A few months ago, I participated in a public debate on polygamy at UNLV with Kristyn Decker, Kollene Snow and Willy Steed. On the other side was the Brown family of TLC’s “Sister Wives” fame. The debate was filmed for the TV show “Sister Wives.”
Although the Kody Brown family knew sweet Kollene and Willy, and obviously they were related to Kristyn Decker (who was Christine Brown’s aunt & the daughter of the former prophet of their group), I may have been an unexpected wild card.
The UNLV Debate:
Instead of repeating my atypical “polygamy” story, I thought it best to share what I learned from my experience, or better yet, research.
Let me start with this:
If you are living what you believe to be God’s will, you do not even know you are a victim. Often times, even victims of modern-day slavery (human trafficking) do not identify themselves as victims until after they have been removed and have had time to heal and understand. See HERE. How long does it take to literally rewire the brain, to reroute the neuronal pathway, to make sense of the world from an entirely different world view which you have yet to learn? Sometimes this can take years. It’s not as simple as making the decision to “just get over it.”
During the debate, Robyn yelled at Kristyn –
“Don’t you dare make me into a victim!”
It seemed inappropriately defensive to me, out of place and ironic, especially since Kristyn wasn’t even doing that.
Witnessing Robyn’s dramatic response and how she projected her fears of being made a victim onto Kristyn, made me wonder if that’s exactly what she was. But who am I to tell her how she feels?
When a woman of faith is hurting, suffering, or being humiliated, it can all be justified in the name of religion as – “going through the refiner’s fire,” “being tested like Job,” “going through the repentance process” “developing humility necessary for Godhood,” “becoming worthy of eternal life” or “overcoming jealousy and learning to live the higher law.” If a woman believes this is part of God’s plan and that she deserves / needs this experience for her own eternal good, she certainly doesn’t see herself as a victim. Even if she questions God, she still may believe her suffering is part of God’s plan to refine her.
“Painting Us With Their Experience?”
That’s the name of the episode, and the theme of Kody’s comments. He claimed we were painting them with a broad brush – which means that we were painting all polygamy to be abusive. This was a handy metaphor, but we didn’t do that. I don’t believe that Kody physically abuses his wives or children. I think their family is unique, and quite frankly, special.
It is not true that I projected my experience onto them. In fact, that is the very reason that I brought up research. And in case I was challenged on the validity of it, I had a huge stack of research that I took with me.
When Kody repeatedly argued that I was “painting with broad strokes,” I rebuttled with specifics.
I explained how the Canadian government was so liberal, they legalized same-sex marriage in 2005 (SEE HERE and HERE), and they legalized prostitution in 2012 (SEE HERE and HERE), but when the Supreme Court of British Columbia sought to overturn the ban on polygamy, after reviewing “the most comprehensive judicial record on polygamy ever produced in the history of the world,” Chief Justice Bauman declared that there was inherently too much harm to justify legalizing polygamy (SEE HERE and HERE).
This had nothing to do with me projecting my own bad experience onto them. It had nothing to do with me at all. Or them. I was just sharing facts from credible research.
In his decision to keep polygamy illegal in Canada, Chief Justice Bauman outlined some of the harms:
- Women in polygamous relationships are at an elevated risk of physical and psychological harm.
- They face higher rates of domestic violence and abuse, including sexual abuse.
- Competition for material and emotional access to a shared husband can lead to fractious co-wife relationships.
- These factors contribute to the higher rates of depressive disorders and other mental health issues that women in polygamous relationships face.
- They have more children, are more likely to die in childbirth and live shorter lives than their monogamous counterparts.e
- They tend to have less autonomy and report higher rates of marital dissatisfaction and lower levels of self-esteem.
- They also fare worse economically, as resources may be inequitably divided or simply insufficient. [Decision, Item 8]
And there’s more.
Regarding Harms to Children
- Children in polygamous families face higher infant mortality, even controlling for economic status and other relevant variables.
- They tend to suffer more emotional, behavioral and physical problems, as well as lower educational achievement than children in monogamous families.
- These outcomes are likely the result of higher levels of conflict, emotional stress and tension in polygamous families.
- In particular, rivalry and jealousy among co-wives can cause significant emotional problems for their children.
- The inability of fathers to give sufficient affection and disciplinary attention to all of their children can further reduce children’s emotional security.
