Does History Prove Polygamy or Polyamory Is Bad?

Slate.com’s Libby Copeland claims that history proves plural marriage is harmful to society:

As marriage historian Stephanie Coontz has pointed out, polygyny is less about sex than it is about power. Rich old guys with lots of wives win twice: They have more women to bear them babies and do household work, and they also gain an advantage over other men. After all, in such societies a young man in want of a wife cannot simply woo her. There is too much competition, and he probably has too little to offer. So he winds up having to do work for a more powerful, polygynous man, bringing him gifts and tributes, in hopes of someday being rewarded with one of that man’s many daughters. “Often the subordination of women is in fact also a way of controlling men,” says Coontz, who was not involved in the study out of the University of B.C.

That polygyny is bad for women is not necessarily intuitive. As economist Robert H. Frank has pointed out women in polygynist marriages should have more power because they’re in greater demand, and men should wind up changing more diapers. But historically, polygamy has proved to be yet another setup that screws the XX set. Because there are never enough of them to go around, they wind up being married off younger. Brothers and fathers, realizing how valuable their female relations are, tend to control them more. And, as one would expect, polygynous households foster jealousy and conflict among co-wives. Ethnographic surveys of 69 polygamous cultures “reveals no case where co-wife relations could be described as harmonious,” Henrich writes, with what must be a good dose of understatement.

I think Copeland is looking only at polygyny and discounting social evolution and modern morality. Besides, if you go looking for something bad, you generally find it. I think her piece discounts the many positive experiences of plural relationships in America today.

What do you think?

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About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.


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