I’ve recently been involved in a long polygamy discussion over at Wheat & Tares. I’ve done little to directly discuss my feelings on polygamy here, so I figure, now’s as good a time as any to start. Like most of my series, I’ll probably get halfway through it and then lose interest and abandon it, so I apologize in advance.
Some Definitions of Terms
Polygamy – The practice of one person having two or more spouses simultaneously. In theory, this can refer to either polygyny or polyandry. In practice, when people say “polygamy,” they’re typically only talking about polygyny.
Bigamy – The act or practice of marrying a second person while still married to the first. Generally this is a legal term intended to describe a crime in countries that promote and enforce monogamy. Polygamists who are prosecuted are often charged with bigamy, but to say all bigamists are polygamists is not exactly accurate. Some bigamists have simply failed to legally end one marriage before initiating another and have never lived a polygamous lifestyle wherein they are simultaneously in a relationship with two or more people at once.
Polyamory – The practice of one person loving two or more people romantically, but not necessarily in a committed relationship such as marriage. In theory, all polygamous marriages are polyamorous, but not all polyamorous relationships are polygamous.
Polygynandry – A form of polyamory involving at least two men who are exclusive with at least two women. The lines between polygamy, polygynandry and group marriage are sometimes blurry and not entirely agreed on.
I am going to start with the issue of whether polygamy should be legal, then move to the question of what the Bible says about polygyny, then address the theological question of polygyny. The shift from polygamy to polygyny is deliberate, because I’m going to address polyandry here and now.
As noted above, polyandry is the practice of one woman having two or more husbands, and polyandry comes up often in these discussions. This is primarily because: (1) Joseph Smith and some other early Mormons practiced it in at least some form; (2) A lot of the people engaging in these discussions of polygamy on Mormon-themed blogs are egalitarian-minded folks, and a system where men are free to pursue multiple wives while women are restricted from pursuing multiple husbands strikes us as obviously unfair and wrong, and (3) If polygamy were ever legalized in our Western egalitarian society, it would not just be polygyny. Legislators would have to legalize polyandry as well.
There are two broad considerations here:
In spite of strong egalitarian trends in Western societies, polyandry is extremely rare among polygamous groups
It’s estimated that about 85% of the societies that have ever existed have technically been open to polygyny. In contrast, less than 1% have been open to polyandry.  The numbers for the United States are similarly low. To my knowledge, none of the fundamentalist Mormon polygamous groups in the U. S. allow for polyandry, not even the comparatively progressive and transparent groups like the Apostolic United Brethren and Centennial Park, and the extent to which Joseph Smith practiced it in early Mormonism is debatable.
There is a non-Mormon Arizona group, Liberated Christians, that promotes all forms of polyamory and non-monogamy including polyandry, in part out of its beliefs in the equality of men and women. But it should be obvious that such groups are rare.
Why is polyandry so rare among polygamous groups and so often under condemnation? Certainly our annoying friend patriarchy with its perpetual restrictions on women plays a role. I cannot say for certain whether polygyny is the baby of patriarchy or polygamy inherently lends itself to polygynous patriarchy, but I’m not sure it matters much. The two almost always go hand in hand, which is enough for me to be highly wary of it.
But there’s another consideration as well.
The sociobiological implications of human physiology and the evolutionary impulses of the sexes
Did you know that men and women are different?
I remember one of my LDS friends bragging about how many descendants his polygamist pioneer great-great-grandfather had. And my immediate question was, “Yes, but how many descendants does your great-great-grandmother have?” He stopped, thought about it for a moment, then admitted that she probably did not have that many more than a monogamist woman. Even if she’d had multiple husbands, she could not have possibly had more descendants than she already did.
This illustrates a huge difference between men and women. On a strict evolutionary level, there are no incentives for women to live polyandrously. We don’t get any more descendants out of it than if we live monogamously, so we have less impulse to try for as many partners as possible. On top of that, we know that we’re saddled with the responsibility of gestating, giving birth to, and nursing our offspring, so what we want is someone who isn’t going to abandon us to do all that and then raise a baby on our own—that is, we crave commitment and we’re more inclined to hypergamy than men are.  So strong is our inclination to hypergamy that we’re much more willing to share a spouse if it means landing a desirable one. 
What men want is significantly different. In theory, men have little to lose by procreating with as many women as possible. Men also have higher sex drives (on average) and are more inclined towards promiscuity, so men have an evolutionary impulse to seek out as many partners as possible.  In contrast to women, men are less inclined to share their partners with other men because it leads to paternity uncertainty. 
