What Do Women Want? #4 - Polygamy

Actually, they like it better than you might expect.

This series started with a discussion of the decline of marriage in America and noted that many high-level marriages have had highly visible difficulties.  The media also report that many single young women are deciding that they not only don't want anything to do with having babies, they don't want anything to do with men.

It's not news for women to want fewer babies than their mothers had.  What's new is women not wanting to marry at all.  It's possible that these women have come to understand the cost of being associated with a man and have decided that having a man is not worth the cost.

The previous article touched on traditional marriage and looked at how changes in a woman's fertility throughout the month affects how she interacts with her husband and with other men.  This article discusses polygamy, which has been a common family structure throughout history.

Polygamy has not been in the news much lately; it was barely discussed even when Mitt Romney was contending for the Republican presidential nomination.  Last September, however, the New York Times published an article about the effects of polygamy in Utah:

Over the last six years, hundreds of teenage boys have been expelled or felt compelled to leave the polygamous settlement that straddles Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.  Disobedience is usually the reason given for expulsion, but former sect members and state legal officials say the exodus of males -- the expulsion of girls is rarer -- also remedies a huge imbalance in the marriage market. Members of the sect believe that to reach eternal salvation, men are supposed to have at least three wives.

Nobody wants to admit that a man's desire to have as many women as he can is natural selection's way of maximizing his reproductive success.  Believing that salvation requires having multiple wives is another way of describing a man's drive to possess as many women as possible.  The fundamental driving force behind polygamy is a man's desire for women which we've seen expressed in many news articles of late, but many countries outlaw polygamy and the mainstream Mormon church has disavowed it.

Why is polygamy ever permitted?  The driving force behind permitting polygamy seems to be women's inherent practicality.

In poorer societies, some men lack the resources to support a woman.  A practical-minded woman might not want to associate herself with a man who couldn't afford to maintain her.  She might calculate that she'd be better off as the #2 or even the #3 wife of a rich man than being the only wife of a man who couldn't feed her.

This sentiment is illustrated in the song "A Bicycle Built for Two":

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true,
I'm half crazy over the love of you.
It won't be a stylish marriage,
I can't afford a carriage,
But you'd look sweet
Upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.

The first verse expresses a familiar romantic sentiment known to all.  What's far less well known is the last verse of the same song, which summarizes Daisy's thought process:

Charlie, Charlie, here is your answer, true.
I'm not crazy over the love of you.
If you can't afford a carriage,
Forget all thought of marriage,
For I'll be damned
If I'll be crammed
On a bicycle built for two.


Polygamy seems to be, or at least to have been, quite common all over the world.

Robert Wright notes that a "huge majority" of the human societies for which anthropologists have data have been polygamous. Virtually all of those have been polygynous: that is, one husband, multiple wives. Polyandry (one wife, many husbands) is vanishingly rare. The real-world practice of polygamy seems to flow from men's desire to marry all the women they can have children with.

Having multiple husbands doesn't normally do a woman much good because her fertility is limited by how long it takes to produce a baby and recover from the pregnancy, but impregnating multiple women helps a man's reproductive success a lot. Rich, powerful men have always had multiple wives, officially or unofficially.

Having co-wives can be good for a woman.  She needs a man to feed her, sure, but men can be tyrannical, bossy, and grabby.  Having other women around to share the burdens of placating a man can be helpful and there's always someone to babysit if she gets sick.  Women may even like polygamy - women got the right to vote in Utah in 1870, but the US Congress took away their right to vote after they voted in favor of polygamy in 1887.

Why would men or women be opposed to polygamy?  Polygamy doesn't always work out well; Sultan Ibrahim got fed up, had all 280 women in his harem drowned, and started over.  Belonging to a man who had absolute power over life and death could have its drawbacks.

On the other hand, belonging to a rich, powerful man meant that she'd never worry about food, clothes, or housing.  In the days of the Ottoman sultan's famous harem, impoverished farm families would encourage their more attractive daughters to sell themselves into the slavery of the harem, seeing that as a significant step up.  The daughter might not realize her full reproductive potential if her owner had so many other women that he didn't have time to keep her pregnant, but extra time between pregnancies might give her healthier babies and in any case, she wouldn't starve.

