John and Pek are a gay couple. They wanted to have a kid and instead of adopting one, they asked their neighbor and good friend Jeniffer for help. Jeniffer was delighted that they asked. The three sat down and wrote a contact detailing their relationship, responsibility, and living arrangements. They would raise the kid together, and all of them will be the parents of the kid. They should have the same responsibility and shall act in the interest of the kid. After a year, Jeniffer gave birth to Kay with Pek’s sperm.
Despite their fantastic plan, their arrangement has no legal validity in their country. One practical complication is that John, the non-biological father of Kay, is not recognized by the government as a parent of Keat. (This is a story adapted from The Economist.) I wonder whether the government should change marriage law to enable this kind of relationship, be it called polygamy or something else, though it is essentially a kind of polygamy.
When a man is married to more than one wife at a time, he is practicing polygyny. When a woman is married to more than one husband at a time, she is practicing polyandry.
Polygamy is illegal in most countries currently. The U.S. law allows cohabitation, but polygamous marriage is outlawed in the U.S. The polygamy debate can be approached from different aspects, and here I would like to focus on one question: will legalizing polygamy in the U.S. inevitably lead to a more unfair marriage market, to the extent that there will be more surplus of men in the marriage market? I also discuss the follow-up question: if yes, should we care?
Before I start, I would like to note an important point. That legalization is not encouragement. The ideal marriage in most people’s minds is still a man-women marriage, despite the legalization of same-sex marriage. Likewise, legalizing polygamy doesn’t mean many people will hence actively go for polygamy. For many, the idea of sharing a partner with a third person is just strange and, in many ways, unacceptable.
Will polygamy make more bachelors?
Opponents to polygamy often say yes and give the following reasons.
First, our social norms are more inclined to regarding polygyny more acceptable than polyandry as polygyny was more prevalent than polyandry in the past. Despite all the gender equality progress we have made, women will face more social pressure if they have multiple husbands than men do when they have multiple wives.
Second, currently, most rich and powerful people in the U.S. are still men. They will marry more wives if allowed. As they marry more, the lower-status men have to stay single.
Third, some have argued that men may be less willing to share a wife than women are to share a husband. This also means more polygyny will happen than polyandry, and therefore lower-status men find themselves married to no one.
The first reason is undeniably true for the most part of the U.S. But the discrimination over women is the root cause of the situation in the first and second reason. As our society progress to become more equal between (and perhaps “among”) genders, it is perceivable that people will think polygyny and polyandry are equally acceptable.
For the second reason, it is wrong because it ignores one fundamental fact of the current American society. Nowadays, more women graduate from college than men do, and there is a shortage of marriageable men among the black population and the white best educated. Therefore, it is uncertain whether by legalizing polygamy, lower-status men will have to stay single.
As for the disparity in willingness to share, it is hard to know whether the advancement of gender equality will make men as willing to share a partner as women do. If yes, then the problem of many bachelors left single will be solved. But even if not, given that only a minority would like to share a partner, the disparity in willingness to share a partner will only cause a small gap in the marriage market, in the sense that only a small number of men will not be able to marry. As a result, the potential problems that would be created by these bachelors are more manageable. What’s more, it is only a conjecture that men are more averse to sharing a wife with other men than women are to sharing a husband with other women. It sounded very true to us because it confirmed our ingrained “sexism” or a male perspective. (I welcome comments on this.)
Hence, it is reasonable to say that legalizing polygamous marriage is as of now off the table because we are afraid of the negative impact resulting from gender inequality in American society. A better version of it, one that treats men and women equally, could afford the legalization of polygamy.
The analysis, however, might not hold as there are still many ways through which legalizing polygamy can lead to a more unfair marriage market. Let’s grant it and see whether the consequence is something governments should intervene.
Should we care?
Some argue that the consequence of more bachelors result from legalizing polygamy could be grave. As such, the government should prevent them by banning polygamy. Jonathan Rauch wrote:
Those men, denied access to life’s most stabilizing and civilizing institution, are unfairly disadvantaged and often turn to behaviors like crime and violence.
He also cited a study arguing that:
Significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault robbery and fraud in polygynous cultures.
Monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems.
As much as these effects sound formidable, the study is mostly flawed, as many empirical studies in this domain tend to be. Firstly, the polygamous societies these authors studied were very old and man-dominated. They claim to have studied polygamous society while in essence, they were studying polygynous ones. As I have argued previously, legalizing polygamy in today’s America won’t necessarily result in a polygynous society. Besides, to reduce the negative impact of polygamous marriage on the U.S. society, the best way is perhaps not to thwart it but to take other measures to contain the adversities. For example, if bachelors are “denied access to life’s most stabilizing and civilizing institution,” to prevent them from turning into “behaviors like crime and violence,” the government could use school, community, counseling and other means, instead of bluntly banning polygamous marriage.
If anything, legalizing polygamy gives people more choice to pursue the marriage that they desire. If we have to form a mental image where a queue of miserable bachelors roam on the street whenever we think about polygamy, why not at the same time imagine groups of women happily sharing a husband with other women in an inclusive love relationship? We are being unfair to the woman when we think she has to marry a miserable bachelor. Furthermore, in no way should the government prevent bachelors’ crime by stepping in to give a potential bachelor a wife at the expense of the woman’s happy marriage with, say a couple, who so love her that they are willing to be together till “death do them apart.”
A critical aspect of the legalizing polygamy debate is that it will result in more bachelors, which will have a huge undesirable effect on U.S. society. I have argued that legalizing polygamy won’t necessarily produce more bachelors as the American society make progress toward gender equality, which is evident in its growing women college graduate number and other measures. The second point I made was that even though we grant that legalizing polygamy will result in more single men of lower social status who have a higher propensity of creating social problems, those adverse effects can be mitigated and managed via other means. In addition, we should see a brighter picture where more women will be able to marry their loved ones. For every bachelor legalizing polygamy will produce, there is one woman married better or worse, but at least freely.