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The term polygyny (neo-Greek: poly+gyne woman) is used in related ways in social anthropology and sociobiology. In social anthropology, polygyny is a marital practice in which a man has more than one wife simultaneously. This is the most common form of polygamy. The man may marry more than one woman at the same time, or marry one or more other women while he is already married. The opposite polygamous form—where a woman has more than one husband simultaneously—is known as polyandry. The anthropological meaning has been taken over into sociobiology, where "polygyny" refers to a mating system in which a male has a more or less stable breeding relationship with more than one female, but the females are only bonded to a single male.

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Polygyny, the marital practice in which a man has more than one wife simultaneously, is the most common form of polygamy

Historically, polygyny has been socially acceptable in the majority of cultures; nevertheless, the majority of human marriages have been monogamous. The reasons for human beings maintaining unique relationships with one mate have varied, including demographic, economic, and religious concerns. Circumstances often resulted in polygyny being advantageous to the maintenance and development of particular societies. However, the most consistently successful form of human sexual relationship, leading to the greatest satisfaction for both men and women as well as their offspring and society as a whole, has been monogamy.

Polygyny in nature

Polygyny is probably the most common mating system among vertebrates, and is especially common among mammals. It is characteristically associated with:

  • Sexual dimorphism, particularly of size, with males being bigger, more aggressive, better equipped for fighting, and more colorful than females.
  • Uni-parental care of the young, with males contributing less than females or nothing at all.
  • Delayed sexual maturity among males relative to females of the same species, or to males of related species with different mating systems.

Some species show facilitative polygamy, with males mating with multiple females only when resource conditions are favorable.

Considered in relation to other primates, humans are moderately sexually dimorphic. Human beings show much more flexibility in mating systems than many other animal species and almost every possible kind of mating system has existed in some society.

Human polygyny

There are some important differences in polygyny between humans and other animals. If we were forced to classify human beings according to our mating system, it would be difficult to say whether we are “somewhat” polygynous or somewhat monogamous. Anthropological studies (Murdoch 1981, White 1988) suggest that the minority of marriages are polygamous, even though the majority (approximately 80 percent) of societies permit polygyny. This dominance of monogamy within human society may be indicative of the dominance of thought over instinct in human beings, leading to decisions based on psychological, social, economic, and religious motivations, rather than purely biological factors.

While polygyny has been a widespread historical occurrence, it has never been a majority experience or complete norm within any society. It was accepted in ancient Hebrew society, in classical China, and in Islam. It has also been accepted in many traditional African and Polynesian cultures. In India, polygyny was practiced from ancient times onward, though historically only kings were polygynous in practice. For example, the Vijanagar emperor Krishnadevaraya had multiple wives.

Polygyny was practiced by most of the patriarchs such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David, as recounted in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament, and was practiced throughout the time of the New Testament up until the eleventh century. However, it was not accepted in ancient Greece or Rome, and has never been accepted in mainstream Christianity. It was allowed in the early Mormon (LDS) church, but was ended in 1890 after the federal government ruled that Utah could not become a state as long as polygyny was allowed. The political and economic dominance of Christianity from the sixteenth to the twentieth century has meant that on the world scale polygyny is legally recognized in very few nations. Although many Muslim majority countries still retain traditional Islamic law which permits polygyny, certain liberal movements within Islam challenge its acceptability.

In modern Latin America, polygyny represents male status as wealthy enough to support more than one household. Although condemned by the Roman Catholic church, the status of adultery as a venial sin not a mortal one contributes to the occurrence of this officially illegal but commonplace occurrence. Though these couples do not officially marry, the tacit approval and knowledge of society qualify the practice as polygynous.

Causes of polygyny

There are several theories of why polygyny has occurred in human societies. One hypothesis is that the desire for numerous sexual partners is a basic human biological instinct or need. Although this explanation could account for the almost universal occurrence, it does not address the exceptions or variations.

Other theories use population and ecological factors to explain polygyny as a response to lengthy periods of sexual abstinence that often follow child birth. Women have been more likely than men to be left unmarried or widowed. High male mortality from warfare, feuding, occupational accident, and disease leave an imbalance of females outnumbering males, and represent another hypothesis as to why polygyny might occur. Not only are the men too involved in these activities to consider marriage, but the number arriving at the marriageable age is reduced, resulting in fewer marriageable men than women. Polygyny ensured that such women were cared for and able to raise children.

The required inheritance of widows requires men in some societies to marry the widow of a deceased brother. This levirate marriage provides support for her and her children.