The down-side of polygamy was that a woman had to share the man's attention along with sharing his wealth.  Some women are more possessive than others; whether polygamy worked for a particular woman depended on how possessive she turned out to be and how much attention she received.

Harem Operation

If you Google "ibrahim drown harem" you'll find that there are contradictory accounts of why Sultan Ibrahim drowned his women and what happened after that.  Details of harem happenings are scant, but Jewish history tells how things worked in "Shushan the castle", capital of the Persian Empire in what is now Iran.

The story goes that King Ahasuerus gave a one-week feast for his palace staff, kind of like the annual office party. During the party, he commanded Queen Vashti to come show her beauty to the crowd.  In an act that Betty Friedan would be right at home with, she refused to perform a striptease to amuse the staff.

Her disobeying her husband bothered the nobility because they thought their women might follow the queen's example and get uppity as the Islamists killed Mrs. Bhutto to keep their women from getting uppity.  They suggested a) that Vashti be fired; b) the king reaffirm every wife's duty to obey her husband; and c) the king hold a nationwide beauty contest for a new queen - which is exactly what he did.

All children born in the harem had to belong to the king. It wasn't certain exactly how long pregnancy took, so even after a medical exam to verify virginity, each finalist was locked up for a year in a "purification palace" to be sure she wasn't pregnant. After that, the king sampled the finalists and picked a new queen.

A candidate for queen had one chance to impress the king. After she'd been in seclusion for a year, she'd spend one night with the king and then be moved to a different part of the palace. She wouldn't see the king again unless he called for her by name.

This wasn't as bad for her reproductive success as it sounds. Nobody wanted women messing with weapons, so castrated men kept order, repelled intruders, and kept the women in the harem.  Their being castrated meant the king didn't worry about raising other men's children.  The eunuchs kept track of who saw the king when and whether she got pregnant. They also recorded the women's periods.

When the king asked for a new sample from the candidate pool, the harem manager would send the one he thought most likely to get pregnant; the more fertile she was, the more enthusiastic she'd be.  If she impressed the king enough for him to remember her name, he might ask for her again and she'd get another chance.  That's how Esther became queen - the king not only remembered her, he was impressed enough to see her again and again.

The story tells how Esther's uncle needed a favor and asked Esther to pass the word to the king.  We aren't told how Esther was permitted to speak with a male relative without risking pregnancy - they probably spoke through a visitor's grill like visitors to the state penitentiary.  Esther told him that anybody who approached the king without being summoned might be killed, and she hadn't been summoned for a month.

This makes sense - once the king appointed Esther queen, her task was to produce "an heir and a spare" as the saying goes.  She'd pleased the king enough for him to see her often enough to appoint her.  She was probably pregnant, particularly if the eunuchs had done a good job deciding when to send her to her first job interview.

No matter what he thought of Esther, why should the king waste reproductive potential on a pregnant woman with all those idle uteruses running around the palace? The king's best reproductive strategy would be to ignore Esther as long as she was pregnant and focus his energies elsewhere.

After all, being pregnant, Esther wasn't particularly interested in sex.  The king's unpregnant females would be much more enthusiastic particularly if his eunuchs were on the ball and served up one who was in the fertile part of her cycle.

Esther's best reproductive strategy would be to produce a son who'd take over the harem with all its reproductive potential when his father died, and have only daughters after that.  Any woman whose children were unlikely to become king would be best served by having daughters.  Daughters would be married off to neighboring kingdoms to firm up alliances, but only one son could become king.

Jewish history states that when Abimelech took over after his father Jerubbaal died, he killed his father's 70 other sons so they wouldn't challenge him. If a woman's son became king, he'd kill all his half-brothers and claim the entire reproductive potential of the harem for himself.

Any son who didn't become king was for the chop; having sons was an all-or-nothing affair in reproductive terms.  Extra sons could run away before governments were organized.

Having daughters was safer once government control spread over a wide area and the king's soldiers could track down all the extra sons, but harems didn't operate long enough in settled societies for natural selection to select for women who have more daughters than sons.  The male / female ratio stays close to 1 : 1 everywhere absent selective abortion or infanticide.

