Forbidden Intimacies
Polygamies at the Limits of Western Tolerance
Melanie Heath




[Plural marriage] is about intimacy. An intimate connection is the greatest gift you can give a human being. We need to honor that.

—Olivia, Mormon fundamentalist, Utah

The question is not whether [polygamy] is the best of all possible family formulations. The question is, Does this form of intimate personal family relationship inflict demonstrable harm such that it is appropriate for the criminal law to intervene?

—Michael Vonn, Policy Director, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association

Polygamy is something we must fight because it’s a social problem, it’s economic. And it includes extreme violence at the level of women and children.

—Awa Ba, founder and president of En Finir avec la Polygamie, France

FOR SOME PEOPLE, POLYGYNY (OR plural marriage)—one man married to more than one woman—is an important type of intimacy, a family form that is central to the identities of those who practice it.1 As Olivia says, plural marriage “is about intimacy.” She has lived in a plural marriage for nearly thirty years and explains the “intimate connection” between her husband, her sister wives—one of whom is her biological sister—and herself as the “greatest gift you can give a human being.” From this perspective, forbidding it creates harm by forcing people to live underground for fear that their families will be prosecuted. Michael Vonn, the policy director for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) in Canada, questions whether polygamy as an “intimate personal family relationship” does “inflict demonstratable harm” to justify prohibiting it. For the BCCLA the answer is no. Others, however, see polygyny as a harmful and violent patriarchal family structure that hurts all individuals involved, especially women and children. Awa Ba began an organization in France to fight against polygyny after her sister was subjected to it. She believes that forbidding polygyny is necessary to fight this “extreme violence at the level of women and children.” These opposing perspectives have shaped how Western governments seek to regulate polygamy, an umbrella term for the practice of marrying more than one spouse at the same time.2

What can we learn from analyzing government regulation of polygamies? A growing number of scholars have studied how the state and sexuality shape one another.3 Likewise, a broad group of researchers have looked at the interactions of intimacy, family, and state power.4 In this book I argue that forbidden intimacies—intimacies that are prohibited based on the need to uphold the white, monogamous, heterosexual family ideal—contribute to how the state defines itself by determining its limits of tolerance. I spotlight how regulating conservative, patriarchal family forms enforces boundaries to demarcate intimacies that are favored and disfavored and how these boundaries are important in defining national identity. For many Western governments, polygyny has become the antithesis of what was once another forbidden intimacy: same-gender relations, now often characterized as progressive and forward-thinking.

In Forbidden Intimacies I contemplate how conceiving of polygyny as monolithic and exploitative masks the existence of polygamies that proliferate under the conditions of postmodern family life. The idea that polygamy is universally harmful to women, children, and society justifies prohibiting diverse plural families, some happy and successful and others difficult and violent. I will take you on a journey to consider the ways that forbidden relationships are lived and governed in transnational and national contexts. I bring together scholarly sources on sexuality, race, and the state; law and intimacy; and global and transnational sociology to uncover the unique challenges of regulating polygyny within specific transnational and national, religious, and cultural contexts.

Moving forward, I analyze how regulating forbidden intimacies constitutes similar and divergent racial projects based on national identities and transnational movement of laws and ideas across borders, determining what can be tolerated. To understand these racial projects, I examine the racialized and colonial histories that, even today, structure these intimacies and their regulation and how national logics shape regulatory strategies. I consider how polygamies in the plural are shaped and lived according to what I call labyrinthine love, how stigma and discrimination shapes different kinds of love, and how those in plural families have resisted these dynamics. Let’s begin by considering forbidden intimacies and racial projects.


How should we conceptualize forbidden intimacy? Often the focus has been on prohibitions against same-gender sexualities. Historically, nation-states banned same-gender sexualities and other forms of sexual “deviance,” even designating the death penalty for those found guilty, such as in England and colonial America. By the nineteenth century the most important sex crime to be regulated in the United States was prostitution, and laws across the country banned it.5 Although prosecutions of sodomy were far fewer under state laws, enforcement of these laws increasingly focused on men’s consensual sex acts with one another. In the late 1880s prohibited conduct between men came to define what it meant to be homosexual, and sodomy laws represented a republican vision of America that excluded “inverts.”6 In prerevolutionary France the crime of sodomy was punished by burning at the stake. After the revolution France became the first country to revoke its anti-homosexual laws, dropping them from the Criminal Code.7 However, France continued to treat same-gender sexuality as a crime, arresting thousands of men for “offenses against public decency with other males or for solicitation for the purposes of prostitution.”8 This history has shaped how Western nations police intimate relations.

