Top 10 Reasons The US Should Legalize Polygamy
What exactly is Polygamy? Most of us think that it is the practice of a man marrying more than one wife and it is true, that is a specific form of polygamy known as polygyny. Another form of polygamy is known as polyandry and is the practice of one woman having more than one husband. While polygyny is the more common form of polygamy, polyandry has been known to be practiced in some cultures.
Polygamy has always been considered illegal in the USA; indeed declaring the practice illegal was one of the requirements Utah had to fulfil in order to become a state of the USA. Prior to that time polygamy had been considered legal in the territory and continued to be practiced long after the ban by a break-away sect of the Church of Latter Day Saints. That ban has recently been challenged with a plural family bringing a case to Federal Court which resulted in a decision which ruled language banning ‘cohabitation’ was unconstitutional although the ruling did not prevent the state from refusing to issue multiple marriage licenses. As such polygamy is considered a crime and perpetrators can be prosecuted for bigamy.
With the recent changes legalizing gay marriage many people feel it is time to reconsider the legal position of what might be considered by some to be an unconventional relationship and afford those who engage in them the same protections under the law as those in a traditional marriage.
Here are our top 10 reasons for legalizing polygamy.
Polygamy Is a Valid Lifestyle Choice
When the laws of the United States that govern marriage were set down the USA was a very different country. The majority of the population were devout Christians whose religions taught them that marriage was the union of one man and one woman. Groups such as the Mormons of the time (the Church of Latter Day Saints now claims to oppose plural marriage) were persecuted for their unorthodox beliefs on marriage.
Times have changed. Divorce, once a social stigma, is now the norm, gay marriage, once unthinkable, has been legalized. American society is now far more understanding of what were once seen as unorthodox lifestyle choices. But not, it appears, for polygamy. Adam and Eve are ok as are Adam and Steve but it seems Adam, Eve and Lilith is a step too far. This makes no sense! If as a nation we have decided that we should validate the lifestyle and partner choices of almost every part of the community why should we continue to exclude those in plural relationships.
We are, effectively, choosing to criminalize loving families and open their children to the risk of stigma and scorn just because they choose to love more than one person. This is an appalling value judgement and does not fit with today’s tolerant society.
There Are More Women Than Men In the World
While more male babies are born than female, men are more likely to die than women either in accidents or from violent causes. Of course there are countries like China where the one child policy has resulted in the abortion or abandonment of female children but for the US, Russia and the majority of the western world there are typically, more women than men. In the US the 2002 census showed that men outnumbered women up to the age of 24 years. Above that age there are more women than men.
Given that the average American woman does not marry until 26 years of age (and many educated and career women will delay marriage to concentrate on their career) this imbalance means that there are more women than there are men to marry them. In the past gender imbalances caused by catastrophic events such as the First World War led many women to live a life of spinsterhood – there were simply not enough men to go round.
Hollywood rom-coms often concern the tale of a woman desperately seeking Mr. Right, hoping not to be left on the shelf. Sometimes Mr. Right is taken and she has to try to take him from his current girlfriend or wife, sometimes the heroine has to defend her man from the predatory mistress. These tales are popular because they ring true to life. Women fight over men because they are a limited resource. Permitting polygamy would ensure that this source of friction could be eliminated forever and prevent any woman who wants to marry from being left on the shelf.
Raising Children Is Easier
If you have ever had children you will know just how tiring they are. You love your children with all your heart but they can be demanding and selfish (they are children after all) and sometimes you just need a break. Polygamous relationships remove a lot of the stresses and strains that come with bringing a new child into the family. They are, if we are honest, a marital structure that is perfect for the support and empowerment of women.
Women bringing their babies home from hospital will know just how isolating a time it can be. Most men can take only a limited amount of paternity leave (if at all) and they can be left, sore from the birth, suffering in some cases from post-partum depression, left to get to grips with the demands of a new baby on top of all the usual chores which typically fall to the resident parent. Imagine the comfort of having a sister-wife to help you, someone you trust completely to give the baby the care and love of a mother, someone who can help and empathize and someone whose children are the siblings of your own. This very support can help to eliminate or reduce the stresses of the early days and the benefits don’t stop there. More adults in the house mean that the earnings hit of maternity leave is softened.
Having more than one other adult in a relationship also means that you are never stuck for a babysitter when you want a romantic night out with your significant other. You have additional support when dealing with a rebellious teen, doing homework, running around for the PTA. With all those benefits why would you not want to be on a polygamous relationship.
