Is the legalization of polygamy inevitable in America? From 1965 to 2005, American courts struck down the traditional sex crimes of contraception, adultery, fornication, abortion, and sodomy as violations of modern constitutional norms of liberty, autonomy, and privacy. Traditional criminal laws against polygamy seem vulnerable to this same constitutional logic. If you add the religious freedom claims of Muslims, fundamentalist Mormons and others, the case for polygamy seems especially ripe –whether we like it or not.

Many liberals praise the nation’s rise to enlightened sexual liberty. The anti-polygamists of today, they argue, are like the patriarchs, anti-abortionists, and homophobes of the past, clutching their traditional Christian morals at the cost of true liberty for all.

Many conservatives lament the nation’s slide down the slippery slope of sexual libertinism. “State laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution … bestiality, and obscenity are all now called into question,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote dissenting in the Lawrence v. Texas case that protected sodomy.

Sorting out the case for and against polygamy is complicated. But it’s not just a dialectic of modern liberty versus traditional morality. I argue that polygamy is dangerous because it harms women, children, and men alike, and will allow some religious communities to become a law unto themselves.

That’s what Western history tells us. The West’s prohibition of polygamy — unlike many other traditional sex crimes — is both pre-Christian and post-Christian. “Pagan” Roman emperors first made polygamy an “infamous” crime in 258, more than a century before they established Christianity. Enlightenment liberals disestablished Christianity, but still regarded polygamy as a betrayal of nature, utility, and fairness. Polygamy was a capital crime till the nineteenth century, and it remains a crime throughout the West today.

Western writers have long argued, and modern studies now document, that polygamy is unjust to women and children – a violation of their fundamental rights and dignity, we now say. Young women are harmed because they are often coerced into early marriages with older men. Once pushed aside for a rival co-wife, women are reduced to rival slaves within the household. They are then exploited periodically for sex and procreation by emotionally detached husbands. They are forced to make do for themselves and their children with dwindling resources as still other women and children are added to the household against their wishes. If they protest their plight, if they resort to self-help, if they lose their youthful figure and vigor, they are often cast out of their homes — impoverished, undereducated, and often incapable of survival without serious help from others.

Children are harmed because they are often set in perennial rivalry with other children and mothers for the affection and attention of the family patriarch. They are deprived of healthy models of authority and liberty, equality and charity, marital love and fidelity, which are essential to their development as future spouses, citizens, and community leaders. And they are harmed by too few resources to support their nurture, education, care, and preparation for a full and healthy life as an adult.

Men, too, are harmed by polygamy. Polygamy promotes marriage by the richest not necessarily the fittest men in body, mind, or virtue. In isolated communities, polygamy often leads to ostracism of rival younger men. Polygamy inflames a man’s lust, for once he adds a second wife, he will inevitably desire more, even the wife of another. And polygamy deprives men of that essential organic bond of exclusive marital companionship, which ancients and moderns alike say is critical to most men’s physical, psychological, moral, and even spiritual health.

The Western legal tradition has thus long called polygamy a “malum in se” offense (“bad it inself”). That category of offenses now also includes slavery, indentured servitude, obscenity, bestiality, incest, sex with children, self-mutilation, organ-selling, and more. These are activities that are just wrong — or too often foster wrongdoing. That someone wants to engage in these activities voluntarily for reasons of religion, bravery, custom, liberty, or autonomy makes no difference. That other cultures past and present allow such activities also makes no difference.

While some religious communities and their members might well thrive with the freedom to practice polygamy, it is inevitable that closed, repressive, and isolated regimes will also emerge. And this, in turn, will lead to under-aged girls being duped into sex and marriages with older men, and to women and children trapped in sectarian communities with no access to protection from the state and with no real legal recourse against a church, temple, or mosque that is just following its own rules.

We prize liberty and equality in America too highly to court such a risk.


Text by John Witte Jr. (W.P./Nov.9, 2012)

John Witte Jr. , is director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University , and author of a forthcoming title, “Why Two in One Flesh: The Western Case for Monogamy over Polygamy.”

Nearly every woman I know can recall one or more instances in which she was sexually assaulted, harassed, threatened, inappropriately touched or even raped.

Yet few told anyone about it at the time, or reported it to the police.
I have clear memories of three such episodes from my childhood, one of which involved a man who owned a store in my neighborhood. Not knowing at age 11 anything about reproduction (in 1952, expectant teachers had to take leave when they “showed”), I was terrified that I could become pregnant from having been forced to touch his penis.

I had trouble sleeping, and I avoided the block where the store was. Yet, fearing that the assault was somehow my fault, I said nothing to my parents.
Experts on sexual assault and rape report that even today, despite improvements in early sex education and widespread publicity about sexual assaults, the overwhelming majority of both felony and misdemeanor cases never come to public or legal attention.

