Monday, March 13, 2006

My Three Husbands

I am polyandrous. One husband has the advantage of a well-paying job, one is really handy around the house and an excellent cook and the third One is a lovely ebony, one blond and sky-eyed and one a warm golden tone all over. I never get bored. --It makes no sense for goddesses to be monogamous, but you shouldn't try this at home.

Just kidding, of course. I was trying to get into the ebullient mood some guys develop when they write about polygamy, the reverse situation of one man with many wives. Even when the talk is about the general practice of polygamy, these men write about it from the lecherous angle. Really. And from that angle polygamy is a Good Thing. But because some readers of this writing might be women who wouldn't take kindly to their being boxed by sexual skill levels and skin color and so on, this Good Thing gets hidden under stuff about how good polygamy really is for women, sort of.

John Tierney does this in his recent New York Times column, probably provoked by the new sitcom, "Big Love", about a man with three wives:

Some opponents of polygamy call it the exploitation of women by rich men, and that's true if the wives are coerced into the marriages. But many wives have willingly chosen it, like the three women on "Big Love," who have married a successful businessman.

These three wives, who live in adjacent houses, sound much like the women in polygamous marriages I've talked to in rural Africa. The African wives told me they had mixed feelings about the arrangement — and their fellow wives — but over all, they figured it was better to share one prosperous husband than to marry someone else without land, cows or a job.

That's the way social scientists figure it, too. Polygamy isn't the cause of women's low status in traditional societies, but rather a consequence of their trying to move up. The biggest losers from polygamy are the poorer men who end up with no wives. Women benefit because polygamy increases their number of marriage prospects — and in traditional societies, marriage is often the only way for a woman to improve her status.

As an aside, it is bad research to assume that a sitcom proves anything about a social phenomenom, John. For Chrissake, those women are actors who go home every night, they are not actually all married to the male actor.

Not as an aside, isn't it interesting how quickly in this quote polygamy turned from an exploitative practice into something women do to "better themselves"! It's like saying that if I'm imprisoned even though I'm innocent, the system is good for me if I manage to convert a ten-year sentence into a three-year one by bargaining smartly.

This long preamble is to point out that polygamy appeals to some men because it lets them imagine a world where they have an unending supply of willing bed partners and nobody will tell them off for that. The fact that a truly polygamous society would leave the majority of men without anyone to warm their bed is ignored, because somehow no man is going to be in that large losing group. Though Tierney does admit this as a slight problem with polygamy. Well, not a slight one. He thinks it's the worst thing about polygamy!

It's all quite funny. Maybe I should get more serious for the rest of this post. Let's try.

Polygamy is actually the term for a group marriage where one man or one woman is married to more than one person of the other sex at the same time. Polygyny, the case where one man is married to several women, is more common than the opposite practice of polyandry, where one woman has several husbands. Polygyny is sanctioned by the Koran for muslim men who are allowed to have up to four wives. I don't think that the Koran bans polyandry, but the interpreters of Koran have decided that women are not allowed to have multiple husbands. Polygyny is also still common in many African countries, though it is fairly rare everywhere in terms of actual numbers of practitioners because having many wives is expensive for men in traditional societies.

Some Mormons in the United States also practise polygyny, despite the fact that the Mormon church no longer sanctions it.

Polyandry is fairly rare today. It is practised in the mountainous regions of Nepal where brothers may take one wife in common. The reasons are to do with the amount of adult labor that is needed in the harsh climate to bring up a family and perhaps also with the high local maternal mortality rates which distorts the ratio of women to men from equality. More generally, polygamy may have been a solution to distorted sex ratios. For example, the Koran stipulation about how many wives a man may take was created at a time when warfare had killed large numbers of men and therefore left their wives widows.

In normal conditions the numbers of men and women are fairly equal. This means that polygamy of either kind will leave at least some individuals without marriage partners altogether, and may explain why polygamy is unlikely to become more common. But polygamy also suffers from additional problems. Some studies show that children born into polygamous marriages in Africa suffer from worse health than children of monogamous marriages, even though the polygamous families are wealthier. It could be that the intrafamily competition between the offspring of different mothers might be the cause or it could be that a fraction of a wealthy father's resources is less than all of a poorer father's resources.

Then there are the psychological difficulties of keeping polygynous relationships peaceful. The common solution appears to be to house each wife in a separate household. This is expensive, and it also means that the children will only see their father occasionally.

Is that enough cold water poured over any man who dreams about lording it as the man with many wives? I doubt it. That's why I'm going to write a second post all about the feminist analysis of polygamy.