In the coverage of Utah’s anti-polygamy law, which was weakened by a judge’s ruling last week, the wording used by most mainstream media was curious to see. For one thing, of course, many bought into the idea that this ruling favored polygamy. But polygamy means the obtaining of more than one marriage license. It’s a fraudulent claim to more than one legal marriage.
That is not what fundamentalist Mormons, the chief target of such laws, are actually doing. They might think of themselves as spiritually married — which is their own business, as far as I’m concerned — but they’re not married in the eyes of the law. And they don’t claim to be.
The law against actual polygamy remains intact; the only part struck down by U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups is the one affecting these unofficial, self-described families. That section made it illegal for people to live with and have relationships with whatever consenting adults they choose. Polygamy laws in the other 49 states, which never included provisions to criminalize such personal decisions, are not affected.
But beyond the confusion about the word “polygamy,” the media out-and-out adopt the wording of the fundamentalist Mormons by calling all of a man’s female mates his wives. That’s especially true in the case of the characters in the TV reality series “Sister Wives,” who brought the suit leading to last week’s ruling. Only two of these people — Kody Brown and the woman he legally wed — are married. There is no legal recognition of any further marriages — none of the privileges of marriage such as spousal benefit.
Yet most stories refer to the other three women with whom he cohabits as his wives, the terminology he and the women use. “Kody Brown poses with his wives...” reads a caption in the Christian Science Monitor. The case features “Kody Brown and his four wives,” the Religion News Service reported. The Los Angeles Times ran a brief item from wire services that used the same terminology. Not to pick on these; the wording was pretty much the same everywhere. That seems an odd acceptance, and confirmation of sorts, of the fundamentalists’ claims.
Is the word used as a journalistic convenience, to avoid possibly clumsy phrases to discuss the relationships? Or is it an acceptance of what such households hold to be true without their being officially, legally true? Is calling oneself a wife enough to be a wife?
I have no quarrel with consenting adults — with an important emphasis on both those words, considering the child marriage, sexual abuse and other horrors that have occurred in some fundamentalist Mormon compounds — deciding their own household affairs and calling themselves whatever they want. But I’m not sure that means the world needs to go along with their self-definitions.
What do you think? Should the media adopt the wording of the people it covers in these cases? Or should it stick to strict, legally defined terms?