"Texas authorities on Tuesday indicted the leader of a polygamous sect … on charges of felony sexual assault on a minor, the first criminal charges to stem from a massive raid on the group’s West Texas compound," The Los Angeles Times reported last week.
The Associated Press and other media used similar words: "indicted polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs … charges of felony sexual assault of a child."
Straightforward reporting? In my "20/20" special "Sex in America," polygamy activist Mark Henkel said no, it’s an ignorant distortion.
"The media kept saying, ‘Polygamist leader, polygamist leader,’" Henkel told me. "But the case actually involved incest and arranged marriage of a girl with her 19-year-old cousin. There wasn’t anything [that] had to do with polygamy. [Jeffs] wasn’t called an incest leader. He wasn’t called an underage-marriage leader. He was called a polygamist leader."
Henkel and his website, TruthBearer, campaign against the media and others who lump criminals like Jeffs with all polygamy.
Henkel won’t reveal his own family situation. In Maine, where he lives, even purporting to have more than one wife is against the law. Henkel complains that American laws are hypocritical.
"Someone like a Hugh Hefner will have a successful television show with three live-in girlfriends! And that’s all OK, and he’s making great money, and that’s all fine and great entertainment. But suddenly, if that man was to marry them, then suddenly he’s a criminal. That’s insane!"
Many people, when they hear the word "polygamy," think of fundamentalist Mormons living in cults, but the truth is that there’s lots of polygamy in America that has nothing to do with that. First of all, polygamy was banned by the mainstream Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1890 and is grounds for excommunication. For my "20/20" special, we interviewed Jewish and evangelical Christian polygamists. Henkel’s website is subtitled "Organization for Christian Polygamy." He estimates that there are 100,000 polygamists in America.
Ten years ago, University of Georgia Professor Patricia Dixon thought polygamy exploited women. Then she embarked on a study of it.
"I was transformed by the experience."
She spent years living with different polygamous communities. She was surprised to find that polygamy was not about men exploiting women.
"It’s female-centered. The women are the ones who are benefiting. …"
Wouldn’t most people say it’s about the men getting more sex with more women?
"It’s not about another notch on your belt or anything like that. It really is the women who really promote this idea."
Plural marriage is common around the world. In the United States most get married in religious ceremonies but keep quiet about it because what they do is illegal.
The families we met wonder why what they do is illegal. Clearly it’s wrong if an older man arranges marriages of young kids, but when adults choose to live this kind of life, why is that evil?
"Because we need marriage for the good of society. I think if we were to see this across the range of society the effect would be negative," Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council told me. He added, "Slavery and polygamy were the twin relics of barbarism. Those are barbaric societies that we’ve tried to move beyond."
Plenty of religious leaders agree with Sprigg, but Mark Henkel isn’t buying it. "If they’re saying that’s immoral, they’re calling the greatest heroes in the Bible … immoral! … Saying that Abraham, with his three wives, was immoral. Jacob had four wives. David had seven known named wives before Bathsheba."
Prince Ben-Israel, who has four wives, calls plural marriage a civil-rights issue. "Who is this government that’s in somebody’s bedroom? … It was illegal for me to marry a white woman at one time. … It was illegal for me to vote at one time. And if I had accepted somebody else’s definition of what was right and wrong, I would still be riding in the back of the bus.
"We’re not saying this is for everybody. Everybody don’t like football and basketball or tennis. But those who do oughta be free to do this."