Many couples who pursue modern polygamist lifestyles find that creating the “perfect family” is more difficult than expected.
hris and Robyn have been married for eleven years, and run a website called Sisterwives.us. The tag for their site is straightforward and promising: Polygamy Dating | Find a Loving Sisterwife Today. The home page features a graphic of an animated groom winking suggestively, a bride on each arm. To the right of the threesome, a blond, blue-eyed Cupid is poised with a bow and arrow. To the left floats a bluebird with a halo, or maybe some kind of blue angel. The background dissolves from sky blue to dark pink, and profiles rotate along a lower banner. Mostly single women and couples, the featured members portray a range of ages and locations. There’s a section called the “shoutbox,” where members can post for the entire site to see:
AngelkissValSeth: Hello everyone, hope everyone has a good and blessed evening.
Synjyn2: Hello sexy ladies hru tonight?
Searchingforfamily: well I am finally giving up on finding what im seeking… so how do I permanently delete this profile?
Neither Chris nor Robyn comes from a polygamous background, but until recently they were looking to add a sister wife to their family.
“Our idea came after our ex-roommate, Robyn’s friend, turned into something special for three years,” Chris said, his voice a little muffled. He had called from the couple’s home in Florida and offered to put Robyn on speakerphone.
“We didn’t know what to call it then and approached it the wrong way. Then, after seeing Sister Wives, we knew what we wanted and did everything we could to learn more about it, and evolve as a couple seeking polygamy.”
Robyn chimed in: “I experienced the magic that a polygamous relationship can have and wanted to pursue that long term.”
The couple described the ideal addition to their family in three words — “wife” and “best friend” — something they had hoped to find with their roommate before things went sour. With their website, they’re seeking to provide others with similar but more successful arrangements.
Sisterwives.us started as a side project for Chris, who works as a web designer. Robyn handles the matchmaking aspect of the site.
“I’ve seen hundreds of couplings and marriages,” Robyn said, a touch of pride in her voice.
When asked why women get involved on the site, Chris said the reasons are diverse. “That one can be a hard one to answer because it varies for different women,” he said. “Some women want a big family with lots of kids and her sister wives to be her best friends, so it is more of a ‘two-for-one deal,’ if you will — a great friend and a great husband, win-win. For a few women it is Biblical. And for others it is purely sexual. However I would say the first is the trend we see the most of, followed by the last.”
Like Chris and Robyn, many people who have gotten involved on Sisterwives.us were influenced by programs like Sister Wives and My Five Wives.
“I would have to say Sister Wives inspires more people to look into this lifestyle. I hear this a lot in the community,” Chris said. “And a lot of people quickly find out that it’s not always like it is on TV.”
By the numbers, reality television series like Sister Wives and My Five Wives are quite popular. According to Nielsen Media Research, the September 26, 2010, one-hour premiere episode of Sister Wives drew 2.26 million viewers, and the 2013 My Five Wives “Tell-All Special” attracted 1.18 million.“For some viewers, these shows become models of the lives they want to live.” Click To Tweet
While the programs have drawn criticism for their exploitative and technically unlawful nature, both TLC shows are relatively tame. Despite the opportunity for a more salacious portrayal of the families, producers focus on topics like dinner preparation for 20-something children, petty jealousies, ensuing tiffs, and financial struggles.
Schuyler Velasco wrote in Salon that, “Considering its sensational subject matter, TLC’s Sister Wives has been refreshingly modest. The stars… have a natural, honest presence in a genre fabled for the camera-hogging antics of Jersey Shore. Rather than merely emphasizing what’s different about the Brown family — most obviously, their ‘plural marriage’ — Sister Wives shows us how normal they seem: loving and good-natured around their children, occasionally prone to envy and feelings of betrayal.”
Sister Wives and My Five Wives seem to offer audiences a PG-rated account of an alternative lifestyle. Yet for some viewers, like Chris and Robyn, these shows become models of the lives they want to live: warm and loving, never alone or lonely.