Other Harems

The book Anna and the King, which later was made into the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical show and movie The King and I, illustrates just how jealous and possessive men can be.

The King of Siam acquired a young beauty who was in love with another man. During her waiting period, she escaped the harem and found her boyfriend. He loved her but saw no future for them given that the king had claimed her. He convinced her that she was breaking the law and that she really ought to go back.

Even though he hadn't even sampled her, the king was so enraged by her defiance that he had her tortured to death to "encourage the others."  This incident somehow didn't make it into the musical, but Yul Brynner could've played the scene very well.

There doesn't seem to have been much room for affection in harems.  An article "Forbidden No More" in the Smithsonian magazine of March, 2008 reports:

"The emperor chose his night companion from nameplates presented to him by a eunuch," says Yuan. A high-ranking eunuch, the Chief of the Imperial Bedchamber, would remove the woman's clothes to ensure that she carried no weapons or poisons, roll her up in a quilt and carry her on his back through the courtyards to the emperor."

Passions and ambitions stewed in this world within a world. In Chinese lore, more than 200 concubines died on the orders of the 16th-century emperor Shizong. Seeking to end their misery, 16 members of his harem stole into his bedchamber one night to strangle him with a silken cord and stab him with a hairpin. The emperor lost an eye in the struggle, but the empress saved his life. Court executioners then tore the limbs from the concubines and displayed their severed heads on poles.

Harem life didn't always end in tears.  Jewish writings have an account which some scholars believe tells how a harem candidate rejected King Solomon, went back to her fiancĂ©, and lived happily ever after.

Results of Polygamy

Polygamy can have bad effects on society.  The article cited above makes a good case that having too many unattached men is destabilizing:

... societies become inherently unstable when sex ratios reach something like 120 males to 100 females: in other words, when one-sixth of men are surplus goods on the marriage market. The United States as a whole would reach that ratio if, for example, 5 percent of men took two wives, 3 percent took three wives, and 2 percent took four wives - numbers that are quite imaginable, if polygamy were legal for a while.

Societies fall apart when there are too many unattached men.

In 19th-century China, where as many as 25 percent of men were unable to marry, "these young men became natural recruits for bandit gangs and local militia," which nearly toppled the government.

We see the same problems today with polygamy in the Middle East.  Polygamy isn't the only potential reason for a wife-shortage, however.

The problem in China and India is sex-selective abortion (and sometimes infanticide), not polygamy; where the marriage market is concerned, however, the two are functional equivalents.

Selective abortion means that fewer girls are born so they never enter the marriage pool.  Making marriages work out so badly that significant numbers of women decide they want nothing to do with marriage has the same effect.

Some women think that being hard to find would raise their status, but being rare isn't necessarily good for women.  As pointed out by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada,

In some areas the gender imbalance is so marked that women are kidnapped and sold as wives.

Women are inherently valuable to men.  If women are too rare, the temptation to steal them becomes so great that they can't walk around without being "swept off their feet" and hauled off.  This occasionally crops up even in American lore of the Old West, and ancient history is loaded with examples, from the Roman Rape of the Sabines on down.

Rich Men and Informal Polygamy

The Catholic Church has always taken a dim view of polygamy and has had significant political influence since the time of Constantine the Great, but laws against polygamy have a hard time overcoming a man's built-in proclivity to gain reproductive advantage by impregnating as many women as possible. "Blame the Rich" which was published in Smithsonian magazine, Dec. 2007 pp. 102-109, claims that rich people have made us what we are because rich people have always enjoyed more reproductive success than poor people. The article cites Laura Betzig, a Michigan anthropologist:

High status has almost always translated into reproductive success, not just in the animal world, but for humans, too. This phenomenon started back in our hunter-gatherer days, when the men who brought home the most meat won the most mates, and it has continued up through the likes of J. Paul Getty and Donald Trump.  Betzig's research piled up historical examples, including extreme cases such as the Aztec strongman Montezuma, said to have kept 4,000 concubines, and a Chinese emperor whose harem numbered in the tens of thousands.  On a lesser scale, the big houses of the British countryside before World War I often accommodated 10 to 20 servants, who were typically young, female and single.  "Housemaid Heights," Betzig argues, functioned as a de facto harem for upper-class males.  Thus an 1883 investigation in Scotland found that domestic servants accounted for almost half of out-of-wedlock births.

