Polygamy Ruling Consistent with Censorship Aims

On November 23, 2011, Chief Justice Bauman of the Supreme Court of British Columbia delivered his ruling on the constitutionality of polygamy. He concluded that banning polygamy is a justifiable infringement of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The justification was the multiple harms of polygamy, which according to the ruling are inherent in the practice. The list of harms:

[230]     The harms against women include: exploitation; commodification; social isolation; the inevitable favouritism of some women and deprecation of others within the household; discrimination; and, impoverishment.
[231]     The harms against children include: the negative impacts on their development caused by discord, violence and exploitation in the marital home; competition between mothers and siblings for the limited attention of the father; diminishment of the democratic citizenship capabilities of children as a result of being raised by mothers deprived of their basic rights; impoverishment; and, violation of their fundamental dignity.
[232]     The harms against men include: the unequal distribution of spouses and related ostracism of younger men forced to compete for a scarcer supply of women; the creation of a false appetite for patriarchy; inflammation of male lust; and deprivation of the essential bond of mutuality that is unique to the marital institution.
[233]     Finally, the harms to society that flow from polygamy include: threats to the social order and a greater need for social supports as women lacking education and opportunity to enhance themselves, as well as their children, find themselves impoverished upon divorce or the death of their husbands; harms to good citizenship; threats to political stability; and the undermining of human dignity and equality.

In other words, women cannot chose for themselves whether or not they wish to enter into a polygamous marriage, and if they foolishly do, they will become poor and isolated, and their children will share in their suffering. Meanwhile, hordes of men will be rutting about due to either a lack or an excess of angel in the house. The list of harms appears to be terribly patriarchal, and reminiscent of decades old and discredited arguments against pornography: It always exploits women, and men become rapists on viewing it. The ruling has been widely praised as a victory for women, even though it is ensuring the patriarchy of the state. This troubling approach has been questioned.

And what has this all to do with censorship?  The rationale behind modern censorship is that weaker people need to be protected. Children are considered weaker people, and thus most of the effort behind film rating is to ensure children do not see what they apparently cannot handle. Historically, women have also been considered weaker and in need of special protections. In the 1980s in Ontario, there was an effort to ensure any film that had female victims of violence have a special warning, in addition to any gender-neutral warnings of violence.

In 1992, the Butler decision on explicit sex films paid special consideration to women. The ruling noted “material which may be said to exploit sex in a “degrading or dehumanizing” manner will necessarily fail the community standards test, not because it offends against morals but because it is perceived by public opinion to be harmful to society, particularly women.” A later analysis of the ruling noted “the unfortunate outcome has therefore been the further suppression of women’s sexuality.” The desire to protect women also influenced Ontario’s Film Classification Act in 2005.

Polygamy may in fact be harmful, but I’m not convinced it always must be, and traditional marriage is not without the potential for harm. There are also good reasons for censoring films – but in the name of gender equality, it would be nice if the state would stop taking patriarchal positions in the process.

One last note – the judge’s ruling raised the spectre of ‘the other’: “I find that the possibility of increased immigration by polygamous families.” Apparent from the overt racism, this has echoes of film censorship. Over a hundred years ago, one of the evils of the nickelodeon was its appeal to immigrants, and the possibility of social disruption if they viewed immoral films. And thus movie censorship was born.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

1 comment

  1. Well, I’ve got to say that these polygamist “societies” do repress women and encapture them – they are often not allowed to leave or question their marriages, even to men many years their senior. and the damage done to young men is severe, also, as they are thrust from the society they knew and shunned in order to keep the power dynamic intact. Polygamous and polyandrous “marrriages” both perpetuate a power imbalance. I can’t agree with that.


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