I (like probably anyone who’s ever spent time with this topic) have thought many times over the years about how sex works in a polygamous community or marriage. It’s hard to broach the topic and *not* think about it.
There’s also a new documentary series on Netflix right now called “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” about Warren Jeffs and the FLDS sect of Mormon fundamentalists that still practice polygamy. It features some incredibly brave women who left the group, and according to my Netflix home page is the second most watched show on the streaming service right now behind Stranger Things.
I must say, it is an excellent series. Like many other people, I have been sucked into books and shows about fundamentalist Mormons many times over the years – mostly because it all seems so crazy and yet wildly relatable to me as a girl who grew up contemplating my eternity as a plural wife in the Celestial Kingdom, even if I didn’t have to practice the principle here on earth yet.
In the first episode women share their experiences being married as much younger women to Rulon Jeffs (Warren’s father and predecessor), including their first kiss being with an elderly man and their first sexual experience (that they were totally unprepared for) being Rulon lying on top of them and telling them to spread their legs as they froze in complete shock. Calling a young woman his “wife” before forcing himself on her is obvious in retrospect nothing less than rape, but at the time they didn’t know they had an option to retreat from the situation and choose their own romantic partner.
In later episodes you hear the horrific crimes committed against underage girls in the name of religion and polygamy, all of which helped put Warren Jeffs in prison for the rest of his life. This whole series has me thinking about the sex lives of the women involved in the practice of plural marriage, from the violent acts of sexual assault in girls and women who had never even had sex explained to them before their new husbands forced themselves on them to the extreme lack of intimate relationships the wives of high priesthood leaders can experience in their marriage, both in modern day fundamentalist sects and at the founding of the church in the 1800s.
Here are a few of my thoughts, in no particular order:
THE WORST SEX DREAM EVER
A few years ago, I had a bizarre dream in the middle of the night. I dreamt I was a very young pioneer bride of Brigham Young. (The night before I’d had KBYU on the TV on silent for about ten minutes, and it was playing the movie “Ephraim’s Rescue”. I wasn’t sure, but I thought there was a character onscreen who was supposed to be Brigham Young. He was sitting on the side of a busy room and kept beckoning young men to come talk to him. I’m not sure what was going on, but I thought, “You big bossy jerk. Stop making everybody come talk to you! They look nervous and awkward.” That was probably unfair, but it showed my intense inner angst about the name on my college degree, that I couldn’t even like silent portrayals of him on television.)
In my dream I was a super beautiful young teenage bride, and I was admiring myself in a particularly alluring pioneer dress in the mirror. I got mad, and I stormed into Brigham’s office and demanded he sleep with me right then and there. I said, “I am a beautiful young woman, and I have needs, and it’s not fair that I only get one night a month, and you are my husband and this is your job, and so I demand you stop what you’re doing and take care of me RIGHT NOW.”
Thankfully my subconscious saved me from the trauma of that dream continuing any further, but I remember being so mad about it the entire next morning. The young women who were married to old priesthood leaders in the church – they were YOUNG WOMEN. With desires, and needs! They could’ve fallen in love with a man their own age, had a regular married life full of love and fulfillment and joy, and instead they were on a forty night rotation with an old guy and raised their kids alone.
I started to wonder if LDS men could even imagine being an 18 year old virile young man, given in marriage to a 55 year old woman with forty other husbands already (and more to come), and being told that SHE was the only outlet for his normal teenage boy passion, and that he would only get her once every forty nights or so. How would he feel about having to compete with the other guys for her affection? What if she was sick or too tired on his night, or he wasn’t her favorite, or he was past his prime, and he’d get nothing at all? Had anyone thought to ask him if he was sexually attracted to a much older woman who was born the same year as his grandmother? Would he be okay with seeing her flirt, court and maintain many other romantic relationships besides him, but know that he must keep himself 100 percent chaste outside of their rare nights together, and that even talking or flirting with a girl his age could bring down eternal dammation and public shame on his head?
YOUNG BRIDES OF CHURCH LEADERS
I once had a discussion with someone who believed it made perfect sense to ban gay leaders in scout and youth programs. It wasn’t because they believed a gay person was any more likely to assault or molest a youth, but they felt it was safer to just take that temptation totally off the table. A 30 year old straight bishop wouldn’t ever find himself romantically attracted to a 17 year Priest in his ward, for example, but a gay one might. My friend said he could imagine even good men getting into bad situations if they were working with attractive older teen girls, and it’s just better that (straight) women lead girls, and (straight) men lead boys.
