Monday, March 13, 2006

On Harems And Toyboys

A good starting point for a feminist discussion of polygyny is the Walt Disney treatment of lion prides. Lion prides consist of several female lions and one male lion, and Disney's take on this is that the male lion, the King of the Jungle, runs a harem. He is the boss, at least until a stronger male comes along and chases him away, and the female lions do all the work for him, including getting his lunch every day. A familiar fantasy.

Now turn this fantasy on its head. Instead of a harem with a kingly male running it, what if we have a group of sister lions who run busy lives hunting and caring for cubs. What if these sisters don't really want to bother with lots of extra work just for the sake of sex and so they decide to run just one toyboy between them. They might not really care which toyboy that is, so if another male comes and beats the one they currently have, well, they swop. It makes no difference to them.

Why would the first one become the story Disney disseminates and not the second one? As far as I can tell we really don't know how lions decide on their family formation, so the second story might be closer to the truth. But it's further away from the sexual dreams of whoever wrote the Disney story.

Human harems are most appealing to a certain type of Western mind. The idea of this secluded space filled with a great variety of sex! And all for one man's pleasure. Real world harems are very different from this daydream, I've learned from reading books on the topic written by people from countries who actually used to have harems. Harems were (or are) the spaces of the women in the family. Many of their denizens were old aunties and grandmothers and so on, and the power in harems was often held by one of these old women. What went on in some of these harems, especially the royal ones, was nothing short of the power plays that ran whole countries. It was still true, of course, that the inhabitants of the harems couldn't leave and couldn't wield power openly.

But all this has very little to do with the mythical harem of the Western imagination or the similar appeal that polygyny has. This appeal deserves to be studied, analyzed and dissected, and I propose to do just that in this post. The time is ripe for such an analysis, what with the new television sitcom on the topic and the wingnut arguments that allowing same-sex marriage will inevitably lead to not just animal-man marriages but to polygyny and then the liberals will cry because polygyny will be a punishment for all those uppity women who would let gays and lesbians destroy the holy institution of matrimony. Some on the left, on the other hand, equate polygyny with polyamorous relationships and welcome it with open arms as yet another way to stick it to the patriarchal monogamous marriage.

Traditional polygyny is a family structure in which one man marries several women. Each woman has a sexual relationship with the one man, but the women are not supposed to have sexual relationships with each other or people outside the marriage. Whether the one man is allowed to have extramarital sex on top of his family obligations depends on specific circumstances. A polyamorous relationship might include polygyny as a subcase, but it is more common to view all individuals in a polyamorous relationship as entitled to have multiple partners, either within the loose definition of the polyamorous family or outside it. Or so I understand the term.

A polygyny has two aspects which appeal to a certain type of male mind. The first is the sexual variety it offers, the abundance, if you like. The second, and probably the more important one to many, is the power imbalance in a polygyny. Think of this thought experiment: Suppose that a perfectly equal monogamous marriage between a man and a woman has power shares (never mind what these are) which equal one half for each partner and add up to one total. If the couple decided to add a third partner to the relationship and wanted to keep the relationship still equal, the new partner would be given one third of the total power and the initial partners would each keep a third of the power. Adding a fourth member would drop the power coefficients to one fourth each and so on. See how power gets diluted in an egalitarian arrangement of this kind?

But this doesn't happen in the traditional polygyny. It is as if the originally egalitarian couple with their one half coefficients added another woman and then the man would still have one half but now the two women would split the half coefficient resulting in only one fourth of the total power for each and so on. Or even more realistically, the man can keep almost all of the total power however many women he adds to the marriage. Now that's what is really appealing about polygyny to some men.

And that is also what is repulsive about the arrangement to feminists. It is not the group nature of the arrangement but the relative powerlessness of the female spouses that bother us. If a man with, say, seven wives held only one eighth of the total power in the marriage and each of the seven wives held the same amount of power I'd be fine with that.

But this is unlikely to happen in the traditional polygyny because of the inherent inequality of the relationship: each woman essentially only has a fraction of a husband, including of his time, affection and parental resources, and the man can play each wife against the other wives. This is made even worse by the property and divorce laws of the countries which have practised polygyny as these usually discriminate against women, essentially depriving her of all escapes from the marriage arrangement.

What of the counterarguments to this feminist disapproval of polygyny? Isn't a good liberal supposed to let women enter a polygynous relationship of this powerless type if they wish to do so? Sure. But have a look at the average age of marriage for women in the Mormon group marriages, for example. These women are married off at an age when they are not really even women yet, and the same is true of some islamic polygynous systems. Children are not capable of making informed choices about giving away their powers. Children also don't have the training to fend for themselves in any other way, and children don't always realize that they do have other opportunities.

Or what about the argument that John Tierney makes, too, the one about how feminist polygynous marriages can be because there is always another wife to care for your children so that a career-ambitious woman doesn't have to feel guilty about her long days at the office? This one is an easy one to dispense with: it is not the polygyny that conveys these advantages but the socialized form of childrearing. The same could be offered by any arrangement in which mothers with children live together with other mothers with children. In any case, feminists wanted to have fathers more involved with their children, not less involved, and that is what this seems to advocate.

Then there is the old thesis that polygyny is really for the benefit of women, because in traditional societies it allows women to climb up the social ladders by becoming not the sole wife of a poor man but the seventieth of a rich one. Isn't that swell! It's a funny way of thinking: First, have a social system which discriminates against women. Then, explain its aspects by pointing out that women benefit if they behave in the way the system sanctions, though only in comparison to what would happen to them if they didn't obey.

What about the modern version of polygamy and polygyny, then, the polyamorous relationship? Would that be ok to a stalinistic feminazi like myself? Or would it really destroy the remaining vestiges of the tradition of marriage as Stanley Kurtz argues? It's too early to tell how such relationships would work out in practice, but I suspect that Kurtz's fear is unwarranted. Running such a web of relationships will end up being far too much like hard work for most of us.