Polygamy Is Endorsed By Religions Worldwide
Seen through the American cultural lens it is easy to think of Polygamy as something that is distinctly unusual practiced only by a few fundamentalist Mormons and by some Muslims in other parts of the world.
Polygamy (or more specifically polygyny) nevertheless has a basis in all major religions. It is tolerated in Buddhism (where marriage is seen as a purely secular not religious affair). While modern mainstream Christianity rejects the notion of polygamy it has been sanctioned in the past, perhaps most famously by Martin Luther who felt it was not against any of the teachings of scripture. This built on a long standing tradition of polygamy in early Judaism where the Torah commanded a man to marry the widow of his brother and specifically made provision that in the event of a second marriage the position of the first wife should not suffer. Traditionally, high caste Hindu men were permitted to practice polygamy with lower caste men being allowed to take a second wife if the first was unable to bear a son. Polygamy has been illegal for Indian Hindus from 1955.
Of course with the exception of Mormon fundamentalists the most well-known modern day examples of Polygamy are found in the adherents of Islam. The Prophet Mohammed was in a monogamous relationship with his first wife but, upon her death was known to have had up to 10 wives (although not all simultaneously). Modern day Islam permits a man to marry up to four wives but only if he is able to support all of them. A wife is permitted, in the marriage negotiations, to require her husband to refrain from taking a further wife during their marriage.
Polygamy Is Legal In Other Countries
Of the approximately 200 countries in the world about 50 (25%) allow polygamy to be practiced. Most Muslim countries (Tunisia and Turkey are notable exceptions with Turkey going so far as to forbid polygamists from immigrating) permit polygamy and countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia permit polygamous marriages only for their Muslim citizens. Some countries, such as New Zealand, which otherwise outlaw polygamy, will recognize polygamous marriages if they were legal in the country in which they were contracted. In other countries, polygamy is positively celebrated such as, for example, in Swaziland where the king has 13 wives. Several Central Asian republics, notably Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have debated legalizing polygamy for civil unions. The debates failed in all national parliaments but it is still seen as an important issue for securing the status of many unofficial second, third and fourth wives.
It seems deeply unfair that American men and women are denied the rights that their fellow polyamorists are permitted to indulge in in countries as diverse as Nigeria and Indonesia. Men in the Maldives and Malaysia have more rights when it comes to recognizing the women that they love and showing their lifelong commitment to them than the modern American. Even countries like Tajikistan have acknowledged that there is an urgent need to debate the legality of polygamy. The USA should take a leaf out of their book!
Polygamy Provides An In-Family Support Network
We mentioned in point 8 above that polygamy is the ultimate feminist institution in that it allows women to support each other in the rearing of their children. The mutual support that is present in polygamous relationships has benefits beyond childhood.
The practice of polygamy means that a man who wants more children does not have to divorce a woman who is approaching the menopause. Henry VIII of England would have been in a much better position had he simply changed the law to permit him to marry Anne Boleyn alongside Catherine of Aragon and such a change would have prevented a lot of national turmoil and personal heartache. Ageing women can retain the dignity of the married estate and remain with the husband and the family that they love.
In a monogamous union, when one party is sick, the day to day responsibilities fall on the shoulders of a single person. This is simply not the case in polygamous marriages where more people are earning and there are more to share the household tasks. These days it is not uncommon for older people to be put into homes as their children no longer have the time or inclination to care for them. In a polygamous marriage the younger wives will be able to care for and support the older one.
Monogamy Is Not Natural
Given the importance that our laws in the US place on marriages being contracted only between two people it is tempting to think that monogamy is the natural human state. The reality could not be further from the truth. Scientific research has shown that while monogamy is the expected societal norm in our western society this is relatively unusual when considered against the backdrop of human history. Indeed only 20% of the societies sampled considered monogamous unions to be normal and desirable.
Given that statistic it is no surprise that, when we consider of our closest relatives, the great apes, approximately 80% engage in polygamous relationships. It is true that some animals (about 3-5% of all species) mate for life but even amongst those animals ‘extra-marital affairs’ are quite common.
This does not mean that monogamy is not right for the people who choose to practice it but what it does tell us is that it is a social construct and that polygamy is perfectly normal, natural and healthy.
Polygamy Prevents Adultery
Adultery has been with us for as long as humans have had the institution of marriage. The statistics are really quite depressing, in the USA up to 50% of women and 60% of men will cheat on their spouse. Why do people do this? The reasons are pretty varied (see our top 10 list here). Some of the key reasons include falling in love with another person, they are not happy with the person they are married to or they simply are not getting enough sex.