However, polygyny occurs in situations of relatively balanced gender ratios and also in cases like the Yanomamo, where males outnumber females. In this society, some men accumulate two or more wives at the expense of others who never marry. Some may eventually marry at a later age than the women do. Thus, the society becomes divided between young bachelors, who may remain single into their thirties and older polygynists.

In some societies only well-to-do men could afford to have more than one wife, particularly if each wife required maintenance of a separate household. The current traditional form of Islam permits as many as four wives, but depending on the man's financial circumstances, fewer wives are more common; indeed, the vast majority of Muslim men are monogamous.

Bridewealth requirements may also affect some men not acquiring brides until a later age. In some societies, men are required to "buy" their wives by presenting the bride's family with suitable and costly gifts, or carrying out long periods of work for them. Because bride prices are often collected by the groom's family, he is not able to marry until he has been obedient to their will, usually for a long period.

There are also hypotheses about social stratification where access to productive resources does not determine status, but rather control over people does. Traditional South African marriage structures provide an example. Most societies were divided into classes of commoner, noble, and royal strata. A commoner was usually able to marry only one wife, nobles supported several, and royals could have as many as a hundred. Since the male lineage was especially important, particularly in Asian cultures, there have been instances of powerful men producing numerous descendants through multiple wives and concubines.

The economics of polygyny

In many societies, only the wealthy and politically powerful among men could afford to have more than one wife (or would be permitted to in many cultures, for example within Islam). This requires special social conventions if it is not to produce instability in the society. It is not, however, a unique problem of polygyny: some men (and women) never obtain mates in monogamous societies.

On the other hand, in some societies, especially subsistence agricultural societies, the extra labor of multiple wives may be helpful.

Economically, polygyny tends to benefit all but the most desirable women, by giving them more opportunities to marry rich men, who are in short supply. Most men tend to be disadvantaged by polygyny, however, since when many women are able to marry a rich man, it leaves fewer women available for the less rich (Miller and Kanazawa 2007).

Modern polygyny

Although polygamous marriages are not recognized in most modern societies, polygyny remains a widespread, albeit minority, phenomenon.

The twentieth century saw the "sexual revolution," in which the strict Judeo-Christian morality of Western society was challenged by promiscuous sexual attitudes. Still, this did not increase levels of polygamous behavior, but rather "serial monogamy," the practice of impermanent sexual relationships, often without the legality and sanctification of marriage, became commonplace.

The female in a polygynous marriage

Polygyny has degraded women and children, treating them as property and slaves. In many cases there are few laws, or little enforcement, to ensure the support of a family when a first wife is abandoned in favor of a new one. In some polygynous families where the households are separate, one or more wives may be abandoned and visited only occasionally.

Polygamous marriages vary in the amount of influence and control multiple wives can command. "Co-wives" may not even know about one another. On the other hand, they may not only know but support each other and help with domestic chores. In cases of "sororal polygamy" (sisters marrying the same man), close bonds may have already been formed.

However, the "co-wives" may also compete with each other. There are instances of fighting and even violence within polygynous households that is damaging for the children. The wives may vie for their husband's attention, particularly when the first wife is supplanted by a newer, younger wife. Children of differing wives may have different status, or even no clarity in their relationships, resulting in incestuous situations. Lack of clarity increases tension among wives and their children.

The practice of mistresses and concubines, openly or secretly supported by wealthy men, is in fact a form of polygyny. In some cases the man may have an additional family (or families) with the unofficial wife, supporting her and his illegitimate children. In some situations the wife not only is aware of the husband's mistress, but also has helped him select one that is "suitable" to his station. The estate of "mistress" or "concubine" does not rank as highly as "wife." In societies where patriarchy is still practiced, a mistress or concubine will be placed under the authority of a full wife.

It is hard to imagine true equality within a polygynous marriage. It is also notable that there have been no female scientists, writers, or politicians that have emerged from polygynous marriages to contribute to society in significant ways. Perhaps it is because the environment naturally indicates the superiority of the man, and the woman must share her "privileges" for access to him with others.

Childrearing in polygynous marriages

Childrearing is a significant responsibility for parents, one that requires a couple together to invest all their energy and devotion unconditionally for many years. To expect a man to successfully parent children in more than one family, with several mothers, is generally beyond their capability.

There are instances where kind and loving husbands within a polygynous household have restored health to families where the original monogamous husbands were abusive. However, there are many more instances where children are, in fact, abandoned as a husband acquires newer, younger wives and additional children. When they maintain separate residences, this is facilitated by the circumstance. In most societies, women have much less access to make money or have viable status within the society and the children suffer.

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