she said sharply.

Say again? A blameless practice in Senegal and an abomination here?

Yes, it seems that when polygamy is practised over here it is all about pedophiles and suppressing women, while over there it's all very organic and authentic. Over here, there is no need for it; over there it makes economic sense (although her son-in-law inconveniently noted that only a man of means can keep four wives properly, and that many poor men, who shouldn't, do anyway).

The inference I couldn't help but draw from her extreme double standard is that in her eyes polygamy practised by white Christians is disgusting beyond words, but polygamy practised by black Muslims is just another anthropological fact of cultural life, about which it would be unseemly to pass judgment.

Years ago, when the abuses of some polygamous sects in Bountiful, B.C., and Utah began to come to light, an excellent documentary -- Tapestry -- chronicled the adventures of sect escapees in emboldening other young women with no means of support to withdraw from their captivity.

Amongst those interviewed were several adult sister wives -- yes, indoctrinated, like all men and women in all self-segregating religious groups -- who radiated contentment with their lot. They prattled on about the joys of sisterly companionship, the ease of raising children collectively and the autonomy conferred by sharing out a husband's needs. Watching this documentary, I had the same uneasy sense, as I do watching Big Love, that however wrong it is, polygamy is compatible with atavistic female sexual aptitudes.

For polygamy is only a socially backward practice. But it isn't, as it is often portrayed, actual slavery, an evil practice that, unlike polygamy, no amount of indoctrination can render acceptable to any observer today --liberal or conservative-- much less to slaves themselves.

So I will never meet anyone at a party who condones slavery anywhere, including my multiculturalist interlocutor, who nevertheless views polygamy (as long as it's somewhere else) as just another choice for "diverse" people.

Our rush to legitimate gay marriage opened wide the "equality" door. It is segregation and defensive secrecy that breeds the corruption and perversions we've seen in the news from Texas and Utah lately. Given a Big Love-style paradigm -- strictly willing adult wives, lifestyles open to the decency-minded scrutiny of others -- a good legal case can and doubtless one day will be made that polygamy is just another alternate family structure.

This is the kind of reflection that Big Love, combined with moral relativism amongst liberal elites, insidiously encourages.