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?

About Star Foster

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

  • AMC

    I totally disagree with you. I think polygamy as a positive is a naturalistic fallacy. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it morally right or aesthetically good.

  • http://twitter.com/Peter4Magic Peter Freeman

    Polygamous society is one thing and it has intrinsic difficulties. Not least is the question of what to do with the males who are unable to obtain wives or partners due to the imbalance that polygamy creates. However. polygamous or polyandrous relationships are quite another thing. We are all different it cannot truly be said that every man and every woman has the same physical, emotional, mental or spiritual needs. For some it is a mating for life. For others it is something else.
    The only area where society and it’s laws should intervene are in the question of “Consenting adults” provided those criteria are met, larger society is neither affected nor should it be interested.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Keith-Pullman/100001874681093 Keith Pullman

    Professor Joe Henrich’s work is getting a lot of attention. It “proves” that “polygamy” is harmful to women. Of course, the same methodology will “prove” that “polygamy” causes people to become Muslim or Mormon and get darker skin.

    It is ridiculous to refuse to legalize polyamy so that people have have legal marriages when it is perfectly legal adults to sleep with a different adult every night and have children with endless different partners, and in most places, live togther. An adult should be free to marry ANY consenting adults, under full gender equality, with the freedom to NOT marry and to divorce, and with domestic violence protections.

  • Jancis M. Andrews

    Polygyny — one man with many “wives” (in reality, concubines in a harem)  – is unjust to those women. Only the first, legal wife and her children are legally entitled to benefit from the man’s health insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, life insurance, pensions, child support and medical benefits, etc. The concubines and their children are on their own and face poverty unless the man is rich and has made provision for them in his will. Kody Brown, are you lsitening?  This is why Chief Justice Robert Bauman of BC Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 23 2011 that polygamy should remain illegal because it harms ALL society, in that it contravenes the equality rights of women, harms their children, and harms younger, poorer males who have difficulty finding a wife because rich older men have taken them all. (Winston Blackmore has around 26 “wives” and 134 children, while Warren Jeffs has around 80 “wives.” That’s why these elders banish young men from their community” Polygamy is an ancient patriarchal practice that has no place in the modern world where men and women are considered equal. The year is 2012 AD, not 2012 BC.!

    • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

       Fundamentalist Mormon polygamy is only one option in a spectrum of plural marriage. In 2012 CE we shouldn’t tar an entire concept based on the experiences on a single sect.

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