Dr. Brenda Weber is an associate professor of gender studies at Indiana University. She recently edited a book, Reality Gendervision: Sexuality and Gender on Transatlantic Reality TV, and is in the process of writing another book specifically about reality television’s depiction of polygamy. While Chris and Robyn maintain that Sister Wives informed their decision to pursue polygamy, Weber says that causation is difficult to determine. She does believe, however, that reality television has a greater societal purpose and reach than mere entertainment.
“In many ways, reality television models both the things we might become and the things we fear becoming, so it is a handy aspirational and cautionary tale all rolled into one. It is hugely influential in terms of the ideology it transmits — and often this can be as positive as it is negative,” Weber said.
Televised portrayals of polygamists as normal, albeit supersized, families show a much different side of the lifestyle than what the public has seen in the past. In recent history, the most significant wave of media coverage of polygamists centered on Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (FLDS). In May 2006, the FBI added Jeffs to their Ten Most Wanted List for charges related to his arrangement of illegal marriages between his adult male followers and underage girls.
Jeffs’ father, former FLDS leader Rulon Jeffs, was married to nineteen or twenty wives and had about sixty children. Within a week of Rulon’s death, Jeffs married all but two of his father’s wives. (One fled the compound, and another simply refused to marry him.) Jeffs taught that faithful men must follow what is known as the doctrine of “celestial” or plural marriage in order to attain exaltation in the afterlife. Jeffs specifically taught that a devoted church member is expected to have at least three wives to be welcomed into heaven, and the more wives a man has, the closer to heaven he becomes. Former church members claim that Jeffs himself has seventy wives. After Jeffs’ capture in August 2006, heartbreaking stories of child brides and former sister wives flooded the media. At the time, the concepts of “polygamy” and “pedophilia” became intertwined for many people.
Mark Henkel is a polygamy advocate who appeared on a number of national television networks following the Warren Jeffs trial. He vocally campaigned for the community, saying that polygamy, when practiced between consenting adults, is not in any way related to pedophilia. Henkel describes himself as a very, very happily married man who supports the movement of legalizing polygamous marriage — but due to the wording of the anti-polygamy law in his home state, he won’t discuss the details of his living arrangements.
Overall, Henkel appreciates that My Five Wives and Sister Wives highlight that the majority of polygamous relationships are between consenting adults — and realizes that the programs may serve as a doorway to educate and interest some in the lifestyle.
“I would never fault someone for how they get introduced as that is not fully within their control. If they then actually open that door and it leads them to deeper and further study, that is certainly fine. That is how they will get [on top of] our movement and to yours truly,” Henkel said, referring to the polygamy advocacy work he does on his websites, TruthBearer.org and National Polygamy Advocate.
“But if they think that a reality show is overall reality,” he continued, “then they are not really opening that door to get the whole picture, of course. Indeed, as is often the case with other reality shows, those of us in the know may occasionally observe when a show is being scripted reality. In my family, we will joke about such an occurrence by saying, ‘Yeah that’s a little contrived, to make for what Hollywood labels good TV.’ Obviously, as is the case with all other reality shows, the polygamy reality shows equally have some of that ‘good TV’ contrivance. My hope would be that people watching these shows would investigate further – and of those who do, my opinion is most respectful toward those special individuals indeed.”
Henkel points out, however, that there are still some issues in the shows that play to mild stereotypes. Both showcase Mormon polygamist families, or formerly Mormon families in the case of My Five Wives. Henkel is a Christian who came to polygamy through an independent study of the Bible.
Both families also have a large number of children, something that Henkel attributes to the fundamentalist Mormon belief in pre-existing souls. He says this encourages families to have as many children as possible so those souls will be born into Mormon families.
“No other forms of UCAP (unrelated consenting adult polygamous) families have that religious doctrine [or] paradigm, which means that most of such non-Mormon polygamists do not have these overwhelming numbers of children,” Henkel said. “When people see such a massive tribe of children, that is when they might occasionally get scared about polygamy and start wondering if crimes of welfare fraud are occurring or if the children are being neglected.”
Finally, the housing dynamic shown on the programs perplexes Henkel. “It is a bit frustrating to see that both reality shows have ended up displaying a housing structure within which the women all live separately and the husband rotates his visitations to the separate domiciles,” he said. While he doesn’t criticize the families for what may have been limited options, he does say that most other UCAPs live under one roof.
