Current legislation is not enough to protect women from the dangers of polygamy, a local author said at a Food for Thought meeting on Wednesday.
The presentation, sponsored by the Women’s Resource Center, focused on abuse and coercion, which occurs often in polygamist families, said presenter Andrea Moore-Emmett.
She interviewed 18 women who left from polygamist families so she could gather information for her book, “God’s Brothel.”
“[This] is an issue of violence and oppression against women…and abuse against children,” said Kristy Bartley, counseling coordinator for the resource center.
A common myth about polygamy is that consenting adults create a plural-marriage family.
Not so, Moore-Emmett said.
These women often succumb to the power of groupthink, a phenomenon that often occurs in groups characterized by complete acceptance of the prevailing point of view, Moore-Emmett said.
Because of groupthink, the women often stay to endure physical abuse, poverty and the emotional abuse of seeing their husbands sleep with other women, Moore-Emmett said.
Polygamy is “not about consenting adults,” Bartley said.
Moore-Emmett told the story of a woman named Cindy who came to Utah on a visit and met a group of polygamists in Manti. Cindy joined the group and her first husband physically abused her. She divorced and married five different men, but was unhappy in each of the relationships.
Moore-Emmett also said that many polygamist families tend to neglect their children. She spoke about one polygamist mother with a full-time job who often left her four young children home alone all day. The floor was covered in feces and rotten food. An 18-month-old child had not learned to walk, and an infant, who was not used to being held, would not make eye contact.
Worse than the abuse itself is the fact that the women have almost no one to turn to, Moore-Emmett said. Their fundamentalist religions create the patriarchal society that allows the abuse. Often, because mothers are raised in this suppressive culture, they teach their daughters to be submissive as well.
“There’s no end to this,” Moore-Emmett said. “There’s just no end.”
In addition, many state institutions and some organizations turn their backs on the polygamist women.
She said that the Department of Child and Family Services was reluctant to separate polygamist families because they would have difficulty finding homes for the large number of polygamist children.
Moore-Emmett said many politicians fear that actively prosecuting polygamists would mean committing political suicide.
She once spoke with former Sen. Scott Howell, D-Utah, about anti-polygamy legislation. She said he told her the Utah Legislature would not pass anything other than “Band-Aids every now and then” because his colleagues believed that everything would be sorted out in the end.
“Here’s someone who wants to act and he gets stonewalled by his peers,” Bartley said.
Bartley added that police sometimes are of no help because they simply ignore reports of polygamy and polygamy-related abuse.
She compared unanswered reports to pebbles thrown into a well so deep, no sound is made.
“How long do you keep dropping pebbles?” she asked.
She and Moore-Emmett also agreed that polygamist abuse is rarely talked about in the community.
Ecclesiastical leaders, the powers that be and journalists are reluctant to “play the polygamy card,” Moore-Emmett said.
She gave the example of Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping.
Brian David Mitchell took Smart as his second wife, but the press just glossed over the polygamy aspect of the case and focused on the kidnapping charges, Moore-Emmett said.
“We need to talk about the structure in this society that supports this destruction of women and children,” Bartley said. “Why are people uncomfortable talking about it?”
Bartley said that one way of opening up dialogue would be to offer polygamy classes at the U. These classes would not focus on polygamy’s history, but rather where and why it now occurs. The class would also discuss polygamy’s impact on the women and children.
Bartley suggested the class could hold forums and invite guest speakers, such as Tapestry Against Polygamy, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women leave polygamist families.
Bartley added that she believed the state should do more to prosecute offenders, but First Amendment protection claims and a culture that wants to ignore polygamy’s existence make prosecuting offenders under polygamy charges difficult.
Instead, offenders should be prosecuted for other crimes, such as abuse, incest and welfare fraud, she said.
“This is not about polygamy. This is about breaking the law,” Bartley said.
Moore-Emmett’s book is now available at most retail stores. The proceeds from purchases made at Barnes and Noble on Dec. 4 will go to Tapestry, which receives no funding from the state.
For more information about Tapestry, visit www.polygamy.org.