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Polygamy in Primetime: Culmination of 17 Years of Research

Polygamy in Primetime: Culmination of 17 Years of Research


April 23, 2012

LSC Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Janet Bennion, Ph.D., has announced the publication of her fourth book “Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism.” The book, to be released in May 2012, is part of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s Series on Gender, Culture, Religion and Law.

Bennion spent a sabbatical semester working on the book after Brandeis, a University Press of New England affiliate, suggested the idea to her at a conference in 2011. The book examines the intricate and variable lives in contemporary fundamental Mormon society. The study is based on 17 years of ethnographic research conducted by Bennion among the Allred Group in the Intermountain West.

“I’ve written three other books and this fourth book is kind of my opus. It’s been reviewed by a lot of colleagues as being the all-in-one book about Mormon polygamy,” Bennion said. “This is the book to read if you want an anthropological foundation for understanding Mormon fundamentalism.”

Bennion, herself a product of Mormon polygamy, highlights problems within plural marriages including evidence that some forms are high-risk for incest. She challenges the notion that polygamy is consistently abusive to women by showing that it can bring economic security and social bonds to some. Bennion goes beyond the public obsession with the sexual aspects of polygamy with her depiction of polygamist families, and their binds to each other and society.

Bennion’s frank depiction of lesbianism in Mormon society is ground breaking. “Her description of this neglected topic is truly original. Her descriptions of sexuality for men and women are rarely encountered in the literature and are well done and informative,” said reviewer Philip Kilbride, Professor of Anthropology at Bryn Mawr. “I cannot recommend this book more highly.”

The book also addresses media coverage and the emergence of primetime television shows portraying polygamy. “I’m showing four new chapters about how “Sister Wives,” “Big Love” and blogging are playing into the scene of polygamy and how polygamists react to that; whether it’s accurate and representative of everyone’s experience. I find that the appearance of polygamy in primetime is a good thing. It lets people know that this is a real marriage form. Some of it is poor-functioning; some of it is well-functioning.”

However, it is Bennion’s advocacy for decriminalization of polygamy that may prove to be most controversial. “[Polygamy in primetime television] brings us closer to what I think is the goal and that is decriminalization….making these marriages as close as possible to legally recognized forms.

“Why am I a feminist in favor of legalizing polygamy? It is to bring it into the light. Bring abuse into the light so that it can be monitored and regulated,” she stated.

Bennion’s other books include ” Desert Patriarchy: Mormon and Mennonite Communities in the Chihuahua Valley,” and “Evaluating the Effects of Polygamy on Women and Children in Four North American Mormon Fundamentalist Groups: An Anthropological Study.”