Thursday, April 17, 2008

FLDS and the Oneida Commune

I teach a seminar on legal systems very different from ours. As it happens, today we will be discussing a student paper from a previous year dealing with the Oneida commune, the famous 19th century group marriage experiment.

On the face of it, Oneida was guilty of the same offenses the FLDS is charged with. Sex between young women and older men (and young men and older women) was an explicit part of their system and they made no attempt to conceal it. Their marriage pattern was even stranger than polygamy, since everyone was married to everyone. Like the FLDS, they saw their sexual system as an important part of their religion. Like the FLDS, they had a charismatic leader with complete authority. The FLDS is charged with brainwashing its members, Oneida had a well organized system of criticism and indoctrination.

Oneida functioned openly, publishing descriptions of what they were doing and why for a period of decades, and its final collapse seems to have been due more to internal problems—the founder was getting old, there was no well established successor, and the second generation, as with Israeli kibbutzim, was less enthusiastic about the system than the first—than to external pressure, although there was some of that.

The FLDS, on the other hand, functioned only by staying under the radar of the formal legal system. In both its recent collisions with the law, the treatment looks close to a presumption of guilt. The leader was charged and convicted with being an accessory to rape on the grounds that a woman claimed, some considerable time after she was married, that he had helped pressure her into the marriage—a result I find it hard to imagine in an ordinary case. The recent raid seized all of the children and took them away from their parents although the allegations, if true—and very likely they were true, whether or not the phone call that set off the raid was real—were only relevant to a small fraction of the children.

I do not think I have yet read any defense of the FLDS—any public statement arguing that they should be left alone to implement their very odd, and quite likely illegal, pattern of behavior. Yet Oneida, once established, functioned openly, propagandizing for its system, for decades. Why the difference?

Three possibilities occur to me. The first is that nineteenth century America was a more tolerant society than twenty-first century America, at least with regard to issues having to do with young people having sex. The second is that the Oneida commune was supported by the surrounding community, in part because it was an economically successful system providing employment, at its peak, for about 700 of its neighbors. The third is that its more symmetrical sexual arrangements—young men with older women as well as young women with older men—were less offensive.

Comments? Other explanations?


Unknown said...

This is tangentially related to your post, but I'm intrigued by the idea of legal systems very different from our own. Can you recommend a good book written for layman that covers this topic?

sofita said...

There is a fundamental tension between the idea of tolerance and feminism. Feminism cannot be tolerant, and often shouldn't be. Feminists who criticize women for choosing a traditional lifestyle are totalitarian social engineers that give me the creeps. Feminists who stand up for genuinely oppressive social structures, like one finds in Islam and FLDS, are right to do so.

David Friedman said...

I can't recommend a single book to Steve, since I haven't written one yet and don't know if I will. But he can find the web page for my seminar, with readings listed and links to some material, at:

David Friedman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

a woman claimed, some considerable time after she was married, that he had helped pressure her into the marriage—a result I find it hard to imagine in an ordinary case.

I can imagine it if the "woman" in question had been very young, and didn't realize until she was older that she should have had a choice in the matter. I don't know whether that's the claim in this case.

Beastin said...

As a completely random aside, the fork I am eating dinner with says Oneida on the back. Apparently when the commune dissolved it founded a silverware company.

Anonymous said...

That Marleigh Meisner looks like a total w*h*o*r*e. I'll bet she has at least four tattoos. I'd guess she probably has w***ed around with at least 84 different men.

Only a slut would want those kids taken from their wonderful families. I am praying that she comes down with brain cancer--several large tumors. I would enjoy a youtube video showing her diseased body flopping around on a hospital bed.

The patriots who are standing up for these kids and the constitution need to get together and form an organization to resist this and other atrocities by the government and their henchmen.

Further, all baptist churchs should be picketed on sunday to protest the invovlement of the el dorado baptist church in assisting the pigs, providing buses and acting as collaborators. this is a huge problem.

Anonymous said...

Your first suggestion--that 19th century America was more socially tolerant of younger people having sex--nails to speak.

