What’s Wrong With Polygamy?

By Paul Gahlinger

Perhaps marrying more than one is not the real issue. People around the world love to snicker at the idiotic things done in the United States. There are the Pentecostal snake handlers in West Virginia. The schools teaching "Creation Science" in Kansas. And there's Utah. I've been to over 120 countries, and I swear the question I most often get is, "Utah-isn't that where the polygamists are?" And I'm asked this question even in countries where polygamy is legal!

The real issue, of course, is not polygamy. Or to be precise, polygyny – when a man is married to more than one woman at the same time. Having multiple husbands is also included in polygamy; it is more precisely termed polyandry-more on that later. (Polygamy also includes group marriages of several men and women, but we won't get into that.)

Let's look at this polygamy thing first. During the heyday of anthropology, Yale University developed an extensive collection of data on every known society – a gigantic record of who does what in every distinct group of people ever studied. The Human Relations Area Files revealed that fully 65% of all societies were polygynous, with men commonly having more than one wife. About a third were monogamous, just 1% were polyandrous, and another 2% or so covered every other variation, including some in which types of incest were condoned.

That polygyny was so widespread should be no surprise. Reading the Bible, it seems that men in just about every tribe in the Holy Land collected women like camels (and probably valued them less). Good old Job, for example, is tested by God by suffering the death of his animals and his  wives, and when he remains faithful, new animals and wives are provided. Clearly, women had the rank of property in Biblical times. This is not to disparage the ancient Hebrews. It was pretty much the same in most societies around the world.

There are practical, Darwinian reasons for polygyny. In most places, women outnumber men. Unless populations of men and women are equal, some individuals will get left out in a monogamous society. This problem was usually resolved by having the surplus men enter the monastery and women the convent, taking a vow of celibacy. The World Wars devastating Europe, for example, resulted in a huge number of Catholic nuns – among them, Mother Theresa.

In the population game, males do get a head start. The Y chromosome, the determining difference between male and female, is a mere smidgen compared to the X chromosome. Sperm carrying a Y can swim a lot faster than the heavily encumbered sperm carrying an X. The Ys reach the ovum sooner and are more likely to fertilize the egg.

After fertilization, however, males don't fare as well as females. It is true that more boy than girl babies are born – but that's only if the fetus has had a good ride. Today, the Inuit in the Arctic give birth to three times as many girls as boys. The huge disparity is blamed on dioxin pollutants, to which boy fetuses are more susceptible. Males continue to have increased death rates throughout life. When they hit the teenage years, many other hazards take their toll on boys. Motorcycles, military service, and generally moronic behavior tend to cull the male part of the herd more heavily. By middle age, there are significantly more women than men. And that's when the male death rate really takes off. Take something as simple as a heart attack. A woman has chest pain, she goes to the doctor, probably gets better. For half of men, the first sign of a heart attack is falling over dead. In fact, for the vast majority of illnesses, men have a higher death rate.

So, from a strictly Darwinian point of view, polygyny might make some sense. Why stick to monogamy when there are lots more women then men? On the other hand, when women are scarce, why shouldn't women have multiple husbands? One of the best known polyandrous societies was in traditional Tibet, where the harsh environment did not support many people. Typically, men, often brothers, shared a woman. They believed this resulted in a harmonious household, as evidenced by their traditional saying "when four breasts cannot agree, two heads can."

So – what's really wrong with polygamy, of either kind? After all, we've seen other discriminatory social barriers fall, most notably interracial dating, which was illegal in Utah as recently as 1976. Consenting adults should be able to enter into matrimonial relationships as they prefer, whether it be heterosexual, homosexual, or polygamous.

But that is the key term: consenting. When an adult woman knowingly and voluntarily marries a man who already has a wife (or a few), that should be her prerogative. But it would be outrageous to condone a man marrying a female child. And that is the real outrage with the FLDS polygamists. For the most part, these men are taking child brides who cannot under any rationalism be considered consenting adults. Young girls can look like adult women, but they are not.

Part of the confusion is due to the difference between mental and biological maturity. A century ago, women typically began to menstruate at age 18 or 19 – and became eligible for marriage partly on that biological basis. The age of menarche, at which women go through puberty, has steadily decreased. Now, it is not uncommon for girls to start their periods at age nine or even younger.

When I look at the hub-bub surrounding the polygamy trials, I see men abusing children in women's bodies. That is not polygamy. It is child rape, pure and simple. And like all forms of rape, it is not about sex but about power. If an FLDS man wants to marry a second woman who is 50 and widowed, I say go for it. But it is an entirely different scenario when they shut children from the outside world, terrorize them into believing religious threats, and then summarily rape them. The crime is not polygamy. These men and women-every adult FLDS member-should be tried as an accessory or participant in child rape.

And then, maybe Utah will be better known for its mountains than its monstrosities.

Paul Gahlinger, M.D., Ph.D., is adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Utah. You can find him doing yoga at Centered City, or email pgahlinger@gmail.com.

This article was originally published on September 29, 2007.