The most popular critiques of polygamy come from strange (but frequent) bedfellows—feminist scholars and family values conservatives. Feminists contend that when a man takes more than one wife, he devalues both his original spouse and each additional spouse that he collects. In their view, the institution of polygyny simply multiplies the already problematic power dynamics that already exist between husband and wife. What’s more, in a society where women are believed to be at an inherent disadvantage to the position of men, feminists question whether polygyny can really be considered a voluntary choice to begin with.
Conservative critics, ever the watchdogs of sexual decency and permissible behaviors, attest that polygamy is nothing more than a ruse to indulge in animalistic amounts of sex with multiple partners. Forgetting or forgiving the fact that the early patriarchs of the world’s largest religions famously indulged in this now-taboo act, conservative critics of polygamy see the practice as an affront to the cherished institution of traditional marriage. They argue that children are best raised in a household with one mother and one father and that any alternative arrangement would have damaging effects on children’s psyches. In fact, polygamy is routinely trotted out as the next horrid stop on the slippery slope of allowing (gasp!) gay marriage.
Let us first address the feminist critique. Is polygyny a bad deal for women? At first glance, it seems hard to disagree: the image of a solitary man surrounded by a growing harem of successively more-youthful brides rouses feelings of pity for the plights of the auxiliary wives and disgust at the hubris of the husband for whom one spouse is simply not enough. But let us momentarily place our visceral reactions aside and consider the economics of the affair; why might a woman voluntarily agree to this kind of arrangement instead of a traditional marriage?
Imagine that you are a young woman surveying the prospects for potential partners within your community. You would, of course, like to find yourself hitched to the most eligible bachelor; the handsome and healthy go-getter with big plans for the future and an even bigger heart to care for one lucky lady. Unfortunately for you, so does every other girl in town. As the singles in this town dine, dance, ditch, and ultimately discover their approximate sexual counterpart, you may look across at the knight in faded armor with which you’ve ended up—a man with but a fraction of the ambition, skills, charm, and resources of your heart’s (and wallet’s) true desire—and find that you would rather play second-fiddle as the second wife of the alpha male than remain the sole wife of the lesser lout that you could land on your own. Of course, you will have to share your spouse with another woman, but the benefits of having access to a portion of a near-perfect husband might outweigh those of having a disappointing husband all to yourself. In this scenario where women freely agree to participate in a plural marriage, polygyny can be a powerful engine to improving women’s welfare; by allowing alpha males to stay longer on the mating market, it gives more women a crack at landing a great man who can provide for her…and his other wives.
The conservative critique, on its face, is grounded in a specific moral foundation that many people may not share. Simply put, fewer people are concerned about the “sanctity of marriage” than they were in the halcyon days of the 1950′s. True monogamy, wherein a person has one spouse for their entire life time, is rapidly disappearing. Even people who purport to believe in the institution of monogamy don’t exactly practice what they preach: serial monogamy has become the new normal. People already marry more than one person over the course of their lives, they just space it out and create a lot of social strife in the process. Bitter divorce proceedings pit children against parents, cause lasting emotional wounds, and split up familial wealth.
If a marriage is heading south because of waning romantic tidings between spouses but the parents are thoughtful enough to try to stay together for their children, it’s hard to see how agreeing to invite more spouses into the relationship is objectively more damaging to their children than the alternative of inevitable ruthless court squabbles over dividing assets and haggling over visitation rights. In fact, the children would probably benefit from having more parental figures to care for them in addition to avoiding the awkward tension between their parents that inevitably results from divorce. Viewed in this light, polygamy should actually be embraced by family values conservatives as a way to strengthen family bonds and increase support systems for children.
Given the rise of serial monogamy, the conservative critique is likely not directed at protecting true monogamy per se, but rather at maintaining the social status quo. This is where the conservative critique brings up a valuable point. Monogamy is, essentially, a tacit collusive agreement among men to restrict competition in the mating market. Men benefit from monogamy because the “lesser louts” are given a higher probability of landing a mate even though they may not have much to offer their spouse. By managing to wrangle a wife through monogamous collusion, these louts, then, are given a purpose and sense of happiness that generally keeps them off the streets and out of trouble. What might happen if this collusion were to end?
More sophisticated arguments against polygyny consider the social ramifications of a world where huge numbers of men are unable to find mates and become restless and unruly. They point out that in early human history, when gender ratios became skewed to the point where a large portion of men could not find wives within their community, warfare erupted as the surplus men attempted to poach the resources and women of a neighboring tribe. These critics propose an excellent challenge, but they neglect to consider the pacifying nature of the moral Flynn effect that has since tempered and tamed our society. In fact, the advent of polygyny and unleashing of sexual competition could provide the couch potatoes and basement dwellers of the world with just the kick in the ass that they need to get their acts together. The growing pains of having to fully compete on the mating market would certainly be a unwelcome shock to the sedentary betas who are used to exerting a bare minimum of effort and still managing to snag a significant other, but over time their lives would likely be fuller and more satisfying as they improved themselves and eventually found a mate by virtue of their character instead of through collusive social norms. And, of course, women would then have a larger pool of attractive suitors from which to choose.
Large economic changes tend to have dramatic effects on the social makeup of society. Our hunter-gathering ancestors preferred polygamistic relationships. The dawn of the agricultural revolution resulted in the institution of monogamy. The fruits of the industrial revolution allowed women to enter the job force and eventually strike it out on their own. As we approach the cusp of the next post-industrial economic era, the makeup of our familial institutions is likely to change in tandem. Polygamy is again a candidate to be a dominant social institution. To me, it doesn’t sound half bad.