It is all too easy to see why. More often than not, women who bring charges of sexual assault are victims twice over, treated by the legal system and sometimes by the news media as lying until proved truthful.
“There is no other crime I can think of where the victim is more victimized,” said Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University who for 20 years has been studying what happens legally and medically to women who are raped. “The victim is always on trial. Rape is treated very differently than other felonies.”

So, too, are the victims of lesser sexual assaults. In 1991, when Anita Hill, a lawyer and academic, told Congress that the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her repeatedly when she worked for him, Ms. Hill was vilified as a character assassin and liar acting on behalf of abortion-rights advocates.

Credibility became the issue, too, for Nafissatou Diallo, an immigrant chambermaid who accused the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of forcing her to perform fellatio in a Manhattan hotel room.Prosecutors eventually dropped the case after concluding that Ms. Diallo had lied on her immigration form and about other matters, though not directly about the encounter with Mr. Strauss-Kahn.
When four women, two of whom identified themselves publicly, said they had been sexually harassed by Herman Cain, the Republican presidential hopeful, they, too, were called liars, perhaps hired by his opponents.

Charges of sexual harassment often boil down to “she said-he said” with no tangible evidence of what really took place. But even when there is DNA evidence of a completed sexual act, as there was in the Strauss-Kahn case, the accused commonly claim that the sex was consensual, not a crime.
“DNA technology has not made a dramatic change in how victims are treated,” Dr. Campbell said in an interview. “We write off a lot of cases that could be successfully prosecuted. It’s bunk that these cases are too hard to prosecute.”

Victims must be better supported with better forensics, investigations and prosecutions, Dr. Campbell said. “This is a public safety issue. Most rapists are serial rapists, and they must be held accountable.”

In one study, published in 1987 in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 126 admitted rapists had committed 907 rapes involving 882 different victims.
Rapists are not the only serial sexual offenders. Witness the all-too-frequent revelations of sexual abuse of children involving multiple victims and persisting for decades even when others in positions of authority knew it was going on.

In the latest such scandal, an assistant football coach at Penn State University stands accused of molesting 10 boys. The charges led to the firing of a revered head coach, Joe Paterno, and forced the resignation of the university president for failing to take more immediate action.
The Risks

Last year, according to the Department of Justice, 188,280 Americans were victims of sexual violence.

Among female victims, nearly three-quarters are assaulted by men they know — friends, acquaintances or intimate partners, according to federal statistics.
But fewer than 40 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police. Underreporting is more common among male victims and women raped by acquaintances or domestic partners. Only one-quarter of rapes are committed by strangers.

The result of underreporting and poor prosecution: 15 of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail, according to the network. Dr. Judith A. Linden, associate professor of emergency medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, reported in The New England Journal of Medicine in September that in the United States, “fewer than half of rape cases are successfully prosecuted.”

Victims may be reluctant to report a rape because they are embarrassed, fear reprisals and public disclosure, or think they won’t be believed. “Victims often think they somehow brought it on themselves,” said Callie Rennison, a criminologist at the University of Colorado in Denver. “Rape is the only crime in which victims have to explain that they didn’t want to be victimized.”

These feelings are especially common among college women who may have been drinking alcohol or taking illicit drugs when raped by a date or acquaintance.

Victims may not realize that any form of sexual behavior that is not consented to and that causes discomfort, fear or intimidation is considered sexual assault in most jurisdictions. That includes indecent exposure, unwanted physical contact (including kissing and fondling) and lascivious acts, as well as oral and anal sex and vaginal rape, whether with a body part or an instrument.

A minor — in general, 16 or 17, depending on the state — can legally consent to sexual activity. A person of any age who is forced or threatened, developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, unconscious or preparing to undergo a medical procedure cannot legally consent to sexual activity.

Among young children, girls and boys are equally at risk of being sexually abused. But as they age, girls increasingly become targets; among adults, women represent about 90 percent of cases.

Experts have long debated whether rape should be seen as an act of aggression and control or the product of an irresistible sexual urge. To the victim, the distinction is moot.

The consequences can include pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease; feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and low self-esteem; self-blame and depression; substance abuse and eating disorders; fears of intimacy; numbness;post-traumatic stress disorder (nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety attacks, difficulty functioning); borderline personality disorder; unexplained physical problems; and even suicide.

Thus, even if rape victims choose not to report the attacks, prompt medical attention and psychological counseling can be critically important to their long-term well-being.


