Saturday, February 11, 2012

Believe it or not, polygamy isn't evil

It intrigues me greatly that mainstream American society, which is open to all sorts of ideas about sexual identity and different family types, is so intolerant of polygamy. I can understand, to some degree, where this intolerance comes from. Polygamy, as it has been practiced in the United States and elsewhere, has done its fair share to create rigid hierarchies, inequality and resentment within families. It is precisely the sort of situation that could facilitate exploitation and abuse, and in the case of Warren Jeffs of the FLDS Church, it has done just that. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where polygamy is part and parcel of various communities’ traditional practices, there are many cases where the institution has been abused to force teenage girls into marriage to older men.

However, it would be dismissive to run up a catalog of all the evils that have been committed in the name of polygamy and then say that was the full story about it. The truth of the matter is that polygamy is not epitomized by Warren Jeffs' version of the institution. It is part of normal, everyday life for many people in many societies globally. There are plenty of people who have grown up in families that have practiced polygamy for generations. Some of them have learnt to idealize the practice by virtue of their experiences; others hate it; yet others are neutral. Their varying responses to polygamy are indicative of their unique experiences, not of some general rule that can be applied to all polygamous marriages.

The point that I am trying to make here is that polygamy is a complex institution: so there is no point in presenting a one-dimensional view of it. There are different stories to be told about polygamy. Warren Jeffs’ story is just one of them. So we should not do this subject a disservice by painting polygamy as the great subjugator and monogamy as the great equalizer. Some might find this hard to believe, but out there in the world are situations in which men and women have fared better by virtue of being in polygamous marriages than they would have done in monogamous marriages. At this point, I should mention that I am aware that the term “polygamy” applies to men who marry more than one woman (polygyny) as well as to women who marry more than one man (polyandry). Polygyny happens to be more widespread than polyandry, but my observations apply to both.

Polygamy can be functional or dysfunctional. Co-wives or co-husbands can hate each other and fight tooth and nail over family resources; or they can learn to accommodate each other and even develop close friendships. In the most functional of polygamous families, all children see each other as brothers and sisters and they see all the adults in the marriage as their parents. I’m not just saying this. I see it with my own eyes every single day in the lives of my friends. They may be Muslim or follow indigenous African religions, but for all of them, polygamy is just the ordinary, everyday life that they know. These are well-adjusted families in which the different people have learnt to live together and work together harmoniously. Any objective observer of these families would have to admit that, for them, polygamy works.

I suspect that many critics of polygamous marriage are so strongly against these marriages because they assume that they exist solely to meet the sexual needs of the men. They may not realize that there are other motivations for practicing polygamy. This is where sociology comes in handy. It allows us to set aside our cultural prejudices and to study societies through objective lenses.

In those societies that have practiced polygamy for generations, it can be thought of as a social adaptation to their unique environmental and economic conditions. For instance, in cases where there are significantly more productive-age females than males, polygyny is almost inevitable. In some societies, the beliefs and practices surrounding childbearing required women to abstain from sex beginning in early pregnancy and ending when the children were finally weaned off their mothers’ breast milk. This allowed the mothers to concentrate their energy on their pregnancies, and then on nursing. Their husbands would turn to their second wives under these circumstances. Now, keep in mind that these were societies that did not have the same contraceptive options we do today. So these practices helped women to space their children and to give them constant attention during those crucial (and dangerous) first years. Thus, they promoted maternal and child health. In other societies, post-menopausal women actually talked their husbands into marrying younger wives because they were no longer interested in having sex.

In yet other societies, women became second wives to their brothers-in-law after their husbands died. This gave them protection within their late husbands’ extended families and access to the families’ resources. The alternative would often have involved being sent out into the harsh world without a penny to look after themselves and their children. In those Asian communities that traditionally practiced polyandry, a woman would often marry a man and his brother(s). Doing so ensured that the families’ resources were pooled instead of being fragmented with each generation. I am not claiming that these circumstances were ideal or that they worked equally well for all concerned. I'm just pointing out that they were practical arrangements that made economic sense in the bigger picture and helped families to survive. Chances are that, if some of these societies had not practiced polygamy, they would not have lasted as long as they did.

For the record, I am not actually a proponent of polygamy. I wouldn't sit my young nieces down and tell them fairy tales about the joys of polygamy. But I do think it is naïve to call it an evil practice. Polygamy is not any more “evil” than monogamy is. Both institutions can be used to promote inequality and to facilitate abuse. Both institutions can leave the participants immensely dissatisfied. In fact, they both do all of the above, and that is why divorce rates are so high. Whether a marriage (polygamous or monogamous) is healthy and functional ultimately comes down to the circumstances surrounding it and the personalities and motivations of the individuals involved.

 This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Great Blog!! and Thank you!
    Do you have References or Citations?
    What kind of scientific evidence exists that helps us understand the flow of these practices?

  2. Thank you. For a variety of perspectives, see Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen's Polygamy: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (2008). See also Dr. Helen Fisher’s Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray (1992), and Dr. Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene (1976).