At first glance, it would seem that polygyny is the ideal system to accommodate this, because polygyny can give both groups what they want. It can give women commitment and support, and it can give men greater access to sex and the opportunity to procreate more. Furthermore, when the most desirable males marry in a polygynous society, they aren’t taken off the market, which can be advantageous to underprivileged females as they always have the chance to marry up to the top of the pack. On the downside, this means the women are less attracted to and sometimes outright ignoring the least desirable men—a consequence that I’ll explore in a future post.
Culturally, polygynous societies have generally viewed having more wives as a sign of wealth and power, which gave men more incentive to want to have them. For women, landing the alpha male was power and security, so women had every impulse to try and marry up as far as they could, even if it meant sharing a husband.
What I Did Not Just Say
Did reading all of that make you want to throw up? Learning it certainly made me want to throw up. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much it made sense.
I need to be clear about a few things:
- I did not just say that all men are disinterested in commitment. I said that women have a strong urge for it driven by our physiology, and this isn’t replicated in men.
- I did not say that all men are horny toads. They’re just more interested in sex than women are, and there are many studies bearing this out. 
- I did not say that all women are adverse to promiscuity. They’re just less inclined towards it because they have more to risk by engaging in it.
- I did not say that there are no exceptions to these trends. I am one of them. I have a higher sex drive than my husband and absolutely no interest in sharing him with another woman. If my choices were to marry polygynously or die alone, I’d pick Door #2. It isn’t the polyamory that repulses me, it’s the inequality. On the other hand, I could probably suffer a marriage where I’m just as free to pursue other partners as my husband is, even if I never actually did. I’m sure that many other men and women could say, “These trends don’t describe me personally,” and that is okay.
I think that this information explains many of the trends we observe in our society. It explains why men are more inclined towards multiple sexual partners and extra-marital affairs.  It explains why younger women are more likely to marry older men (older men are more established) and why older men are more okay with marrying younger women (younger women have a longer period of fertility ahead of them).
It explains why we’re more inclined to scorn women who sleep around and envy men who do the same. Women are able to procure sex much more easily than men are because men are more interested in sex, so women aren’t really accomplishing much by sleeping with them. But a man who lures multiple women to his bed must have something about him that’s allowing him to beat out his competition for the women in question.  I certainly don’t endorse that double standard, but I understand where it comes from.
Trust me, I would like to believe that men and women have no differences here, that we’re all equally inclined to need commitment and equally inclined to crave multiple partners and equally inclined to be hypergamous. But it just isn’t the truth.
What It Means For Polyandry
Joseph Henrich, Chair of Culture, Cognition, and Evolution at the University of British Columbia, explains the implications of this for polyandry:
Females are limited in their direct reproduction to the number of offspring they can rear to maturity in their lifetimes, and are necessarily committed to high levels of investment, at least in the form of providing the egg, gestation, and lactation. In contrast, with little investment (sperm and a small effort), males can potentially have thousands of offspring that they can decide to invest in, or not, based on the costs of obtaining additional mates vs. the impact of additional investment for their offspring. Because human offspring benefit from the investment of both parents (at least in ancestral human societies) females seek to form pair-bonds with those males who are best able to invest in their offspring (males possessing high social status, wealth, and valued skills). A female does not generally benefit from establishing simultaneous pair-bonds with multiple males because (1) she can only have one pregnancy at a time (so lots of sex with different males does not increase her reproductive success), (2) this brings males into conflict (sexual jealousy) and (3) this creates confusion regarding male paternity (and greater paternity confidence increases paternal investment). In contrast, males benefit both from pursuing additional pair-bonds with different females at the same time, and from additional extra pair copulations (short-term sexual relationships). 
Caught in the pincer bind of patriarchal censure and sociobiological abnormality, polyandry will always be negligibly rare. Certainly if polygamy were legalized, some women would practice polyandry. But when we talk about legalizing polygamy, for all practical intents and purposes, what we’re really talking about is introducing polygyny into our society. Polyandry is an intellectual tease, an ideal we can never attain on any meaningful level, a distraction meant to divert our attention from the practical ramifications of dealing with the real issue, and a placebo to soothe the feminist outcry over polygyny.
I’ll discuss the consequences of polygyny in the next post.
Polygamy and the Myth of Polyandry
Menace to Society
 Joseph Henrich, “Polygyny in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Theory and Implications,” 15 July 2010, 23.
 Richard Sine, “Sex Drive: How Do Men and Women Compare?”
 Sine, “Compare?”
 Derek @ fMh, “Bad Y Chromosome!”