That is a huge topic with plenty of things to discuss (like why then is it okay to have teenage girls alone in bishop’s offices talking about sexual experiences, and priesthood leaders DO go to girl’s camp and stay the whole time!), but I’d like to maintain course and focus on polygamy.
This person said to me, “It would only follow reason that if we had men leading teenage girls, there would be more situations where they fall in love with or become sexually attracted to the girls, and awful scenarios follow where those girls are victimized and become victims of statutory rape.”
I was thinking, “Forget the whole gay leader issue for a minute – isn’t being in authority over teenage girls and having romantic and sexual relationships with them as a result EXACTLY what Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball and many other men did when they took young women in their wards and stakes as their wives? Except instead of feeling ashamed or worried that someone would find out, they believed God was giving them authority (even commanding them) to take these girls as their brides, which made them even more emboldened to court more women and girls?”
How, I wondered, could this person be so worried about a modern church leader (gay or straight) having a romantic relationship with a teenager under their charge, but simultaneously dismiss polygamy of early church leaders as being non-problematic? Why could older men openly court young girls back then, but if it were to happen nowadays in the church it would finally be a problem for faithful members?
BRIGHAM YOUNG’S MANSION HOUSE
I toured the Brigham Young house with a friend years ago. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. A soft spoken Vietnamese sister missionary showed us the family room and explained that Brigham Young would gather his family every week in that room for, you guessed it, Family Home Evening!
I kind of chuckled, raised my hand, and said, “So…was it a rotating FHE, because he had like, 50 wives and families? There’s no way they all could fit in there at once. Did they each get one Monday night a year? Or did they all cram in here elbow to elbow, spilling out into the hallway?”
Another man in the group offered that he thought Brigham Young only had 19 wives. I said “Maybe he only had children with 19, but I KNOW he had over 50 wives. And even then, how would you fit 19 wives and children in this one room each week? And did he just ignore the other 30 wives during family events? In plural marriage, are you only invited to family events with your spouse if he’s successfully impregnated you? How did it work?”
The poor sweet sister missionary (I’m so sorry to whoever she was, because it shouldn’t be her job to defend Brigham Young to the world) sort of dodged my question and said, “I understand that polygamy was to help the widows, and those who had lost their husbands and needed someone to support them financially, as well as to give them the blessing of priesthood in their home.” I wanted to say, “Okay really, we know they were not *all* grateful elderly widows, and how did they get the priesthood in their homes when he only apparently lived with one of them in this house here???”
Instead I just giggled some more and said, “But yeah, they still wouldn’t all fit in here, so I’m just saying like….he didn’t actually gather his WHOLE family here each week for FHE. Right? Anyway, not important. Never mind.”
Afterwards my friend asked me, “Why were you being so hard on those sister missionaries?” I admitted, “I know it’s not their fault and I was pushing the issue, but what they were taught to say was hilarious and clearly historically inaccurate. Someone had to say something!”
My Brigham Young admiring friend read up that night on the internet and told me the next day that the sister missionary was actually right, he DID marry widows to the tune of like, 16 of them. And get this, they said – only about five of his brides were actually underage teenagers. My friend (who is still my friend, even if we disagreed about this) said I was being rude by saying behind the sister missionary’s back that she was wrong and implying that Brigham was doing things he really wasn’t. He didn’t have 50 underage brides – he only had five that were underage! He had more than twice as many widows than he had high school aged girls.
I contemplated explaining to, I don’t know – my husband (or the court system!) that hey, I just married myself to five teenagers – but I’ve also married twenty other older men and only slept with about forty of my fifty extra husbands anyway. Would they all be perfectly okay with my five underage boys because the majority of the men I was having sex with were actually a few years older than me?
BRIGHAM YOUNG’S WIDOWS THAT HE *WASN’T* SLEEPING WITH
Yes, I know that Brigham Young did take widows as his wives, and that some of them were even older than him and many of them didn’t bear any of his children. Some of the older women (which didn’t usually mean elderly and frail, just not in their twenties) probably didn’t have babies because they were simply past child bearing age, or old enough that their fertility was limited and only sleeping with Brigham several times per year wasn’t enough to cause a pregnancy. Even then, I remember reading a disturbing quote from Brigham Young about one of his older brides where he said essentially, “I want it to be clear to everyone that this is a marriage for eternity ONLY. I am not having any kind of intimate relations with this particular wife, who is old and very unattractive to me.” (That’s not an exact quote because I have forgotten where I read it, but that was very much the feeling I got from his words.)
