The Wounded Women of Polygamy Culture

DEBORAH: Sisters Quorum has been publicly quiet in the wake of the Joseph L. Bishop scandal, but behind the scenes, our writers have been in an emotional and spiritual tumult. If you’ve followed the blog, you’re aware that some SQ writers have deep, prolonged history with sexual and spiritual abuse. The reality is, as it turns out, many of our writers have been victimized sexually and abandoned, or not believed, by church authorities and often by family members. I’ve watched these amazing survivors grapple with the hard reality that the formal Church, through its authorities, looked the other way, expressing a level of forgiveness or compassion for a sexual predator that resulted in enabling his continued abuse. The level at which this is striking the souls of abuse survivors is deep and primal. The pain it renews, the rage and confusion it reignites, aren’t going away.

Of course, it isn’t just the women who write for Sisters Quorum who are experiencing this. I like to think of Sisters Quorum as a real-world sisterhood, a place where all of us—no matter our stripe of Mormon—can bond without the intrusion of a formal organization defining us. Because of this, all the Mormon women in my life feel, to me, like a part of this quorum. I’ve been astonished and grieved to discover just how many of my LDS female friends have been sexually abused. For those whose bishops handled their situation well, this JLB scandal is triggering. But for those who weren’t believed or were told to stick it out, to forgive, for those condemned for destroying their eternal families, this scandal has been crippling. Too many of my sisters are hobbled.

My friends on the Sisters Quorum staff have been writing. They’ve been screaming and crying in words, words they just can’t bring themselves to publish. Not yet. Maybe because they are still tending to unhealed, infected wounds. Maybe because they see how words cannot adequately represent their pain and anger. Maybe because they are so damn mad, they’re busy tearing down the walls of patriarchy in other spaces. The reasons are as varied as their experiences. But one thing holds true: like the phoenix, each will rise.

To all victims who read this, there exists a community that will support you as you rise. You may feel—and be–alone, but there is a sisterhood in this quorum, in other feminist spaces, and even in your traditional Relief Societies. There are sisters who will brace you in whatever ways you need. Please show us what you need.

We often hear the term “rape culture,” but if you’re a Mormon woman, you live in something worse. You live in polygamy culture. Rape culture is one in which female victims are made accountable for male sexual violations against them. In polygamy culture, men are made victims when women refuse them.

Enter McKenna Denson, who has been ignored and then maligned by the formal church while her abuser has been advanced, even provided legal aid in the form of a church-collected dossier intended to further harm her, an injured lamb. Enter so many of you—so many in this quorum of sisters—who have had abusers and male leaders within our patriarchal system warn you against standing up for yourselves.

Obviously, the Mormon church has abandoned the practice of polygamy…in mortality. But it maintains the idea that men will have multiple women as a reward for their righteous living. It’s never cased that crudely, but nonetheless, when its all boiled down, that’s the message. Women are a blessing to men, but we add up to them like cash in an eternal bank account. The current president of the church and his first counselor, Presidents Nelson and Oaks, are polygamous men. Each has been sealed to a second wife after their first wife passed. According to LDS theology, each will have two wives in the hereafter. A month ago, I would’ve said nothing demonstrates that the modern church remains enmeshed in polygamy culture quite as clearly as this. But after learning that top church authorities disregarded complaints by McKenna Denson in favor of empathy for a man who had confessed repeated sexual violations against women, I now see how naïve I have been.

I could use the scriptures to demonstrate that every time polygamy was enacted among God’s people, it caused great harm. I could point out that the Book of Mormon speaks against polygamy. But I’ll leave that to your personal study. Instead, let me speak to your souls: if something is physically, emotionally, and spiritually crippling to another human being, it is not designed by God.

That’s the measuring stick you need to use. Not a conference talk. Not any handbook. Not the limited vision of any church leader. I repeat: if something is physically, emotionally, and spiritually crippling to one of God’s children, God did not design it.

I’ve lived a charmed life. I’ve never had reason to go to a bishop with stories of abuse. But I have lots of reasons—each a sister injured–to shout that all of this recent mess is entangled in the church’s bold, but masked, acceptance of polygamy and the way it objectifies women like a notation in an accounts receivable column, the way it winks at men who don’t control their sexual desires.

My dear sisters, hear me. Right now, in this moment. You don’t need priesthood to claim your authority or your autonomy. Rise. The men will follow us, or they will go to hell all on their own.


Sisters Quorum exists to give voice to those who are not being heard and is seeking submissions. If you have a story to tell, please visit our submission page for guidelines.

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One Reply to “The Wounded Women of Polygamy Culture”

  1. I grew up in Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy. The concepts that you portray here are very real and when polygamy isn’t just a threat for the next life, but a very real experience in this one it is horrifically damaging. I could write a book describing the many ways that polygamy culture is inherently harmful. It is the ultimate power trip for men, and the ultimate debasement of women and children.

    I was taught that I “belonged” to my father, if he was a good Priesthood man, until that ownership was transferred, by his permission, through the authority of another man, to my new keeper. No matter what stage of life a female is in, she is beholden to men. They own her – body, boots and britches.

    When my father was given his third wife (a young, somewhat unwilling participant who was blind-sided into marriage at the wedding of her brother to my sister) her dear father and patriarch took my father (the new groom with grandchildren of his own) and gave him this sage advice: “Consummate the marriage as soon as possible and as often as possible.” Because hopefully she would enjoy the sex enough to want to stay, or at least once she had a baby to tie her down she would be anchored and stay put.

    Even as a faithful believer this made me sick. It made me sick to think of my husband being given another wife in the future. I couldn’t bear the thought of him taking a girl younger than our own children to his bed and being given this advice. Yet, I knew it was absolutely common.

    Women in polygamy have very little value. If one doesn’t submit, just cut her off. There are always others who will be willing to comply to whatever the man fancies.

    I could go on and on……. 😥


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