Sexuality and Marriage in Culture: Polygamy, Monogamy, and Inequality
Abstract: Culture and society heavily impact one’s views on sexual relations and marriage. In this essay, societal views on polygamy, monogamy, and same-sex marriage is discussed with light criticism and personal view.
The topic of choice can be discussed anywhere in the world and still generate entirely different views: is polygamy, monogamy, or same-sex marriage right? Many will argue polygyny is a disgusting practice, but for many it is part of their religious laws. Others argue monogamy is the only way, but criticize and slander homosexuals in a monogamous relationship. Culture, society, and religion shape the way a person views sexuality and marriage. Polygyny, a marital practice in which a man has more than one wife (which is the most common form of polygamy), is sometimes seen as misunderstood in the marriage world.
As an older practice, polygamy has a hard time fitting in the the modern world. Same-sex marriage, where two homosexuals are married, has hindered vast amounts of hatred, but also vast amounts of support. The fight for legal same-sex marriage around the globe has also created a fight for polygamy to be understood. “Why should we stop at same- sex marriage? Why can’t we allow polygamy?” (NeJaime, 2012, pg247) is a question many polygamists are asking. Why isn’t their culture or religions pertaining to polygamy as accepted to be as normal as monogamy? The answer is society. Society, in combination with the cultures flourishing within it, change the way people view marriage practices.
Polygyny: Where, When, Why
Polygyny, the most common- and often most criticized form of polygamy, is the marital act of which a man marries two or more wives. With this act they begin to create a family, with each of the wives usually having several children. This creates a large polygynist family, with the husband as the central person in the household. Polygynist families may reside in one large house or several smaller houses, with the husbands switching to and from. Polygamy, in general, “is common in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, but it also occurs in Europe, North America, and other Western countries” (as cited in Krenawi and Slonim-Nevo, 2008, pg745).
Of those regions, most polygamist marriages are induced by religion. Judaism, Hinduism, Mormonism, and Hebrews are among religious societies that began practicing polygyny centuries ago (Polygyny, 2012). For some of these religions, all forms of polygamy have been in use regularly, and become societal ‘norms’ to followers. Born into the understanding that you will be married into a family of one man and many women, or the opposite, is what children of some of these cultures face.
But is polygyny a form of marriage that should be seen as normal? Lysiane Gagnon argues that polygamy should not be accepted as it is intensely degrading to women. Do women in these polygamist cultures see it as such as well? Or have they been brought up to view it as normal?
“The heart of the matter is whether polygamy respects the principle of equality between men and women – and it clearly doesn’t. Polygamy must be banned not because it is an ‘unconventional’ practice, but because it is inherently degrading to women.” (Gagnon, 2012)
However, simply banning polygamy and all forms of it is really not as simple as Gagnon allows it to seem. As previously mentioned, this marital practice has been used for centuries and centuries, dating back to the earliest forms of religion and politics.
Along with religion, society and culture influence the number of spouses one is to have. a controversial issue in British Columbia was the polygamous community of Bountiful. The idea of polygamy was introduced with media attention, sparking people’s interests in shows such as Sister Wives, which addresses polygamy in North America (Haviland et al, 2012, pg162). While illegal in the United States and Canada, polygyny actively flourishes in many other parts of the world. For example, in areas of New Guinea, it is widely accepted to have as many ways as humanly possible (161). In wealth-generating cultures, polygyny is extremely common (163).
The first evidence of polygyny in Canada was among the First Nations. Work required by the fur trade era was too great for one man and wife to handle, so he would take more wives to help out (163). As stated by Liam Kilmurray, “[p]olygamy is a source of interest to anthropologists. Yet what was once studied ethnographically, typically in distant lands, has now come closer to home” (162).
Same-sex Relations and Sexual Inequality
Homosexuality has been succumbed to negative discrimination from all over the world, but surprisingly has been criticized by polygamists. “[T]his is in fact only to say that for many (not all) of the good reasons why same-sex marriage should be legal, so should polygamy” (NeJaime, 2012, 248) was an opinion cast by a polygamist supporter, who believes same-sex marriage has its good and bad points, but should not be put before polygamy. Further research, however, shows that while some polygamists frown upon or are unsupportive of same-sex marriage, it was actually a common practice of polygamists in Africa. “[W]omen unions” were group marriages where an older woman would take younger women as wives to raise their children and gather their wealth (Haviland et al, 2012, pg161).
