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Pick your poison.

What do the pornography and polygamy debates have in common? Both make me feel like women don't have much choice.

I've been fascinated by the current B.C. trial attempting to determine whether the boys over there in the community of Bountiful ought to be allowed to continue to take multiple wives. Lawyers for the Bountiful patriarchs are arguing that making polygamy illegal is tantamount to discrimination based on religion, an attack on the religious freedom guarantee in the Canadian Charter of Rights.

Lawyers on the other side are defending the two-person model of marriage. The crown's argument is that polygamy is really another word for the abuse of women and children, and there are women who have managed to leave Bountiful who agree. In online chatter, however, there are other warnings, namely that decriminalizing polygamy will lead to an influx of undesirables--Muslims, in particular--who will flock to Canada with their many wives.

Talk about picking your poison. Where exactly does a lesbian-feminist who is opposed to marriage, period, fit in to that dichotomy? I can either support patriarchal polygamy, with all its male privilege, or the plainer patriarchal model of marriage that hasn't suited women's needs either, if my memory serves me right.

It reminds me of the dilemma we faced during the famed pornography debates of the '80s. Then, we were supposed to choose between two models of sexuality: the pornography model and its unremitting colonization of women's sexuality, or a more repressive model based on a fundamental fear of sexuality--and, in particular, women's sexuality. Hey women, choose between oppression and repression, be a whore or a virgin.

Feminists like me ache for better options--expression instead of oppression, empowerment in sexuality instead of the simplistic either-or binary of the shiny, happy porn star on one side and the enforced chastity promulgated by the religious right on the other.

Those supporting the Bountiful boys talk about having freedom from the constraints of marriage that is steeped in patriarchal privilege from a historical perspective. But, as with sex work, freedom does not automatically equal equality. While it's tempting to accept the liberal fiction that opening the polygamy door will expand women's sexual horizons, I can't help but notice that organized communities of women who have multiple husbands are not exactly, er, bountiful. We have to look at the power dynamic here, just as we have to take into account who's buying and who's selling when it comes to prostitution.

Feminist observers, including Queen's University gender studies prof Beverley Baines, are searching for ground that takes women's experience into account. Baines has argued that keeping polygamy illegal makes abused women in polygamous relationships fearful of escaping or speaking out against the abuse because of what might happen to others in the family. There are already laws that deal with violence against women, she says, and they are enough to handle the problem.

But isn't that what some said about wife-abuse laws--that women wouldn't call for help because they didn't necessarily want their breadwinner husbands put in jail? Besides, polygamy poses more than the problem of individual abuse. Communities organized to fulfill the sexual power desire of male patriarchs--who have been known to pimp their 16-year-old daughters to men decades their seniors, while shipping out young men as slave labour in other Mormon communities to make sure the young studs don't get in the way--constitute systemic abuse.

As I write this, the court case is in full swing. And though the details are intriguing, the debate itself is distressing--yet another example of how both sides in a situation can claim to be promoting women's interests, while not fully understanding exactly what freedom and choice really mean.
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Title Annotation:cole's notes; polygamy
Author:Cole, Susan G.
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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