Is that really better, knowing that he wasn’t having sex with all 50+ of his wives? What if you were that widow? You’d lost your spouse on the plains and you and your children couldn’t survive on your own (because the welfare system in Salt Lake in the 1800s was insufficient), so you take Brigham up on his offer to make you his 51st wife. He then publicly makes it very clear to everyone that your marriage is just a pity marriage, because he has zero interest in any kind of sex involving you in any way. He’s still got dozens of women to spend any given night with, whereas for the rest of your entire life you are not allowed to date, fall in love, be kissed, or find any kind of romantic companionship for yourself because you belong to him. You are his eternal wife – but he’s never going to do anything for you other than make sure you don’t starve to death.
And although he’s made it very clear he’s never going to have a physically intimate relationship with that particular wife, she’d better not dream of being sexually unfaithful to him. She must live out her life celibate from the point of her marriage on, or risk death at the hands of Brigham (a believer in the doctrine of Blood Atonement). Here’s what he had to say about a wife that would dare cheat on him: “Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case; and under such circumstances, I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands.”
Does this sound like a great arrangement for the women a prophet takes as a wife and chooses not to have sex with? The wife must put herself on ice for the rest of her mortal life, as he will consider having a relationship with her only after she’s resurrected and hot enough for him.
MY FRIEND’S GREAT GREAT GREAT GRANDMOTHER, A BRIDE OF WILFORD WOODRUFF:
My high school friend wrote to me several years ago about her GGG grandmother, Delight Stocking. She specifically was trying to honor her name by saying it more, and sharing her story. Delight was promised to Wilford Woodruff when she was 8 or 9 in Nauvoo and then married him when she was 18 and he was 50. Her “title of nobility” on Family Search is wife 5 (she found this so strange, and knowing that her ancestor never knew any differently haunted her).
My friend grew up hearing about how wonderful it was to be descended from a prophet, but never heard anything about the woman she also came from.
Delight spent her teenage years knowing that her first sexual experience was going to be with that older man up on the stand at conference, and he looked out at her as a child, knowing he would be the man to take her virginity someday. She didn’t get to date, have boyfriends, flirt, or dream of her wedding day with the boy of her dreams. She just knew that at 18, that 50 year old guy on the stand would be her husband.
My friend had tried very hard to unearth more about her over the years. She did have tremendous faith and was a wonderful mother to her five children, but was extremely lonely in her later years (and probably most of her life). That might be the saddest thing in all of this, that she never really had a companion.
For my part, I can’t fathom the dynamics of being a teenager marrying a 50 year old prophet. He’d be experienced sexually and in life in general, and she’d be a baby. She’d have spent her life being told what a spiritual giant and leader he was. There’d be zero chance for even the semblance of an equal relationship.
It’s difficult to watch or read about Warren Jeffs and have everyone dismiss his marriages to multiple women as manipulative and self-serving, but then see the same people dismiss the very similar events that happened in our own church. The plural wives of our early prophets would often write a testimony of polygamy – but so do the wives of Warren Jeffs. Is clinging to a testimony of the practice a way of coping with a life you wouldn’t have chosen on your own?
MORE WILFORD WOODRUFF
For most of my life, Wilford Woodruff was just the name I mixed up with Woodrow Wilson, the US president. I honestly didn’t know much about him. After my friend told me the story about Delight though, I began to perk up when I heard details about his life, especially his practice of sealing hundreds of deceased women and girls to himself in the temple as birthday gifts. I won’t tell this story here, but you can read a guest blog post all about it at this link and it will make you scream stuff:
I’m a heterosexual 41 year old married woman who was raised with the belief that priesthood holding men in my church were directed by God to take multiple women as extra spouses, both for time (in the early church) and all eternity (both the early church and the current church). I was simultaneously repulsed by the idea of FLDS leaders choosing dozens of women for only themselves, rolled my eyes at ancient kings who kept harems of women, and felt bad for married couples who were told by their cult leaders that God had commanded the wife to turn herself over to the leader to be one of his wives instead of her husband’s. Despite these being black and white issues of wrong and right to me, when I heard my church leaders (and really, all men in my church) doing the same exact thing I just shrugged and sadly thought, “I guess that’s what I have to do someday because I’m a woman.”
Well, what if it turns out that polygamy in this coercive form is wrong EVERYWHERE, no matter what religion the men commanding it are?
I watched the Netflix drama Waco about David Koresh a couple years ago, and the following line from the negotiator speaking to David jumped out at me:
We all have to come to our own conclusion on this topic. I think it’s pretty easy for most people reading this to guess mine.