When wealthy householders had children by their servant girls, they didn't marry them because polygamy was illegal.  Instead of keeping them out of the marriage market, the gentry usually arranged marriages for pregnant servants, often throwing in enough of a dowry to take the sting out of raising the master's child.

Even though there was always a degree of informal polygamy, British society was pretty much monogamous during the 20th century.  We know this because so many British men were killed during WW I and WW II that a significant number of women were unable to find husbands.  A polygamous society would have absorbed them without difficulty and brought the population back up to its former level more rapidly.

In addition to offering informal opportunities, wealth also enhances official reproductive success.  The Smithsonian article cites Gregory Clark, an economist at UC Davis, who made detailed examinations of 3,500 British wills which were probated from 1250 to 1650 to see how wealth affected reproduction:

"To my surprise, there was a very powerful effect," says Clark. "The wealthy had many more children." He wasn't looking at the aristocracy, who tended to get killed in wars and power struggles (or to wane because of reproductive ennui). Instead, he looked at the enterprising gentry, people a notch or two down the social hierarchy, who devoted their lives to commerce and died in bed. "They had four surviving children in a society where the average was two," Clark says.

Being married to a wealthy man provably doubled a woman's reproductive success, and the research counted only officially-recognized heirs who were mentioned in wills.  Wealth did even more for her husband through his informal harem although this part of his reproductive success couldn't be counted by examining lists of heirs.

This difference would lead us to suspect that women choose wealthier men when they can, and research confirms that they do.  In "A Buyer's Market - Men Propose, Women Dispose", The Economist of Dec 15, 2007 noted:

Women often complain that dating is like a cattle market, and a paper just published in Biology Letters by Thomas Pollet and Daniel Nettle of Newcastle University, in England, suggests they are right. They have little cause for complaint, however, because the paper also suggests that in this particular market, it is women who are the buyers.

The researchers examined marriage patterns in America in 1910.

They showed that in states where the sexes were equal in number, 56% of low status men were married by the age of 30, while 60% of high status men were. Even in this case, then, there are women who would prefer to remain single rather than marry a deadbeat. When there were 110 men for every 100 women (as, for example, in Arizona), the women got really choosy. In that case only 24% of low-status men were married by 30 compared with 46% of high-status men.

Being wealthy made a man twice as likely to find a wife.  Who says women had no choice?

Wealth works wonders for reproduction today.  Scientists have tried to learn what draws people into marriage.  Over all married couples, the most attractive women, who tend also to be the most fertile, marry the richest men and these characteristics outweigh anything else.

When they studied couples who stayed married at least 20 years, however, researchers found that compatibility in religion, age, and race contribute most to long-term marriage success. [J. L. and C. G. Gould, Sexual Selection, (New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1989), p 262-264.]

Problems with Polygamy

We see how polygamy is very good for powerful men in terms of reproductive success, and it can be OK for women as sharing the burdens of placating a man and having plenty to eat can be beneficial.  However, Jewish history documents many instances of polygamous husbands being miserable.

Abraham's two wives fought so intensely that Abraham got frustrated enough to let his senior wife drive his younger wife out into the desert to die.

Jacob had four jealous wives who competed for his attention; his family was dysfunctional.  All but two of his children knew that their father didn't love their mother and his oldest son seduced one of his wives.

King Solomon complained that his soul was vexed because his women made him unhappy.

Hannah was so provoked by her co-wife that she couldn't eat even though her husband loved her.

Remember, natural selection doesn't care how happy or fulfilled you are, it only cares how many children you have.  The fact that a man might be extremely frustrated that his women didn't get along or a woman might be desperately lonely with only other women to talk to matters not a whit - so long as her owner kept all of his wives pregnant and fed them, everybody's maximum reproductive success was assured.  The available documentation suggests that polygamy did not lead to happiness for either gender, but that's irrelevant in terms of population growth.

The next article discusses some of the odder aspects of modern gender politics as a transition to discussing how modern mating habits are working out.

