Lifting the Veil on Polygamy

What do you think of when you hear the word polygamy?

Following the recent raid of a polygamous compound in Texas, you probably think of religious extremism, arranged marriages and young fundamentalist girls in prairie dresses. The truth is that lots of polygamy in America is nothing like that.

In Chicago, Yoannah and Shalemyah Ben-Israel run the Soul Vegetarian restaurant. These two women call themselves sisters, but they're not actual sisters. They are two of four wives married to a man named Prince Ben-Israel.

"It's been wonderful," Yoannah says of her marriage, "and I wouldn't take it any other way."

The Ben-Israel's willingness to appear on camera is unusual. Polygamists tend to keep their marital arrangements secret because they're breaking the law.

The only other family members we found who were willing to talk openly live in the Pacific Northwest. They are Cheryl, Nancy and Phil, who asked that their last names not be used. Phil and Nancy had already been married for almost 30 years when they decided to invite Cheryl to join the family.

"That's where the whole thing started, was a friendship between Nancy and I," Cheryl says. "It's gonna sound weird but Phil just kind of … came into the package of the friendship."

Polygamy Is Not Synonymous With Mormonism

People equate polygamy and Mormonism, but that's a myth. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy more than a century ago. Today, there are polygamists who call themselves fundamentalist Mormons, but the Ben-Israels are Jewish, and Phil, Cheryl and Nancy are evangelical Christian.

Insiders estimate that of the roughly 100,000 polygamists in the United States, only half are associated with the fundamentalist sects that broke from the Mormon church. Many polygamist families live their lives in everyday communities — they may even be your next-door neighbors.

"We just live quietly," polygamy advocate Mark Henkel said. "We conduct ourselves doing general business with everybody else … and just living quietly, you know, living our private life."

Henkel, founder of the pro-polygamy Web site, wouldn't disclose the details of his family situation to "20/20." He lives in Maine, where even purporting to have more than one wife is illegal. Henkel pointed out what he called the hypocrisy of such laws.

"Someone like a Hugh Hefner will have a successful television show with three live-in girlfriends," Henkel said. "And that's all OK. And he's making great money, and that's all fine and great entertainment. But, suddenly … if that man was to marry them, then suddenly he's a criminal. That's insane."

Polygamy's Bad Wrap in the Media

Polygamy is a felony crime in most states, and sometimes punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Most polygamists simply get married in religious ceremonies and keep quiet about it because even though these laws are rarely enforced, they are still on the books.

Recent media attention focused on the raid of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints compound in El Dorado, Texas. Months earlier, the leader of the religious sect, Warren Jeffs, was convicted of arranging a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

Even though most polygamists have nothing to do with such practices, the media didn't call Jeffs a "promoter of underage sex" but rather a "polygamist leader," Henkel said.

"The media kept saying, 'polygamist leader, polygamist leader,'" Henkel said. "But the case actually involved incest … and arranged marriage, of a girl with her 19-year-old cousin. There wasn't anything had to do with polygamy."

Can Women Benefit From Polygamy?

Ten years ago, University of Georgia professor Patricia Dixon thought polygamy exploited women, but after spending years living in different polygamous communities — some in the United States and some abroad — she was surprised to find something else.

"It's female-centered," Dixon said. "The women are the ones who are benefiting when they're in a [polygamous] situation. … It's not about another notch on your belt or anything like that. It really is the women who really promote this idea."

Yoannah Ben-Israel said, "Most women look at us and think that we are subservient women. We don't have a voice, we don't have a position, we're just led around, 'Do what I say and sit down and shut up.' And it's exactly the opposite."

Yoannah promotes plural marriage, but it took her time to warm up to the idea. When her husband approached her about adding a second wife to their family, she was hesitant.

"I cried, I prayed," she recalled. "I still didn't understand it but I gave it a chance. I said let me just … I'll give it a chance."

She invited Shalemyah into their home and a relationship developed. Now, she can't imagine life without her.

"I'm older, but she's more like the mother-wife," Yoannah said. You know, she's the mother-sister, she looks out for everything, 'Yoannah, do you have your gloves? Do you have your scarf?'"

Most days, Shalemyah cooks breakfast while Yoannah sleeps in. Yoannah cooks dinner almost every night. With more hands on deck to share household responsibilities, life is easier for every member of their family.

"Right now, I'm trying to get my best girlfriend to marry him," Shalemyah said, referring to her husband. "Come on aboard."

Cheryl from the Pacific Northwest says she also enjoys having a "sister-wife." "My children enjoy having two moms," Cheryl said.

Is Polygamy Immoral?

They're happy families, they say, so why is what they do illegal? Because, according to many, polygamy is immoral and it damages society.

"Slavery and polygamy were the twin relics of barbarism," said Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. "Those are barbaric societies that we've tried to move beyond."

But advocate Henkel resents people who condemn polygamy from a moral standpoint.

"If they're saying that that's immoral, they're calling the greatest heroes in the Bible they believe in — they're calling them immoral," Henkel said. "They're saying that Abraham, with his three wives, was immoral. Jacob had four wives. David had seven known, named wives before Bathsheba."

More than moral disapproval, polygamists must face the legal condemnation of their lifestyle.

"Who is this government, that's in somebody's bedroom, telling them how they ought to perform, in terms of their home and their society?" Prince Ben-Israel said.

He sees polygamy as an issue of civil rights.

"It was illegal for me to marry a white woman at one time," he said. "In 50 states it was illegal for me to vote, at one time. … If I had accepted somebody else's definition of what was right and wrong, I would still be riding in the back of the bus."