“In my experience, there is an amazing bond that occurs between the women when they all live under the same roof, even though separate bedrooms. As well, for many women, I have heard it expressed many times that just knowing their husband is still in the same building provides a greater sense of security with which to more peacefully sleep at night,” Henkel said. “This does not have to be exclusively about feeling afraid of danger — because the women are strong, for sure — but rather about just that comforting sense that all the family is together and safe under the same roof. Rotating to different buildings would never provide that, of course.”
It’s interesting to note that, in addition to taking issue with stereotypes perpetuated by the television shows, Henkel, Chris, and Robyn all disagree with the Williams family of My Five Wives and the Brown family of Sister Wives regarding their views on homosexuality. The casts of both shows have come out in support of same-sex marriage. Henkel morally opposes gay marriage, citing his religious beliefs. From a political perspective, however, he believes that all consenting adults should be able to build a home with whomever they want. Chris and Robyn believe homosexuality is immoral, and they feel that gay marriage is “unnatural.”
Yet while they insist that marriage between two men or two women is abnormal, they dismiss the notion that polygamy is an inherently sexist institution. Granted, these women (with the exception of underage girls) knowingly and willingly enter into marriages with currently married men, but isn’t the structure itself at best unfair and at worst oppressive?
There are other concerns about legalizing polygamy. Individuals living in polygamous households may take advantage of the system when filing taxes. The environment is unhealthy for children involved. (Chris and Robyn don’t have children, and Henkel declined to comment on whether or not he does.) Plural marriage is simply not compatible with society’s morals. Still, the argument that polygamy is harmful to women has taken center stage since the television programs first began airing.
Brady Williams, star of My Five Wives, insists that he is a feminist — and his wives agree. Natalie Dicou examines this in an Atlantic article titled “The Real Polygamous, Feminist Wives of Salt Lake City”:
When asked who among them identified as a “feminist,” six hands shot up as if propelled by jack-in-the-box springs. For the wives, this brand of feminism involves sleeping with their spouse only every fifth night, consulting their husband’s other wives if they want to adopt a child, and—as Rosemary puts it—fighting their own psyches to keep jealousy locked in a cage like the wild animal it is.
Brady insists that he’s about equality in his relationships. “And that can exist with more than a man and a wife. That can exist with a man and a wife and a wife and a wife and a wife and a wife.”
Henkel argues that mandated monogamy is the true assault on women’s autonomy in choosing mates, a form of “marriage Marxism.” He presents a hypothetical scenario in which ten men and ten women are in a room. Nine of the men are, as he puts it, “jerks, not marriage material.” Henkel argues that it is wrong for our laws to prohibit all ten women from choosing to marry the solitary “marriageable” man.
On the subject of jealousy in his own home, Henkel remains mum except to say, “Jealousy is natural, but it’s not a fault of polygamy as a system.” He says disagreements often stem from miscommunication, and jealousy is something all couples deal with — both on television and in reality, regardless of how many wives are present in the household.
Yet, while watching the 2014 season premiere of My Five Wives, the inequity and resulting tension were palpable. Husband Brady had to stay up all night to finish a philosophy paper for a college course, which interfered with “second” wife Robyn’s night with him.
“When something like this happens, we don’t change nights,” Brady explained. “The wife I’m with just has to deal with it.” Afterwards, Robyn had a quiet, on-camera meltdown: “I already have so little time with him and now I have to go ten days instead of five.”
Chris and Robyn of Sisterwives.us recognize that what they saw on television was only about “fifty percent reality.” They admit that finding the ideal sister wife was more difficult than they expected, something they learned through several unfortunate experiences. Some women were unsure of what they wanted from a polygamous relationship. Others lied about what they were looking for. One woman abused their hospitality, lived rent-free with them for a while, and refused to find work.
Chris’ brother has also embraced the polygamous lifestyle, but it’s a move that Robyn doesn’t see as genuine.
“It’s all about the sex for him,” she said. “All about the sex.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Chris replied.
The couple plans to continue running the website. While Chris said that if he were to pursue adding a sister wife to their family, he would look within the church, Robyn feels emotionally drained by the experience and is done looking.
As we were getting off the phone she said, “I’d leave him before I’d consider looking for another sister wife.”