This Saturday, the Lifetime Network will premiere Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs , a movie detailing how the titular FLDS leader (played by Tony Goldwyn) rose to power and the many ways he abused that power. Among his crimes, Jeffs illegally arranged the marriages of underage girls with adult men. In an era of polygamy being as visible as ever, especially as our national discourse on marriage rights evolves, it's becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the darker side of plural marriage. Kody Brown and kin, known to audiences as the family at the center of TLC's Sister Wives , are also polygamists and Fundamentalist Mormons, however it's clear that their lifestyle is much more like a regular marriage, and all of the wives are adults who have given their consent to be in the relationship. So do the Browns have any sort of connection to Jeffs?
Not personally, but they have seen firsthand the kind of damage that his crimes have caused. In an episode of Sister Wives, the Brown family met with some of the girls from Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Family patriarch Kody was appalled by what the young women had been through, and commented that it was unfortunate his lifestyle was judged on the basis of someone as sinister as Jeffs. Kody's wive( Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn) were also very upset by what they learned, calling the girls' drab prairie garb instruments of oppression and weeping over plural marriage being used to abuse and control.
While shows like Sister Wives and My Five Wives normalize polygamy and showcase its potential among consenting adults, make no mistake that sects like Jeffs' are a different breed altogether. For every news appearance the Browns have defending the practice, there are reports like the one from the Salt Lake Tribune, of women being rescued from compounds after lifetimes of servitude beginning as early as age 13. While the policies and beliefs of his FLDS church are rejected by mainstream Mormons, it's important to remember that Jeffs and those like him are baddies through and through.
In addition to his exploitation of young girls, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports on some of the "prophet's" more harrowing opinions, including the idea that race mixing results in people being "cursed" and that those of mixed race can never attain priesthood. The report also quotes Jeffs' beliefs about homosexuality, which he equates to committing murder. While Jeffs is safely incarcerated in Texas, the damage he left in many young women's lives cannot be erased so quickly. Though the stars of TLC's polygamy shows aren't abusive by any means, the jury is still out on if one can easily consider those unions beneficial for the women involved. Any way you slice it, it's a hard case to make that an institution that merely collects women can manage to treat them as individuals with their own motivations and autonomy.