While polygamy (multiple partners involved in a legal marriage—not to be confused with polyamory, which refers to multiple partners in a romantic and/or sexual relationship) may not be a new topic of discussion, it’s certainly drifted to the surface again since the legalization of gay marriage. Whether brought up derisively by the folks who are against same-sex marriage or as the obvious next step in human rights by those in favor of it, polygamy raises a whole new host of questions about how we should define marriage—and how changing that definition could affect the people involved.
It’s hard to separate polygamy from its fairly infamous cultural and religious ties. Most people are familiar with the idea of polygamy in terms of the Mormon religion: a doctrine by which one man could have several wives, often leading to abuse or simply the passive existence of sister wives who live only to serve their husbands and produce children. Islam supports the idea as well, stating that one man can have up to four wives—with modern studies suggesting that that set up can have extremely negative emotional effects on the wives even as it’s practiced today. And Christianity’s not out of the game, either—according to the Bible, Solomon may have had as many as 700 wives—a sheer numbers game that would make even the most well-meaning husband likely to mess up when it comes to treating all partners equally and with fairness.
Having multiple wives is one thing when you’re part of an ancient culture dependent on an enormous amount of reproduction simply to keep the race alive, not to mention failsafe measures for low life expectancy and the need to take care of widows and children. But is there a place for it in modern society?
From a feminist perspective, traditional polygamy encourages the idea that women are objects, existing only to be a status symbol for men. Even the modern discourse post gay marriage includes such bon mots as those from Judge Richard A. Posner, who said that that the real problem with polygamy is that it would allow “the five wealthiest men to have a total of 50 wives.” Meanwhile, same-sex marriage advocate Jonathan Rauch noted that polygamy allows “high-status men to hoard wives.” As if creating a smaller pool of marriageable women is the issue and not, say, treating women as nothing more than objects to be distributed amongst and fought over by men.
Note that none of these arguments say anything about what would happen if a woman wanted to have multiple husbands. Or multiple wives.
While polygamy doesn’t have to be directly correlated to sexism, the fact is that, historically (and currently), it is. When even modern discussions around the topic can’t get away from the notion that women are objects, it’s hard to see how legalized polygamy would be an advantage to anyone other than heterosexual men wanting to curate a collection of wives. And, with all due respect to the myriad cultures and histories out there, perpetuating a mentality that encourages the abuse and dismissal of women in favor of adding to the status of men is the last thing our society needs right now.