- Children are also at enhanced risk of psychological and physical abuse and neglect. [Decision, Item 9]
And there’s a lot more there as well.
Supreme Court of British Columbia
Section 293 of the Criminal Code of Canada, 2011
For a more exhaustive list of documented harms, please visit
The Verdict Was In
Polygamy (at least coercive, patriarchal polygamy) was “inherently harmful” even in the absence of overt abuse, and it was generally fueled by the imbalance of power, manipulation and psychological abuse. Those were not MY WORDS. I was sharing the findings of an impartial government’s legal referendum after hearing from witnesses and exhaustively analyzing the research from experts on both sides of the polygamy debate.
I also know that there DOES exist a type of polygamy that I consider more like polyamory – consenting adults without abuse, without an imbalance of power, who experience a lot of happiness. I have many friends in non-coercive, non-enslavement polygamy.
At the debate the Brown’s said being open and embracing of those families who want to live polygamy will result in these families feeling less likely to separate themselves into their own isolated communities.
Kody explained that their family should not be treated like criminals just because other men in polygamy have abused their wives and children. I get this, and I agree. Kody said they should have the right to live as they wish as long as they are not hurting anyone. I get this too. But the complicated thing is that the laws are not made for the exceptions.
And not enough families in polygamy are like them.
Kody’s rationale was that if all families could be allowed to live polygamy openly and publicly without fear, people would not retreat into isolated groups and there would be less abuse.
The Problem With Kody’s Logic | When You Legalize Exploitation, Harm Increases
Here’s an example. When they legalized prostitution in Amsterdam, New Zealand, Australia and Germany, the rationale of those lawmakers was similar to that given by Kody. The theory was that if people are no longer afraid to report abuse, the secrecy and isolation will go away, and harm will decrease. It’s a lofty objective.
But it doesn’t work for prostitution, and so far decriminalization has only increased the harm, as we have learned from Short Creek.
(I’m sorry if this seems like an offensive comparison… the commonality is the “victimless crime among consenting adults” concept.)
The Myth of the Victimless Crimes
Millions of people mistakenly believe the legalize-it-and-abuse-will-go-away theory. Herein lies the rub. Wherever there are legal, “safe” prostitution houses run by law-abiding entrepreneurs, there is an expansion of the illegal secret brothels filled with trafficked women and girls, both foreign and local, run by law-breaking predators and sociopaths. Where predators feel safer to prey, victimization increases and the abuse will still stay hidden regardless of legalization.
In July 2012, Brenda Zurita published a research report for Concerned Women for America. She spelled out what happens when the exploitation of women through prostitution is decriminalized. Here’s a clip:
“Those who advocate decriminalization have much to learn from those countries that have actually tried decriminalization or legalization.
After legalization in Victoria, Australia, there was a 300 percent increase in illegal brothels. The Dutch saw an increase in trafficking victims from 716 in 2007 to 809 in 2008; almost 40 percent of those victims were Dutch girls pimped out by their boyfriends. The increase in victims continued in 2009, with the number at 909, and was up to 993 by 2010. Approximately 63 percent of the estimated 400,000 prostitutes in Germany are migrants, meaning German women do not want to prostitute, so they have to bring in women from other countries, an environment ripe for sex traffickers to exploit. In 1995, Spain decriminalized prostitution. By 2008, Spain’s Equality Ministry said 80% of prostitutes in Spain came from places including China, Romania, and Latin America — many coerced by gangs.
Read her report and see the sources HERE.
The moral of the story is that legalizing exploitation increases harm.
Rejected by the Browns, Ouch!
After the debate, I was hoping to invite the women of the Brown family to come to our Las Vegas studio for a super-fun, creative photo shoot, something that would have been modest, retro and positive, but Christine Brown immediately rejected my offer. Without hesitating she said something like, “No I don’t think so, we’re just on two different tracks.”
FYI – My husband is fashion photographer Tolga Katas. He has a waiting list of magazines and women who want his photos or dream of being photographed by him. I was surprised and confused by Christine Brown’s response, so I tried to clarify.
“You mean you can’t have a photo shoot done by someone who has different beliefs from you?”
In my happy world, people can have different views and beliefs and still be friends. That’s freedom.