Massive transformations in the organization and regulation of same-gender sexualities have challenged its forbidden status in many parts of the world. Numerous countries have decriminalized homosexuality and provided the equalization of laws relating to same-gender sex. In addition, many have institutionalized protections for LGBTQ+ populations from discrimination and violence and have recognized same-gender intimate relationships and parenting. By 2021, twenty-nine countries in the world had legalized same-gender marriage, and twenty-five of these are in Europe and the Americas.9 At the same time, the regulation of same-gender sexualities has been important to state logics and their very definition. Historian Margot Canaday analyzed the U.S. federal government’s influence on the construction of the category “homosexual.”10 Beginning in the early twentieth century, the state relied on policies tied to immigration, the military, and welfare to deal with the question of same-gender sexuality, leading to the postwar period in which the state came to define the citizen as decisively heterosexual. Over time, the federal government increasingly strengthened regulations to create a “straight state.” Sociologist Jyoti Puri further built on this idea of regulating sexuality as necessary to state existence.11 In analyzing why a colonial law introduced in the Indian penal code in the 1860s to criminalize “unnatural sexual acts” had rarely been prosecuted, Puri argued that, despite the lack of prosecution, the approach of the state was steeped in sexual meaning. In fact, the state expanded and justified its power by referring to “dangerous” sexualities as potentially disrupting the social order. Puri shines light on a colonial project that has criminalized racialized populations and individuals who are seen as sexually and gender-nonconforming in the Global South.12

Drawing on human rights discourses to support intervention and domination, actors from the Global North have increasingly pursued LGBTQ+ rights in the Global South, leading to what some have called gay imperialism.13 Legal scholar Makau Mutua criticizes such approaches to human rights: “The human rights movement is marked by a damning metaphor. The grand narrative of human rights contains a subtext that depicts an epochal contest pitting savages, on the one hand, against victims and saviors, on the other.”14 By fueling a racialized contest over the meaning of human rights, postcolonial regimes regulate sexuality based on reified notions of culture and tradition, often leading to what sociologists call political homophobia to deflect attention away from undemocratic activities.15 These backlash politics further stigmatize local LGBTQ+ populations that rely on organizations from the Global North for funding and support.

Although discourses of LGBTQ+ rights have fueled gay imperialism, the specter of polygamy has provided a different kind of racial and colonial project based on its perceived threat to heteronormative and monogamous ideals of family. Conservative politicians in Western nations have used the rhetoric of a slippery slope that slides from legal recognition of same-gender marriage to polygamy as a fearmongering tactic against the legalization of same-gender marriage.16 In response, many LGBTQ+ and feminist actors have emphasized the differences between same-gender unions and polygamy, underlining the virtues of equality and monogamy for the former in contrast to the patriarchal and inegalitarian nature of the latter.17 These actors argue that polygamy is antithetical to progressive, liberal, and democratic values and instead fosters authoritarian regimes. A prime example is E. J. Graff’s nuanced analysis of what marriage is for, in which she seeks to dismantle arguments that assume marriage is the natural terrain of heterosexuals. Graff’s counter to the slippery slope argument portrays polygamy as “precisely opposed to a democratic system.”18 For Graff, tribal and despotic societies foster polygamy by putting “kin first” and thus bear little resemblance to “democratic egalitarianism.”19 These kinds of sweeping generalizations are problematic because they link polygamy to racialized populations through orientalist and xenophobic logics, suggesting that these populations are backward and adverse to modern governance. Both gay imperialism and anti–slippery slope logics draw on homonormativity to incorporate homosexuality into mainstream and nationalist cultures, producing what Jasbir Puar calls “homonationalism”—the increasing inclusion of LGBTQ+ rights in predominantly Western conceptions of nationhood.20 Polygamy, though, is a practice in which sexuality and nationhood are joined through racialized tropes of sexual perversity and excessive male domination.

In this book I examine governance of polygamy in comparative perspective in France (including the French overseas department of Mayotte), Canada, and the United States as a racial project, a framework that elucidates how Western states govern forbidden intimacies to define themselves against a repudiated, racialized other. Michael Omi and Howard Winant conceptualized racial projects as the processes by which “racial meanings are translated into social structures and become racially signified.”21 Racial projects often engage contemporary significations of whiteness that have “‘overdetermined’ political and cultural meaning.”22 Routinely, whiteness is unexamined in ways that allow it to remain invisible, an unmarked identity like heterosexuality.23 In some circumstances whiteness becomes discernible and a source of anxiety, marking perceived threats to its privileged status. For example, white individuals participating in polygyny can inspire backlash against this racially repudiated practice.

