Polygamy is the practice of marriage to multiple spouses. It is typically conflated with polygyny, the marriage of one man to multiple women, though isolated cases of polyandry (one woman marrying multiple men) can be found from time to time. While polygamy has typically been frowned upon in Western nations, outlawed by governments and denounced by churches, there are a growing number of religious and cultural groups that seek to have polygamy legalized. While it is tempting to include their demands as part of the growing movement for marriage equality in the U.S., because polygamy has been suppressed for centuries and its practitioners relegated to the fringes of polite society, polygamous relationships are poorly understood by the majority of the population. Despite polygamy’s lengthy history and its status as a sacred rite in many religions, there is a mounting body of empirical evidence showing that polygamous relationships are harmful to the women who enter into them.
Polygamy is generally thought of as a religious practice, as its origins appear to be in ancient religious texts such as the Bible and the Qu’ran. However, evolutionary biologists have argued that polygamy may predate mankind’s written history, as evidence of its practice can be found in cultures across the globe, from the Celtic pagans of Bronze Age Europe to the early days of the Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Evolutionary biologists theorize that the reason why polygamy is so widespread is because men were motivated to sire as many children as possible, a view that has largely been confirmed by anthropologists studying the same cultures. Although polygamy is almost universally banned in modern Western countries, it is still widely practiced in a number of countries across the world. However, countries where polygamy is still practiced are generally associated with institutional misogyny and are generally lagging behind in the struggle for women’s rights.
In general, polygamy is illegal in the wealthiest and most developed countries in the world: the U.S., Canada, Europe, Russia, Japan, China and so on. Polygamy is legal in a number of African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries; additionally, some countries where polygamy is illegal, such as Pakistan, allow exceptions for practitioners of Islam and other religions (Al-Krenawi, 2013). Moreover, in some countries where polygamy is legal, the man is required to obtain consent from his first wife in order to have a marriage to a second woman. This is more significant then it seems, because even in countries where women are denied basic human rights, women are still afforded enough respect that they have the ability to deny their husbands marriages to additional women.
In general, one of the beliefs underlying worldviews and religions that endorse polygamy is that men are entitled to marry as many women as they desire and/or can provide for. This is a big part of the reason why polygamy and polygyny are virtually synonymous across the world. As mentioned earlier, polyandry has been practiced in the past by some cultures, such as those in Nepal and northern India, but compared to polygyny, polyandry is almost nonexistent and is barely present today. Additionally, those cultures that have practiced polyandry did not usually do so because their women felt entitled to multiple men, but for more practical reasons. For example, the Himalayan Mountain peoples who practiced polyandry did so in order to preserve the inheritance of land between brothers.
Evolutionary biology provides a sensible and logical explanation for the prevalence of polygamy (polygyny) (McKee, 2013). From a Darwinistic standpoint, it makes sense that men would seek to impregnate as many women as they could, as the more women they had sex with, the greater the chances that they would birth viable offspring. The evolutionary reason why polyandry has been so rare is due to the differing natures of males and females. Women who become pregnant must expend a great deal of resources in caring for her children, necessitating that she bond with a man who capable of providing these resources and protecting her and her children from predators. Additionally, while the male reproductive system makes it relatively easy to inseminate large numbers of women (and thus have large numbers of offspring), the limited number of ova that women possess combined with the length of pregnancy and the reality of menopause severely limit the number of children any one woman can birth during her lifetime. Thus, from an evolutionary standpoint, men have a motivation to impregnate as many women as possible, while women have a motivation to bond with men who can provide for any children they have. These differing evolutionary goals leave men and women in opposition. Men seek to be sexually promiscuous in order to maximize the number of offspring they have, while women seek to be sexually monogamous in order to care for their offspring and ensure they survive to become adults.
Prior to the advent of human civilization, women were more or less dependent on men to provide security and resources. Pregnant women were not only tasked with eating enough food to ensure the health of both themselves and their unborn children, but of surviving in a world full of threats to their safety. Additionally, few if any men had the resources to provide for multiple partners, motivating the majority of men to form monogamous relationships; polygamy was a privilege for the wealthiest of men. While improvements in medicine and technology have improved life for both sexes, there’s no argument that women who became pregnant in prehistoric eras were reliant on men for survival.
Additionally, monogamy presented a challenge for men in both the prehistoric and historic eras. By limiting the number of women they impregnated, they decreased the likelihood of their genes being passed on to the next generation. Given the enormously high rates of infant mortality up until about a century ago, men who stayed committed to a single woman would have fewer offspring, and potentially none. Given the shorter lifespans during the prehistoric periods, men would have been motivated to impregnate multiple women with the hopes of spreading their genetic lineage around as much as possible before dying, regardless of their ability to provide for these women. This behavior is seen throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in primates such as the chimpanzees.
As mentioned previously, polygamy’s roots in human society come from the traditions of various religions. Ancient Israelites were accepting of polygamy, as were the dynasties of ancient China. Polygamy has also been practiced sporadically by Native American and west African tribes and in Polynesia, India and ancient Greece. While the vast majority of modern Christians condemn polygamy, the practice is extensively written about in the Old Testament of the Bible (Worth, 1997). There is considerable evidence that polygamy was widely accepted in the classical world and Europe prior to the rise of the Roman Republic (and later, Empire). The Romans imposed a ban on polygamy within their borders, a ban that was continued by the Catholic Church following the dissolution of the western Roman Empire, though both institutions turned a blind eye to adultery, which quickly arose as a substitute.
