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Polygamy is the state of simultaneously having multiple marriage partners, or, in some contexts, multiple sexual or relationship partners, as opposed to monogamy, the state of having a single partner or spouse.
Polygamy is often confused with bigamy, the crime of entering two legally binding marriages in a jurisdiction that recognizes only monogamous marriages. However, bigamists do not necessarily have a polygamous relationship; more often they are estranged from one spouse and marry another without obtaining a divorce.
It's also not to be confused with polyamory, which doesn't (usually) involve marriage or threats of divine punishment.
Polygyny and polyandry
Within the wider definition of polygamy, the term polygyny refers to one man having multiple wives, and the equivalent term for one woman having multiple husbands is polyandry.
Historically, the most common form of polygamy has been polygyny, while examples of polyandry are rare or non-existent in most societies, with Tibet being one notable exception. The Old Testament contains numerous examples of polygynists, including that old perv King Solomon, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines (though most guys would probably have preferred that the other way around).
One reason for the precedence of polygyny over polyandry may have been patriarchal attitudes favoring female servitude. Another aspect is the practical consideration that it is possible for one man to have multiple wives pregnant at the same time, and thus increase his family all the more quickly or ensure a successor to inherit his estate. Having an heir was crucial in pre-modern societies, and being married to an infertile wife could be disastrous for any landowner or leader, while polygyny brought safety in numbers. It also served to balance out gender ratios if many men had been lost fighting in wars.
However, any society where polygyny was widely practiced would remove a large number of women from the marriage market and leave a large number of unmarried men (if we assume that there has generally always been an approximately equal number of adult men and women). Hence it would only be a sustainable system in a society where a large number of men were also removed from the marriage market, for example as slaves or eunuchs, or, as mentioned above, due to military service. Another option would be Homosexuality, in that more men are gay than women are lesbian. While there is some indication that this is in fact the case, most societies that practice(d) polygamy are somehow against gay marriage.
It seems probable, however, that polygyny in cultures such as ancient Hebrew civilization was only practiced by a wealthy minority who wanted large families, or like Solomon, who collected wives as a sign of status.[note 1].
Other potential methods of dealing with the gender imbalance of multiple wives include:
- Encourage male (but not female) homosexual behavior. Thus the minority of men can have the women as many wives, and the remaining men can have each other. (Of course, this assumes that human sexuality is... pliable.)
- Prevention of male births, through methods such as sex-selective IVF, sex-selective abortion, or male infanticide.
In theory those methods would work, but it appears that no polygynous society has ever adopted them. Mormon polygamists do not avail themselves of the above methods, since they would be in opposition to their religious views. Instead, they deal with the imbalance by exiling adolescents from their community, who then become homeless 'Lost Boys', often turning to crime or prostitution to support themselves. To make things even worse, prior to exiling the majority of adolescent males from their communities, many Mormon polygamist groups find them a good source of labor for construction and other such tasks, often to support the business interests or families of the leading men. And then they make the boys out to be against the faith or somesuch before expelling them.
Despite the claim that "free love" and sexual freedom for women are characteristic of "primitive man", polyandry is rare in hunter-gatherers, with most of the ethnographic record of polyandry coming from pastoral and farming cultures in South Asia, or horticulturists in the Amazon Rainforest. Nor does polyandry appear especially beneficial to women: in the two most noted instances of polyandry -- the Tibetans of the Himalayas and the Toda of the Nilgiri Mountains in Kerala -- the practice is closely related to an ideology of male solidarity (as the men involved are usually brothers) and female subordination. In a patriarchal culture, having one husband can often be a source of tension in a woman's life. One can only imagine how much greater tension would arise if said woman had to deal with multiple husbands, all of whom are likely to put their collective interests over her individual ones.
Most of the Biblical patriarchs had more than one wife.  No passage of either the Old or New Testaments condemns polygamy, or even endorses monogamy as at least somewhat preferable in the eyes of God. (Jesus does condemn divorce, but to interpret this as against polygamy is circular -- it assumes that marrying two people requires "divorcing" one of them.) The closest such passage is the "one flesh" passage in Genesis which is referenced in several places in the New Testament. It's often quoted in wedding sermons, and also by Christians seeking to defend monogamy as "more Biblical" than polygamy.
[Adam] said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Apologists point out that it says "wife" and not "wives", so there ya go! This is problematic in several ways:
- The main "point" of the passage could be etiological and not imperative; that is, it's explaining the origin of heterosexual marriage (God made women from men, and ever since then, the two have "reunited" via marriage and/or sexytimes) rather than instructing the reader to do anything in particular. After all, the word "shall" can have at least two subtly distinct meanings in this context.
