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Utah: Three’s Company?

The Utah State Senate has voted 29-0 to decriminalize polygamy, a legally sanctioned or illegal marital relationship in which one person has more than one husband or wife at the same time. If approved by the Utah House of Representatives, the legislation would reduce the penalty for polygamy from up to five years imprisonment to a fine equivalent to that of a parking ticket.  While polygamy is still illegal on the federal level across the United States, it is practiced and legal in many countries. Let’s take a moment to consider the various marriage forms that exist around the world.

Polygamy is, in fact, an umbrella term that means one person with multiple spouses. A man with multiple wives is practicing polygyny, a legally sanctioned or illegal marital relationship in which one man has multiple wives. On the other hand, a woman with multiple husbands is practicing polyandry, a legally sanctioned or illegal marital relationship in which one woman has multiple husbands. It is worth noting that polygamy, in whichever form, is very different from bigamy. With bigamy, a person who is already married secretly marries another person. By comparison, polygamists are aware of each partner and do not enter the relationships in secret. Although illegal in the United States, polygamy is practiced by some conservative Muslims and fundamentalist Mormons.  Estimates on the number of practicing polygamists in the U.S. are hard to confirm precisely because of its illegal status. Interestingly, Americans’ opinion about polygamy has changed in the last few years, with seventeen percent saying it is morally acceptable. Arguably, the popularity of cable TV shows like Sister Wives, My Five Wives and Seeking Sister Wife have contributed to this greater acceptance.

Most Americas practice monogamy, a marriage between two people. While historically, the laws pertaining to marriage in the U.S. only applied to heterosexual couples, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in the case Obergefell v. Hodges legalized two-person marriage for all regardless of sexual orientation. According to the Census Bureau, in 2019 there were 543,000 same-sex married couple households, and 61.4 million opposite-sex married couple households in the United States. As we have seen, there are a variety of marriage forms around the world.

This blog post is provided by the co-authors of SociologicalYOU (Fourth Edition), a digital NextGen Introductory Sociology textbook engaging students in critical thinking to “Connect Sociology and YOU!” For more information, contact