Regulation of polygamy as a forbidden intimacy transforms ideals of hetero- and homonormativity, monogamy, and whiteness into racialized structures that organize law and policy to define national belonging. In Western contexts forbidden intimacies and practices marked as non-Western are labeled “cultural.” Increasing transnational migration pushes states to regulate intimacies that are seen as offensive and other, and these practices often retain their moral disapprobation and collective nature in relation to the implicit whiteness of mainstream society. The prohibition of forbidden patriarchal practices provides an opportunity to juxtapose enlightened “Western” practices against practices from other parts of the world that are viewed as “barbaric.” For example, in 2015 the conservative government of Canada relied on gendered and racialized narratives of culture and violence to adopt the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act (Bill S-7). This bill focused on forced marriage, polygamy, and honor killing as cultural issues, stoking xenophobic and anti-immigrant fears about practices seen as coming from less civilized cultures.24 Such attention to cultural practices that occur only in certain parts of the world or among certain communities perpetuates structural inequalities based on racialization and stigma. According to religious scholar Lori Beaman, “a desire to demonize the patriarchal practices of the illiberal other” can fuel anti-polygamy campaigns to deflect attention away from inegalitarian practices in mainstream society.25

In the following pages, you will learn about the racial projects of governments to regulate polygamy. Comparative research shines light on linkages between regulation of cultural practices, national belonging, and political inclusion or exclusion. Changing global dynamics—including the impact of globalization, conflicts in the Middle East, and terrorist attacks across the globe—have pushed many countries to contend with these insecurities by redefining national identity. For example, sociologists Anna Korteweg and Gökçe Yurkadul compared the ways that conflicts over the Muslim headscarf were central to understandings of national identity.26 They argued that regulating cultural practices deemed as other, such as banning the headscarf or treating it as a problematic practice in the public sphere, provided the glue for defining national belonging. Scholars have also studied arranged marriage as a cultural practice in which dominant Western representations focus on negative cases, conflating arranged marriages with forced marriages.27 This body of research points to the problematic and inconsistent ways that Western governments have dealt with patriarchal practices. Yet scholars have not fully examined regulation of cultural practices in the context of changing norms of intimacies that are forbidden.

My conceptualization of forbidden intimacies provides a critical lens on the racial projects that Western nations embrace to regulate families seen as patriarchal and oppressive. These projects structure ideals of intimacy—the quality of close association between people. The very conceptualization of intimate relationships—a closeness based on emotion, a feeling of mutual love, or a sexual connection—would seem to defy such patriarchal forms. How could patriarchal family structures that contain inherent gender inequalities provide such intimacy? Lynn Jamieson introduced the idea of practices of intimacy, pointing to the importance of how context matters in the ways that intimacy is negotiated.28 This more nuanced understanding of intimacy is important to identify the range of practices that could involve close sexual or nonsexual connections. In the case of polygamies, these practices include conceptualizing love in the context of jealousy and harm.


1. Anthropologist Mariam Zeitzen provides the following definition of polygamy and its variants: “Polygamy is the practice whereby a person is married to more than one spouse at the same time, as opposed to monogamy, where a person has only one spouse at a time. In principle, there are three forms of polygamy: polygyny, in which one man is married to several wives; polyandry, where one woman is married to several husbands; and group marriage, in which several husbands are married to several wives, i.e. some combination of polygyny and polyandry” (Zeitzen 2008, 3). Polygamy is often used in exchange with polygyny, and I follow this conflation as used by the participants in this study and the law. Plural marriage is a term used by Mormon fundamentalists and others. I use the terms polygamy, polygyny, plural marriage, and plural families interchangeably to signal that these are families.

2. More broadly, polygamous or nonmonogamous relationships signify interpersonal relationships that involve multiple marital, sexual, and/or romantic partners. Polyamory is the dominant contemporary form of romantic or sexual relationships with multiple partners in which some involve marriage and some do not.

3. For example, Bernstein and Naples 2015; Canaday 2009; Puri 2016; Weeks 2018.

4. For example, Friedman 2005; Harder 2007; Heath 2009, 2012a, 2013; Shah 2011.

5. Eskridge 1999; Mackey 1987.

6. Chauncey 2019; Eskridge 1999.

7. Corriveau 2011.

8. Corriveau 2011, 52.

9. Varrella 2021.

10. Canaday 2009.

11. Puri 2016.

12. Puri 2016. See also Ritchie and Whitlock 2018.

13. Ali 2017; Haritaworn et al. 2008.

14. Mutua 2001, 201.

15. Currier 2010; McKay and Angotti 2016.

16. Denike 2010.

17. Some prominent examples include Graff (2004), Strassberg (1997), and A. Sullivan (1996).

18. Graff 2004, 176.

19. Graff 2004, 176.

20. Puar 2007, 2. See also Duggan 2003.

21. Omi and Winant 2015, 109.

22. Winant 2001, 107.

23. Brekhus 1998; M. McDermott and Samson 2005.

24. Abji et al. 2019.

25. Summarized in J. Bennion and Joffe 2016, 13–14.

26. Korteweg and Yurdakul 2014.

27. Pande 2015.

28. Jamieson 1999.