Christine fumbled for words and it was a really uncomfortable moment for me. I even blushed, looked at the camera guys filming me and said, “Well, that was awkward.” I felt like I was in junior high, and a group of girls rejected my invitation to be friends because I didn’t have the same beliefs or skin color.
What Happened to Being “Open and Embracing?”
After all this beautiful talk about how being open & embracing to polygamists would help create transparency and prevent abuse, I was confused for a bit. Then questions and realizations started washing over me in waves – like maybe Christine Brown saw me as an enemy, or someone who threatened her “lifestyle.” Even when I have met devoted female members of the FLDS church, they were far more kind, open, and embracing of me, an outsider, than the Brown’s of the AUB who put themselves of TV!
Maybe their prophet or Bishop or Kody told the wives in advance that associating with this particular non-believer was off limits. Or maybe I was just too evil, too tainted. I am not an anti-polygamist. I am against the human trafficking and the psychological trauma that “religious leaders” cause, and justify in the name of polygamy. In other words, I am against coercive, enslavement, totalitarian polygamy, and so are the Browns!
But here’s what I realized. The moment Christine Brown shut the door to my offer, in my mind, the Brown’s entire argument about how decriminalizing polygamy would create an openness & transparency that would stop isolation & abuse from happening – seem to fly out the window. They want the world to be open and embracing of them, but they don’t return the favor for people who are different?
They just proved my point. Not that I blame them actually. I remember feeling exactly the same way about people who challenged my beliefs, once upon a time. And if I wouldn’t have had an experience from hell, maybe it’s true that I might have actually been happy because I thought I was serving God. Quite frankly, I might have even been sitting on the other side of the debate today. So I understand. They are just protecting the sacred things they believe.
I wanted to be friends. They don’t. My door is still open. If their answer remains a big fat “NO THANK YOU,” it’s no big deal for me.
But they also closed the door on associating with Kristyn Decker, their own family member, for the same reason.
Something in the Brown’s religious mindset will not allow them intermingle with “apostates” – even if they were previously beloved family members. I remember that kind of thinking, so how can I judge them or be upset?
But I don’t consider that freedom either.
The elect and chosen people of God must associate with others like them. Whites and blacks cannot intermarry. Gay marriage is forbidden, there are different rules for men and for women, and the list of policies and restrictions goes on. It’s so very legalistic, and maybe this will evolve, but I can’t help but worry about them. Christ was about loving and forgiving one another. Perfect love casteth out all fear, remember? Christine Brown wouldn’t come out of the bathroom for ages because she was afraid to see Kristyn. Kristyn was filled with excitement, hope, anticipation and good will at the thought of seeing and hugging her neice Christine.
The difference was night and day.
There was no antagonism or attacking going on, at least from our end. There was no hatred, no name-calling, only love and hope and offers for friendship. All four of us wanted to go to dinner with them afterward. We were open and embracing. Not the other way around. I guess they were really afraid.
Is Fear Really Freedom?
The Brown family is unique, but even they have their walls of fear. Nothing will stop true believers from isolating themselves, or gathering the righteous, like-minded people together so they can better follow their religion, not even legalizing polygamy.
But if the Browns, (the best example of living patriarchal polygamy on the planet), do so because they follow a religion that requires it, remember that it is this same religious mindset that calls for them to shun the disillusioned members, separate themselves from those who have a crisis of faith, cover their ears and discredit former members when they speak about their painful truths, and separate themselves from those who question their way of life.
The whole shunning thing is the epitome of kicking a person when they are down, pouring salt in a wound or adding insult to injury – multiplied by the former value of your soul. When the members of the AUB or other polygamist sects abide by this policy of shunning wounded defectors, then all members are aware of the painful consequences that they too might face if they do not tow the line, or if they maintain a loving relationship with someone who is speaking out about their own bad experience. That must be a terrifying thought to the members of the sect, hence, people like sweet, mild-mannered Kristyn Decker become reframed as people to fear.
Is that really freedom?
I credit and honor the Brown women for all the things they do so very well, for raising incredible children, for being kind to one another no matter how difficult it is, for trying to make a difference in the world in their own way.
But let’s call a spade a spade. Religiously-mandated, coerce, totalitarian polygamy is a tool of manipulation and in most cases, it’s harmful. Most families are not like the Browns.
That’s my two cents.
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