For a long time I have found the practice of polygamy intriguing, and have wondered why opposition to this form of marriage is so strong in the United States and most of the world ‚Äìsee my A Treatise on the Family, 1981,1993, Harvard University Press. I have been reflecting on this subject again as a result of the arrest several months ago of a fundamentalist Mormon leader in Utah who was charged with practicing polygamy, among other things. The Mormon Church since the 1890's had suspended the practice of polygamy under pressure from the United States Government. The act of having more than one spouse is now a felony in Utah, punishable by up to 5 years in prison, although authorities usually do not go after polygamists.
While the ferocious opposition to polygamy seemed strange even in the 1970's when I first wrote about this practice, it is much stranger now in light of developments during the past couple of decades. These developments include a successful movement to legalize contracts between gays that allow them to live as married couples, even though there is ongoing emotional debate about whether such couples can legally be considered "married". Gay couples can also adopt children. They can legally have their "own" children too through using male sperm to impregnate one partner of a lesbian couple, or through hiring women to become pregnant from the sperm of one member of a male homosexual relation. Men and women can be "serial" polygamists in the sense of marrying several times over their lifetimes after divorcing their prior spouses. Married women and men can have boy friends and girl friends without any legal difficulties, and have children with persons other than their spouses.
I have no problem at all with serial polygamy, with allowing gays to have contracts that are equivalent to being married, or to allowing gay couples to be called married. I have much more difficulty with children being raised by gay couples since that form of parenting is a venture into the unknown, but maybe that too is ok. My intent here is not to comment on these practices, but to ask why then does the strenuous opposition to polygamy continue?
Although polygamy encompasses both polygyny, where a man has several wives, and polyandry, where a woman has several husbands, polygyny has been far more common in human (and other) societies. This explains why I concentrate on polygyny, although my arguments apply also to polyandry.
The most frequently encountered argument against polygyny is the claim that it exploits women, and is a continuation of the traditional subjection of women to men. Women were indeed exploited in many monogamous and polygynist traditional societies, when they were frequently forced to marry men that they did not want to.
That hardly describes the situation these days in the United States, the rest of the developed world, and much of the developing world. Women choose their partners, and refuse to marry men who they do not want to marry, regardless of their parents' feelings or the ardor of suitors. In this world, a woman would not have to enter into a polygamist household if she would not want to. Would-be polygamist men would have to persuade second or third wives that it is worth it, because of their wealth, good looks, kindness, or in other ways. If she is willing to become an additional wife, why should laws prevent that?
What about a first wife who suddenly finds out that her husband is planning on taking additional wives? She could divorce him, share their property, and receive child support for any children they have in virtually all states without having to prove any "fault" on his part. Moreover, she could write a contract before marriage stipulating that he cannot take additional wives. The contract could provide for damages In the event of a divorce due such a violation of the contract. Judges would surely take that into account in distributing property, custody rights over any children, and the size of child support.
Some oppose polygyny because they believe too many women would be "swept off their feet" by smooth-talking actual or potential polygamists. If that were a great concern, women could be required to be older before they could legally marry into polygamist households, or a "cooling off" period could be mandated before they could do that. Yet isn't it offensively patronizing to women to believe they cannot make their own decisions about whether to enter into marriages that contain other wives? We do not offer men any special protections against the "wiles" of women, so why do women need such protection? Indeed, I believe that in marital decisions women are more thoughtful and far-sighted than men, partly because marriage has meant much more to women than to men.
The claim that polygyny is unfair to women is strange since polygyny increases the demand for women as spouses in the same way that polyandry would increase the demand for men. If men were to take multiple wives, that increases the overall competition for women compared to a situation where each man can have at most one wife. This argument against polygyny is like arguing that a way to increase the economic prospects of minorities is to place an upper bound on how many members of these groups a company can employ. Of course, actual laws that try to improve the economic circumstances of minorities often in effect take the opposite form by placing lower, not upper, bounds on their employment in different companies. That too is not sensible but I save that for another day.
Even though women as a group would gain from allowing polygyny, and men as a group would be hurt, not all members of each group would be affected in the same way. Men who do not have much to offer women would be more likely than under monogamy to remain unmarried, at least until they become older and wealthier, or more matured. Similarly, educated and otherwise attractive women who have a lot to offer might suffer if they have to face competition from several women who individually have less to offer, but collectively can offer as much or more. Perhaps opposition from such groups that would be hurt by polygamy is the political economy explanation of why that form of marriage has been outlawed in most of the world.
My argument for polygamy is one of principle to bring out certain fascinating issues. For, in fact, polygyny would be rare in modern societies even if fully allowed. Polygyny was popular in the past when men valued having many children. That is no longer the case, since few couples want more than three children, a number that usually can be easily attained with a single wife. So the main motivation for polygyny has vanished with the arrival of the knowledge economy where fathers as well as mothers now want a small number of educated children rather than many ill-educated offspring. Note that polygyny is rare even in those Muslim countries that allow it, such as Iran.
I conclude with two questions. Why the strong opposition to polygyny if it would be so rare? If modern women are at least as capable as men in deciding whom to marry, why does polygyny continue to be dubbed a "barbarous" practice?