The legalization of polygamy would go a long way towards eliminating a lot of these reasons. In a polygamous society falling in love with another person need not sound the death knell of an otherwise successful marriage. Instead a marriage of two can be expanded to three and even further if necessary. All relationships go through ups and downs and it can be tempting to think that the grass is greener on the other side. A partner in a monogamous marriage may have an affair and subsequently call for a divorce from the original spouse whereas knowing that they can take a break from the emotional intensity of one interspousal relationship while remaining married ensures a reduced call for divorce in polygamous relationships.
A woman who does not feel like sex for a period of time (whether she is pregnant, just given birth or going through the menopause) need not feel pressured to give in to sex just to keep her husband faithful as he has other, perfectly acceptable options within the marriage.
Polygamy Does Not Have To Mean One Man Lots Of Women
Thanks to the influence of Islam and the practices of the early Mormons, polygamous relationships are traditionally seen as being between one man and a lot of women. This does not necessarily have to be the case and there are many examples of societies in which polyandrous relationships are seen as both legal and desirable.
One of the most enduring cultural examples of polyandry is in Tibet where it is not uncommon for two brothers or even a brother and father to marry the same woman. Although the practice is now illegal under Chinese rule, it continues to happen under the radar. Tibet is not the only place with this has occurred, polyandry is known to have happened (and still does) in parts of India, in Polynesia, Brazil, parts of Nigeria and in many other locations.
It is thought that polyandry is particularly beneficial in societies with scarce resources where it prevents overpopulation through restricting the number of births while ensuring that people have access to sexual gratification. Polyandry with brothers also prevents land from being divided as all the family land will remain and be inherited as a single unit. Given the costs of raising a child in the US today there are many practical benefits to the concept of multiple parent relationships.
Given the new laws pertaining to the legalization of gay marriage there does not even seem to be an argument to limit polygamous marriages to those which are polygynous and polyandrous. There is no reason why three or more lesbians or a number of gay men should not be permitted to contract a polyamorous relationship which is recognized and protected by law.
Polygamy Will Ensure All Surviving Spouses Are Legally Protected
Why did gay men and women fight for the right to have their unions recognized by the state? In the main, of course, this was to do with equality, that their unions should be seen as every bit as important to them as the unions between heterosexual men and women. But this is not the only reason; marriage provides the partners with certain automatic legal protections that include inheritance and pension rights, hospital visitation rights, custody rights, access to families insurance and many more. In total, marriage in the US gives over 1,000 legal protections to the spouse.
It is possible to recreate many (but not all) of these protections through legal contracts but it is very expensive and incredibly complicated. It is unfair that those people who wish to contract polygamous marriages have to pay out thousands of dollars in attorney fees to ensure that their second and subsequent spouses enjoy some of the same legal protections as their first spouse. It relegates subsequent spouses to the status of nothing more than concubines.
Legalizing polygamous marriage will extend these protections automatically to all spouses within a marriage, regardless of their position in the family. Failing to do so sends a clear message that subsequent spouses should be penalized as a result of their lifestyle choice. As stated earlier in the article these value judgments hold no place in our modern society.
Divorce is an accepted part of our national life – up to 50% of first marriages now end before the death of a spouse and the failure rates are even higher for subsequent marriages. It is quite right that the stigma that used to surround divorcees and their children has disappeared. It leaves us, however, with the crazy situation where our society sees nothing wrong with the 5% of Americans who are serial monogamists – people who marry and divorce multiple times. Furthermore many of these serial monogamists use divorce to avoid their obligations. A 2001 study showed just under 45% of parents received the child support they were entitled to under a divorce settlement.
Essentially serial monogamists are using the law to gain the benefits of a polygamous relationship without being subject to the restrictions and duties of marriage including escaping what should be lifelong commitments to the children they have with their disposable spouses. Polygamists, on the other hand maintain that the duties and benefits inherent in one relationship should not end simply because they want to start another. They are criminalized for wanting to take lifelong responsibility for the people they have loved and the children they have created while serial monogamists are permitted to celebrate wedding after wedding, discarding their previous relationships on the scrapheap of life.
As a nation we have accepted divorce, we have accepted gay and lesbian marriage it stands to reason that there is no longer any reason or any excuse to continue to victimize those who are guilty only of loving too much.