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[whitespace] Marriages of Inconvenience

Having more than one legal spouse at a time is against the law, but it's not a prioirty for law enforcement

By Dara Colwell

THE ANCIENT ISRAELITES, including King Solomon, who had 700 wives--a healthy lot, even in those days, and King David, who had 99, according to the New Testament, believed that no man should marry more wives than he could care for, a tenet also practiced by Islam. While the distinct Greco-Roman tradition of monogamy eventually gained a foothold in the region, the Jewish community continued practicing polygamy during Roman times, as chronicled in Jewish historian Josephus' Dialogue With Trypho, written in the first century, C.E.

In the Western world, where social historians contend we practice "consecutive polygamy"--marrying one spouse after the next, with divorce peppered in between bouts--our society tends to associate the concept solely with Mormons. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints actually withdrew its support of polygamy in 1830, threatening excommunication to those who practiced it, some Mormons have continued to take multiple wives. But not only Mormons desire plural marriage. Today, those shirking social convention by seeking an additional wife advertise openly on the Internet, placing ads on sites such as Polygamy.com. "We're a happily married couple with two kids. We live in a nice home in San Francisco," one personal reads. "My husband would treat us both equally. He makes sure his women are pleased."

Polygamy is still practiced in Jordan, Israel, Syria, Yemen, New Guinea, Indonesia and Africa, where the rural tradition, built on wealth and prestige, is regarded as advantageous. According to sociological data collected in 1967 from Africa's 742 tribes, 78 percent saw polygamy as the preferable form of marriage, meaning it was largely regarded as the social norm. Even so, here in the United States, social mores dictate monogamy as the norm--even when it leads to serial affairs and an incredibly high divorce rate.

Polygamy, or "bigamy," in its legal guise, then, remains a Western crime, although one that is rarely prosecuted. Back in the 1860s, the penalty for engaging in polygamy was a $500 fine and a maximum of five years in prison. Today, the punishment hasn't exactly kept up with inflation--tried as either a misdemeanor or a felony, bigamy is punishable by a $10,000 fine or one year in county jail or state prison.

"So many people commit bigamy innocently--it happens all the time," says one nameless lawyer, explaining that often, ex-spouses casually assume their divorce has gone through when remarrying. "It's almost like smoking pot in public--who cares? It's only in extreme cases, when the guy's going around stealing money from women, that it's a big deal."

This is something the county district attorney's office readily concurs with. "It's an unusual crime and it's rare for it to come to our attention," says supervising District Attorney Cameron Bowman. Bowman, who hasn't filed a bigamy case this year, has only filed a handful in his entire career. His colleague Mike Fletcher underlines his point. "Criminal court is often not a good forum to solve this problem--we can't grant divorces," he says. "Really, emotional harm is something we can't address. But when there's fraud involved, we're more likely to file."

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From the March 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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