- The laws described in the bible (Deuteronomy 21:15-17) either permit or imply polygamy. In the case of the listed verse, describes the right of firstborn is not affected by which wife is loved more.
- Another Biblical excerpt (Corinthians 6:16) assumes that any two people who have sex, even if not married, have become "one flesh". So the Bible itself, by way of Paul, suggests that the Genesis passage isn't really about marriage per se (it might be a sort of commandment in the vein of "go forth and multiply").
- If an early passage of Genesis is meant to condemn polygamy, why does God remain silent about it for the rest of his book, throughout generations of polygamous patriarchs of Israel? Maybe it's because, as Jesus said of divorce, their hearts were hard and so God couldn't tell them his real beliefs on the issues. But even Jesus doesn't mention anything about plural marriage, one way or another. (One of his parables, the ten virgins and the bridegroom, may even have been about a polygamous marriage. There is evidence that later editors modified things so that the story's ten virgins, of whom five wise ones find the groom and five foolish ones don't, are "bridesmaids" rather than brides.)
- Suppose we are to interpret the wording of "wife" instead of "wives" as a strict denouncement of polygyny. In that case, why not interpret the rest of the passage just as strictly? Examining the first part of the sentence, we learn that a man must leave "his father and mother" to go live with his wife. Therefore, no male orphans, or adopted men, or men who were raised by just one parent, should be permitted to marry. And after the wedding, they can forget about living with his folks. (Though they probably would prefer not to anyway.)
A few other passages have been cited as against polygamy. One is from a set of instructions about good kings, in Deuteronomy 17:
16. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” 17. He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
The passage's intent is probably not that the king should have only one wife, just that he shouldn't have an excessive number, like Solomon's 700. Otherwise, by the same argument, a king should only have one horse and one piece of gold. (Note the typical Biblical mysogyny whereby wives are listed as property along with livestock; compare the tenth commandment.)
Given the vast amount of plural marriage in the Bible and absence of any condemnation of the practice, it's almost a surprise that "Biblical marriage" hasn't become a modern euphemism for polgyny, the way that "knowing in the Biblical sense" means "having sex with." Instead, it's primarily used as a rhetorical weapon against same-sex marriage, as in the 2012 fracas involving Chick-fil-A.
It's the old "slippery cycle": if we turn so far away from God that we accept same-sex marriage, then maybe we'll turn even further and "loop back around" into a world where marriage means one man, his wife, and his concubine.
The Church of the Latter Day Saints used to condone polygamy, but (being subject to the laws of the countries in which they live) no longer overtly encourages it: "These days you can be kicked out of the Mormon church for practising or even writing about plural marriage." Fundamentalist Mormonism continues the practice, illegally, in isolated communities.
Utah imposed laws severely punishing polygamy in 1935; however, as of 2020 it is now considering legislation that will change polygamy from being a felony to being the equivalent of a traffic violation. This change was reportedly prompted from the police's reluctance to enforce the law regarding polygamy, with no prosecutions for almost 20 years, and state and many local attorney generals having written policies of not prosecuting unless another crime is committed (e.g. sexual abuse, human trafficking, forced marriage, rape, welfare fraud).
That's a pretty slippery slope
One of the favorite arguments of loving, pro-marriage Christians is that if we legalize marriage between two people with the same set of genitalia, well, what's next? Marriage between MORE than two people?!?!!?1// (Like in the Old Testament!)
Recent editorials by pro-polyamory activists have been seen by conservatives as vindicating this fear.
According to Republican Virginia state Sen. Richard H. "Dick" Black, one advantage of polygamy over homosexuality is that "at least it functions biologically". He forgot to consider homosexual polygamy.
There are several arguments regarding polygamy.
- What about the kids? (Isn't having two parents bossing you around bad enough?/Don't we want more love for our kids?)
- Property (women as property or women sharing the property) and inheritance. Divorce would also be pretty messy.
Separate to this, there are arguments that criminalizing polygamy makes fundamentalist Mormons even more isolated, inward-looking, and suspicious of outsiders, which makes it even harder for vulnerable people in these communities to access help and public services as well as increasing the likelihood of them taking to compounds and firing at federal agents.
The penalty for polygamy is multiple mothers-in-law.
- Quiverfull: For those who want to spread their religion through offspring without breaking the law
- Oh will someone please think of the databases!
- One-on-one textual debate about polygamy
- Which might explain the fact that the number of his wives is mentioned in the Bible: To an ancient Middle Eastern audience multiple wives and concubines mostly signified status and power.
- Polyandry in Tibet. See also Wikipedia's Polyandry in Tibet article.
- Polygamy is about to be decriminalised in Utah. Is it good news for women?, The Guardian, Mar 5, 2020