Lee Tydings is a guest writer for Scragged.com.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Lee Tydings or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
There is another potential reason why a society might permit polygamy for a short time--when there's a shortage of men. For instance, after a war, or during a particularly difficult time there will be more women & children that need looking after than men. In these times, it would probably make some sense to have enlarged families...until the population stabilized after a generation.
April 3, 2008 12:16 AM
Are you a woman or man? I think I know the answer already, but I want to confirm my suspicions. "Lee" can be both male and female.
April 7, 2008 5:08 PM
What possible difference would that make?
April 7, 2008 5:10 PM
People says it's really too difficult to leave alone in your whole life, but right now I think of the same thing as written above. yesterday i was reading an interesting article that reveals a fact and the thing given in that can be one reason of an unsuccessful marriage, do you also want to check it out?
Have a look at it, http://www.octanmen.com/articleDetail/478/do-men-really-dislike-possessive-wives.htm
April 17, 2008 2:50 AM
The recent Eldorado, Texas incident seems very relevant to this. If one could objectively conduct a thorough study of the negative effects of polygamy within the compound, one might be able to more accurately denounce it. There are many conflicting factors at play though so a "thorough" analysis would be virtually impossible.
April 17, 2008 8:12 AM
Disturbing! Buying and selling women like chattel: Disgusting!

And was this supposed to be some sort of [stupid] fact:

"After all, being pregnant, Esther wasn't particularly interested in sex"?

Do you mean to imply that women are Only horny, if they can get pregnant? Or that women are the horniest when they are most furtile?

So when my mum was pregnant, and she became even more horny and "in the mood" that was what? A fluke?

Oh, yes: And my sister, when she was pregnant, horny, and having sex up until giving birth, was that also a fluke?

This type of thinking is far too 19th-century! Get with the times!
April 29, 2008 11:09 AM
I have heard that women are, in fact, MORE horny while pregnant. Having never been pregnant (and likely never to be) I'll leave it up to the women in the room to confirm or deny this.
April 29, 2008 11:55 AM
Luke W. said: "I have heard that women are, in fact, MORE horny while pregnant. Having never been pregnant (and likely never to be) I'll leave it up to the women in the room to confirm or deny this."

Every woman is different, but every single one that I've spoken with has said the same thing: They are more horny while pregnant!

Every single one agreed. (At least on that point.)

I've noticed for myself that my "horniness" happens right before my period starts. Normally a day or two before I start. I do not believe that is when my personal ovulation occurs though. I could be mistaken on this account.

There is some type of scientific method to detect when a woman ovulates. I've heard: "Ovulation occurs two weeks Before a woman has her period." But I've also heard: "It's different for all women."

Has anybody got any facts on this issue?
April 29, 2008 12:18 PM
I don't know about horniness overall, but this article talks about research that shows that most women are attracted (by hormones and scent) to men who are different from them genetically - except when they're pregnant, when it reverses and they want to be around close relatives. So if you assume that the woman's husband or boyfriend is different genetically (since she was attracted to him when NOT pregnant), then most likely she would be not attracted to him when she was pregnant. The pill confuses this somewhat though.

April 29, 2008 4:58 PM
BBC reports that a man with 86 wives advises against having that many.


says the man has 170 children, which is quite a bit of reproductive success as Scragged would put it, but he says it's a bit much:

Nigerian Mohammed Bello Abubakar, 84, has advised other men not to follow his example and marry 86 women.

"A man with 10 wives would collapse and die, but my own power is given by Allah. That is why I have been able to control 86 of them," he told the BBC.

He says his wives have sought him out because of his reputation as a healer.

"I don't go looking for them, they come to me. I will consider the fact that God has asked me to do it and I will just marry them."

But such claims have alienated the Islamic authorities in Nigeria, who have branded his family a cult.

Most Muslim scholars agree that a man is allowed to have four wives, as long as he can treat them equally.

But Mr Bello Abubakar says there is no punishment stated in the Koran for having more than four wives.
August 8, 2008 12:19 PM
An article on polyandry

One Bride for 2 Brothers: A Custom Fades in India
The practice of polyandry was born of necessity in the Himalayas, but it has all but vanished in a generation.
July 17, 2010 9:51 AM
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