According to the Hebrew Bible, polygamy was permitted only for men; women who took multiple husbands were seen as adulterers. Islam allows (but does not encourage) men to marry up to four women at the same time, though husbands are expected to be fair in their treatment of their wives (Zeitzen, 2009). The Qu’ran specifically states that men who cannot meet this requirement should not marry more than one woman. Much like in the Hebrew Bible, polyandry is prohibited by the Qu’ran, and “group” marital relationships are explicitly banned.
While the majority of U.S. states have frowned upon polygamy, it was widely practiced by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who made it into a central tenet of their religion. During the early years of the church, this typically lead to friction and occasional bloodshed between Mormons and their neighbors (such as the Missouri Mormon War in 1838). In the year 1890, as part of Utah’s drive for statehood, LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff formally banned polygamy, though formal prosecutions for Mormon polygamists did not begin until 1896. As a result, a number of Mormons formally split from the LDS Church in order to continue practicing polygamy. The most notable of these splinter sects is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has faced prosecution from both state and federal authorities for its promotion of polygamy and child marriage (Bennion, 2011).
In human history, monogamy is more of an exception than a rule, as evidenced by the practice of polygamy in virtually every corner of the globe and its acceptance (at some point in the past, if not now) by the majority of human cultures. The differing evolutionary motivations of men and women can be summed up by this quote from Robert Wright: “Men can reproduce hundreds of times a year, assuming they can persuade enough women to cooperate. Women, on the other hand, can’t reproduce more often than once a year.” Different motivations lead to different behaviors.
Even biologists have found that strict sexual monogamy is almost nonexistent in the animal kingdom. Most animals are only monogamous socially: they pair up to mate and raise offspring but will have trysts with others on the side. Men feel the urge to sow their wild oats; women want security and safety. This is why the Romans instituted formal monogamy; to prevent the conflicting sexual drives of men and women from causing chaos. However, modern polygamists have sought to abuse existing laws to maintain their lifestyle, oftentimes harming their wives and children in the process (Daynes, 2012). For example, the FLDS Church maintains its members’ polygamist lifestyles by having its members utilize welfare and other social services that are meant for the starving and downtrodden. This is because even in the modern era, few men have the wealth necessary to provide for multiple wives and their children. Additionally, many polygamist cultures often exile young men from their societies in order to lessen the competition for wives. This has become a serious problem in FLDS compounds such as Colorado City, Arizona, where young men who have been ostracized by the church end up becoming homeless drug addicts in neighboring towns.
While it’s tempting to conflate the struggle for legalized polygamy with the struggle for legalized gay marriage, those who support gender equality cannot in any good conscience support polygamy. In every society where polygamy is legalized and/or accepted, it has been used to reinforce existing patriarchal power structures and deprive women of rights. By seeking to impregnate as many women as they can, men enslave women to the domestic drudgery of childcare, preventing them from taking jobs, getting educations and otherwise becoming successful, independent members of society (Hanks, 1992). It is not a coincidence that countries where polygamy is practiced lag on indicators of gender equality, such as education, wages and women’s rights (Beecher, 2011).
There is a reason why polygamy was outlawed and remains outlawed by Western and East Asian nations; it is a regressive practice that inhibits economic development and retards social progress. Despite the propaganda pushed by polygamist groups, world opinion is firmly against decriminalizing this practice. In 2000, the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that polygamy was a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the grounds that it strips dignity from women, recommending that the practice be made illegal everywhere. As of 2014, only 23 nations allow or accept polygamy.
Proponents of polygamy would argue that the state has no right to intrude on the sexual proclivities of its citizens. This argument has been used to justify the legalization of abortion, institution of gay marriage, and the repeal of laws banning sodomy, extramarital sex and other consenting sex acts. However, polygamy is not simply a matter of sexual preferences or orientations, but a very real social ill that degrades the lives of women who are ensnared in its web. Even with the march of progressivism in the U.S., there are some lines that simply should not be crossed. Treating polygamy as a matter of “preference” or “freedom” is like arguing for the legalization of murder because serial killers like Ted Bundy derive sexual pleasure from killing people.
The fact of the matter is that polygamists seek to reintroduce patriarchy under the cloak of marriage equality. Their movement is a Trojan horse threatening to undo every scrap of progress that women and minorities have made in the past hundred years. Polygamists have yet to produce or create a society that shows basic respect for the rights of women and does not impoverish them in the name of “God” or whatever excuse they use to justify their misogyny. Allowing them to continue their practices will simply halt social development and return the human race to the era of cavemen.
Appeals to evolutionary biology are invalid. While polygamy may have been beneficial to our ancestors, we have risen above the petty demands of our genes. Ultimately, the only way to continue advancing human society will be to educate the downtrodden in the righteous of social progress. If this means dismantling the sexist belief systems that give justification to polygamy, so be it. A tradition that keeps women in bondage is a tradition that doesn’t deserve to survive.
Al-Krenawi, Alea. Psychosocial Impact of Polygamy in the Middle East. Chicago: Springer Press, 2013.
Altman, Irwin. Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Beecher, Maureen and Anderson, Lavina. Sisters in Spirit: Mormon in Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective. Chicago: University of Illinois, Press.
Bennion, Janet. Polygamy in Primetime. San Francisco: Brandeis Press, 2011.
Daynes, Kathryn. More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Hanks, Maxine. Women and Authority: Reemerging Mormon Feminism. New York: Signature Books, 1992.
McKee, J.K. Is Polygamy for Today? New York: TNN Press, 2013.
Van Wagoner, Richard. Mormon Polygamy: A History. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989.
Worth, Roland. The Sermon on the Mount: Its Old Testament Roots. New York: Paulist Press, 1997.
Zeitzen, Miriam. Polygamy: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2009.
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