* Text by JANE E. BRODY, NYT, December 12, 2011

Mr Ratzon declared: “I’m perfect … I have all the qualities a woman wants”
Residents of Tel Aviv’s quiet Hatikva neighbourhood were shocked yesterday to discover a self-styled Jewish sage living in their midst with a harem of 30 women kept as “slaves” in squalid apartments.
Goel Ratzon, 60, is accused of fathering 37 children since 1993 with his “wives” and daughters. Mr Ratzon, who was dubbed by the local media as “Israel’s Josef Fritzl”, is under arrest on suspicion of incest and sexual abuse.

“The evidence shows the suspect controlled his women with a firm hand, including their possessions and their money,” police said. Mr Ratzon even wrote a list of commandments to ensure that the women were kept in “conditions similar to slavery”, police said.
In addition to turning over all their wages, the women were forbidden from making telephone calls or talking to men other than Mr Ratzon. If they broke the rules they would pay a fine or receive physical punishment.

Mickey Rosenfeld, the Israeli police spokesman, said that Mr Ratzon convinced his victims that he had godlike status. “The women didn’t really understand what their situation was, they didn’t understand what freedom was,” Mr Rosenfeld said.
In one case, police raided a three-bedroom apartment where 10 women and 17 children were found living in “horrible conditions”.

The women wore conservative orthodox dresses covering their entire bodies and bore tattoos of their captor’s face — and name. He was married to 17 women but it was unclear how many others he had relations with, police said. All his offspring had names with a variation on his — Goel, which means redeemer in Hebrew.

Mr Ratzon’s family had been known to the Israeli public for some time. Last year he and several women appeared in a television documentary in which the women informed viewers that Mr Ratzon was the Messiah.

It showed the women brushing his hair and feeding him while they declared: “He is the Messiah everyone is talking about . . . The day he decides to reveal himself, the land will shake.”
Mr Ratzon made no claims of deity, but declared: “I’m perfect . . . I have all the qualities a woman wants.” When asked about the commandments, he said: “It’s like a state — I have to uphold my principles, order and laws.”

Neighbours gleaned some details about Mr Ratzon’s communes. One said that he had learnt hypnosis in India and used the technique to subjugate women. “We never heard them, they made no noise at all,” a neighbour told The Jerusalem Post. “The women made a living by cleaning homes, but they were not permitted to work for men.”

Another neighbour said: “Whenever I saw the kids, they were quiet. Sometimes I heard them crying.”
Police said that they delayed arresting Mr Ratzon despite evidence of abuse in the documentary, because they had reports that the women would attempt collective suicide.

Mr Ratzon made it clear in the documentary what the women should do if he was taken away. “When I die . . . you are to lead peaceful and constrained lives . . . but if the state harms me, go out and strike them as much as you can. Even at the cost of shedding your own blood,” he told one woman.
Police said that he preyed on young vulnerable women from broken families. If he was displeased they would harm themselves with razors or burn themselves.

All the women were registered as single mothers, making it impossible to prosecute them under Israeli polygamy laws, but a law passed recently against human trafficking allowed prosecutors to press enslavement charges against Mr Ratzon.
Several women had complained of mistreatment. Two of Mr Ratzon’s “wives” were being questioned on suspicion that they facilitated his crimes. The other women and children were put in the care of social services.

Mr Ratzon will be defended by a woman lawyer. “As far as he is concerned, no sexual crimes have been committed. The women consented willingly to relations,” Shlomtzion Gabai, the lawyer, said.
The Channel 10 documentary showed Mr Ratzon’s nightly ritual. “Do you want to come with me?” he asked one woman in her mid-20s. “Yes,” she said, smiling and hugging him. The other women appeared devastated.

Ratzon’s rules
1 No women shall marry nor shall any woman attack another, either verbally or physically.
Fine: 2,000 shekels (£330) into the family kitty
2 No woman shall question another about her whereabouts.
Fine: 100 shekels
3 No conversation is permitted in rooms other than the living room. It is forbidden to talk nonsense.
Fine: 200 shekels
4 No woman shall sit idle when there are dishes to be washed, cleaning to be done, children to look after etc.
Fine: 2,000 shekels
5 Any two women caught fighting will be punished equally.
Fine: 2,000 shekels
6 It is absolutely forbidden to question Ratzon on his whereabouts or intention.
Fine: 400 shekels
7 It is permissible to ask to accompany him; but refusal is to be accepted without appeal.
Fine: 300 shekels
8 No woman shall interrupt Ratzon or intervene in matters not concerning her.
Fine: 500 shekels
9 All orders are to be obeyed immediately.
Fine: 300 shekels
10 No woman shall work while a man of over 12 years of age is in the house.
Fine 3,000 shekels


* From The Times by Yossi Zeliger/EPA, January 15, 2010