Part of this is the growing infantilization of adolescence and young adulthood. People are encouraged to put off the first job longer and longer. Parents continue to financially assist their adult children. People have less interest and less incentive than in the past to take control of their lives.

Part of it is that we live longer, so putting off sex is not seen as much of a problem compared to the 19th century. If people frequently died by age 40, putting off sex until 20 meant going 50% of your life in a virginal state.

montestruc said...

the young woman in question in the Jeffs case was 14 at the time and her husband was 19. The allegations were not of force per say, but that she did not want to marry him and that by their religion the Prophet (Jeffs in this case) makes the decisions as to who marries whom, and she as I understand it did have the right to be excommunicated and kicked out, just not to stay in the religion.

Anyway for what it is worth she was one year under the current legal age to marry with parental consent now, though I cannot tell if the law has been changed recently.

My take is the the USA in the 18th through mid 19th century was in many ways far more liberal/libertarian about sex than the modern USA. Some specific acts were less acceptable (homosexuality) but so long as it was in private for the most part no one much cared. In the very late 19th century this changed.

In all cases all societies IMHO were more tolerant of female marriage at younger ages than now, and I think this had a lot to do with no practical means of birth control, and a poorer society in general. As in they could not afford to lock up the father of the child as he was needed to support the child.

David Friedman said...

One point that occurred to me after making the initial post was that the 19th century wasn't uniformly tolerant. The original LDS, after all, was pretty much chased out of town and ended up founding Salt Lake City as a result. And the founder of the Oneida commune was chased out of one state early on, before the organization was established.

Which gets us back to the question of under what circumstances you can do things that violate norms and laws but don't actually create a problem for outsiders and get away with it.

Jonathan said...

Some commenters on an earlier post described the FLDS as 'perverted', apparently because of the underage sex angle.

It depends. Sex before puberty can reasonably be described as perverted; but sex any time after puberty is biologically natural, and has been regarded as natural and normal throughout most of human history.

It's only in quite recent times that people (and their laws) have started to apply an arbitrary minimum age to sex -- for social reasons that may or may not be good ones.

Of course, sex without consent is rape regardless of age, and that's a perversion.

jimbino said...

I don't know how the Japanese legal system differs from ours, but I do find it intriguing that the Japanese do not consider sex a moral question. In Amerika, it often seems that sex (or, more broadly, pleasure) is the only moral question.

What Amerika uniquely shares with Muslims is that there are 1001 ways to sin through sex alone.

Anonymous said...

"The FLDS, on the other hand, functioned only by staying under the radar of the formal legal system."

Under the radar? The FLDS had no-bid U.S. government contracts! Everyone knew about them!

Seems to me the FLDS stopped playing ball with someone very high up in the government, and this is their payback.

You lie down with dogs, you get fleas.

That being said, if one does not grant the FLDS the freedom to pursue their lifestyle, then one has no claim to pursue one's own lifestyle in peace.

Freedom means the freedom to choose wrong.

Max Lybbert said...

Victorian America wasn't any more tolerant than Victorian England. However, Victorian America still had a frontier and it was possible for a subculture to cut most ties with society. I believe Oneida, even though it was located near major US cities of the time, still fell into "frontier territory."

After arriving in Salt Lake, and even after setting up colonies through the West, I believe that Brigham Young was looked on as something of a strange territorial governor who posed no threat to Victorian society (even though he had tens of wives) until there was a threat in the neighborhood (US-Mexican war) which temporarily "revoked" the frontier status, leading to things like the Utah War.

Ted said...

@Max: The US-Mexico War started before the Latter-day Saints were settled in Utah. In fact, the Mormon Battalion left their families in the mid-west to fight in the war, went on to help settle San Diego and Sutter's Mill, then returned to join their families in Utah. Per Wikipedia: "The Mormon Battalion was the only religious "unit" in American military history serving from July 1846 to July 1847 during the Mexican-American War. They provided funds from their salaries and allowances to assist the Mormon exodus west, such as part of their clothing allowances they provided to Brigham Young to help finance the Latter-day Saint's move to the Salt Lake Valley."