Big Love

Polygamy Always Evil? The Answer Can Be Complex.

Polygamist RetreatY chromosomes are in the news again this week, but for a much less amusing reason than Eliot Spitzer’s adventures. A raid on a Texas polygamous compound rescued hundreds of children, especially girls, not just from a detested minority lifestyle, but from persistent abuse.

Girls as young as twelve were “spiritually” married to middle-aged men who beat, raped, and impregnated them in the name of a splinter-group religion led by a minister (now in jail) who claimed to be God himself.

This is a far cry from the benign depiction of polygamy on the TV show “Big Love,” where viewers tend to sympathize with the relationships, laugh a bit at their complexity, and even feel compassion for the poor guy who has to balance three wives and their numerous kids, finances and all. And despite his obvious difficulties, I can’t be the only man who also felt a pang of jealousy.

But “Big Love” is about consenting adults, not sexually exploited and physically abused little girls. Say what you like about these arrangements, there are women who defend them, and they are not always just bamboozled by men. One woman sang the praises of her family, where she had warm relations with co-wives and relied on them to help care for her children while she practiced law. Some women talk about the relief they feel at not having their husbands in their beds every night, and, frankly, not having to service them so often, or feel they are letting them down.

I happened to be with a group of anthropologists at Washington State University as the news of this dreadful version of polygamy unfolded and, like me, they did not quite react the way most Americans did. To a person (half or so of them were women), they felt revulsion at the child abuse; none had a problem with the sweeping raid on the compound, and all were glad the children were rescued. Period.

But the conversation is more complex for anthropologists, because we know that many cultures accept polygamy, and many of us have lived in those cultures and have friends of both sexes who take their polygamous marriages for granted–or to be more exact, don’t take them for granted any more than we do our monogamous ones. Children as wives?– categorically No; but polygamy among consenting adults, in a framework of tradition and mutual respect? To us, it doesn’t seem so simple.

Animal species range from polygyny–one male with several females–to polyandry, the converse. Monogamy is somewhere in between. There is also promiscuous mating, in which both males and females have multiple partners. Jacanas and phalaropes, beautiful birds that live and breed on lily pads, have females that mate with several males, lay eggs for the males to take care of, and move on to their next conquest. They are larger than the males, and they fight each other for male mates–because males, being the sole parents, are the limiting factor in reproduction.

Most birds–around 8,000 species–are mainly monogamous (contrary to popular belief, geese aren’t totally faithful either). Most mammals are promiscuous or polygynous, but there are many exceptions, including some of our monkey and ape relatives, and, to a large extent, us.

Why the qualifying phrase? Well, around four-fifths of human cultures on record allow or encourage polygyny, while fewer than one percent have polyandry. The options are all there for humans, but the bias is one way. Anatomically, men and women are not as alike as the males and females of many monogamous birds, but they are close; men are bigger and have distinctive voices and facial hair, but nothing like the magnificent tail of the peacock or an elk bull’s rack of antlers–these differences were created by countless generations of female choice.

Still, we humans are more or less monogamous, and it is likely that the great majority of marriages in our history have been one-on-one. To have more than one wife you had to be successful, powerful, or rich. And a man who gets more than one woman is taking at least one away from other men. Contrary to popular belief, it is not women who suffer most in these cultures, but the men who end up alone.

Among the !Kung (the exclamation point is a click, but can be ignored in pronunciation) about five percent of men had two wives. A respected and wise friend of mine, around fifty and happily married for many years thought he would try to find a second wife, and his eye was caught by a pretty girl around fifteen or sixteen. She didn’t want him, and that was the end of it. !Kung being relatively egalitarian, no one was going to force her. But in the context of hunter-gatherer life, his offer did not seem abnormal to anyone.

Reproduction is an imperative. Were humans not strongly inclined to do it one way or another, we would not be here. But Western culture has been officially monogamous since Roman times, and polygamy is against the law. Our culture can make that decision just as the !Kung can decide differently. We can also draw a line at age eighteen, and severely punish anyone who crosses that line.

Cultural relativism is not ethical relativism; it does not mean anything goes. It means, understand before you judge, and you will make wiser judgments. We accept single-mother and single-father families and most of us accept gay unions. We take extended family households for granted. We should prosecute people who force under-age girls to marry, but as for polygamy among truly consenting adults, we might think twice.

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