This week's raid on a West Texas polygamist retreat was shocking. At last count, authorities had taken 139 women and 416 children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch.
Watching them get herded onto buses, it was easy to ask: "Who are these people, and how could this happen?"
Yet in the eyes of world history, we, the gawkers, are matrimony’s social deviants. After all, polygamy is the original "traditional marriage."
The mortifying child sexual abuse that allegedly has taken place is absolutely not the standard for this lifestyle worldwide.
But a marriage in which a spouse of either sex has more than one partner at the same time has been accepted globally for centuries.
Polygyny, where a man has multiple wives or female mates, has been found in more places and at more times in history than any other form of marriage. This is in large part because marriage historically has been for economic and political purposes.
It is an institute originally intended to help people acquire wealth, power and property — not love. The expectation of love and loyalty for a one-and-only actually is a relatively recent social invention.
In fact, cultures typically have regarded love as irrational and absurd. Seen as a threat to social order, love has been viewed as incompatible with marriage. In China, for example, the good wife was supposed to treat her husband like a guest. If he showed affection, he was regarded as weak in character.
Traditionally, marriage has been about survival, establishing kinship and status and pooling labor and resources, among life’s other more practical matters.
When it has come to one’s sexual needs, cultures simply have gotten "creative," both in and out of the marriage framework. In ancient China, a woman was allowed to bring one or more of her sisters to her husband’s house as a back-up wife. In parts of India, Kashmir and Nepal, as well as Tibet, women may be married to two or more brothers. All of them have sexual access to her.
While numerous cultures have allowed husbands to have more than one spouse for sexual gratification (polygyny), some societies have given women the same leeway (polyandry). Some cultures even encourage extra marital affairs.
The Dogon of West Africa, for example, have allowed young married women to carry on their affairs publicly. The Rukuba of Nigeria permit a woman to acquire a lover when she gets married for the first time.
So how did we in the West evolve into honoring the bliss-filled, two-person marriage?
Early Christianity was the first to condemn having more than one spouse at a time (polygamy), and is considered unique as a world religion for insisting on monogamy. The other major religions have allowed men to have a number of wives.
Thanks to the Christian movement, as early as the 12th century, polygamy was prohibited in Western Europe. Quite by accident, this support for monogamy became a step toward gender equality. Men no longer were allowed to see wives as possessions. (They could — and many did — keep mistresses, which a wife was expected to ignore.) Still, many of the same rules applied as far as who made for the most practical mate.
While hard for us to swallow, history’s most "successful" marriages have not been the modern, happily ever-after sort. They have not been about our society’s ideas of a "perfect union," such as:
— Having deep love and loyalty for your partner;
— Making your partner your highest obligation and priority;
— Putting your partner before your parents and family members;
— Being best friends with your partner;
— Expressing affection to your partner;
— Being sexually faithful.
It has only been in the last couple of centuries that Western Europe and North America have developed a new values set around organizing marriage and sexuality.
That is why the news regarding this polygamist sect and the alleged abuses involved are so disturbing and appalling — even if we are history’s minority on this.
In meeting one’s intimacy, affection and sexual needs, we in the West have sought a marriage free of coercion, violence and gender inequality.
Thankfully, recent history shows us that these values are spreading globally.
In the Know Sex News …
— Face worth a thousand words. A Durham University study found that young people can determine another’s attitude toward sexual relationships simply by looking at his or her face.
The British study involving 700 heterosexual participants further found that males generally have a preference for females who they perceive to be up for short-term sexual relationships. Women, however, prefer men who they believe could be potential long-term mates.
— Divorce up in Iran, mostly due to women’s sexual dissatisfaction. Data presented at the Family and Procreation conference revealed that 68.1 percent of divorced women reported losing their sexual appetite just a few months after their wedding.
Almost 60 percent were angry every time they had been intimate with their spouse, and more than 66 percent felt used by their husbands as instruments for sexual satisfaction.
— More than 2 million children living with HIV/AIDS globally. A joint report by UNICEF, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization titled "Children and AIDS" reports that most youth acquired the virus via mother-to-child transmission. According to the report, 290,000 children under 15 years of age died of AIDS-related causes last year, 12.1 million youth in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS and 40 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds account for 40 percent of new HIV cases in those over 15.
Dr. Yvonne Kristín Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hand Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."