Homosexuality, in most cultures and in society, is sometimes looked at as wrong. In many religions, such as Christianity, homosexuality is considered a sin. The Catholic Church has been especially cruel about homosexuals practicing the faith. Many religious people believe that marriage equality clashes with religious freedom (NeJaime, 2012, pg1174).
“All parties involved- lawmakers, Christian Right activists, religious organizations, gay rights advocates, and legal scholars- seem to agree on one thing: marriage represents a unique and highly significant issue that promises equality for lesbians and gay men at the same time that it threatens the right of religious organizations and individuals to
NeJaime also discusses that homosexuals have a hard enough time finding their place in the world without having religious organizations and other sections of society attacking them. This is because being gay in public threatens religious freedom (1200). But along with religion, homosexual lifestyle is also being attacked by government, which is a product of both culture and society. Many states in America still don’t legally allow same-sex marriage, and some cause hypocritical problems by having anti-discrimination laws with it.
So why does society and culture determine what is acceptable and what isn’t? Does it have to do with power of authority, peer pressure, or personal beliefs as well? Because of the embarrassment or fear of coming out as a homosexual, many will suppress the need to tell someone, which can cause greater internal problems and external harassment.
For the future, we can hope that more anti-discrimination, bullying, and harassment laws will be put into effect all over the world. While religious views may be harder to alter on this matter, I believe it surely can be done. Many steps to this may be harder to begin than others, “[b]ut considering and codifying religious exemptions in anti-discrimination law, rather than in marriage law, is necessary for the realization of sexual orientation nondiscrimination principles” (1238). Hopefully soon homosexuality will be recognized as normal all around the world, with a strong fight for freedom of sexuality.
Recognized all over the world as the most common form of marriage, monogamy is where one person marries another and they stay faithful to each other throughout the duration of their marriage. Monogamous relationships are rarely questioned and are considered the social ‘norm’ in most countries, except for polygamous-practicing regions. In monogamous relationships, the two marriage or unmarried partners usually have children and move in to one
house together. This is what is deemed the absolute norm in most societies. However, when you come across something different, it changes the entire perspective.
Polygamy vs. Monogamy (family, education, and emotional factors)
Taking a closer look at many studies conducted to understand the internal issue of polygamy, we can compare the outcomes with those of monogamy and correlate what can be deemed right or wrong. An example of such research was a study of 174 children from monogamous families, and 178 from polygamous families. The children were analyzed for intelligence, mental health, and family information, such as family type, housing, and number of siblings (Krenawi and Slonim-Nevo, 2008, pg 750).
The study discovered many interesting things that can lead to opinions and theories about polygamy and monogamy. It found that couples in a monogamous relationship tended to be more educated than those in a polygamous relationship, and polygamous couples have a higher unemployment rate among at least one spouse. The polygamous children in the study also reported more economic troubles than the monogamous children did. Lastly, the study also found that children from polygamous families had more psychological, social, and emotional problems than the monogamous children did (754). These findings have led many to decide that polygamist families are wrong and unfair to the children born into them. But in fact are they?
There have been various displays of research that have been conducted by anti-polygamy professionals. Instantly, if the majority of children are displaying negative effects from a polygamous lifestyle, the researchers may over exaggerate and instantly declare polygamy a cruel way of life for children. It is these studies and people conducting them that have given polygamous families the most discrimination, and have shaped the views of those outside of the matter.
Typically, the focus on observing children in these families is their relationship with their father (in polygynous households) throughout the
years. It was found when the father married a second wife and began having children with her, the first wife and their children would soon become of less value to the father, weakening relationships (759). This can cause self-esteem issues and psychological problems for the children, and even for the first wife. A study at the University of British Columbia even “suggests that institutionalized monogamous marriage is rapidly replacing polygamy because it has lower levels of inherent social problems” (Henrich, 2012). The goal of the study had been to find out why monogamy had become to ultimate ‘normal’ standard of relationships. It seems as though in polygynist societies, monogamy is as strange to them as polygyny is to us.
However, no matter what study we look at, monogamy seems to ‘win’ with more positive effects on women and children than polygamist families.
“Monogamous marriage also results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intrahousehold conflict, the study finds. These benefits result from greater levels of parental investment, smaller households and increased direct “blood relatedness” in monogamous family households, says Henrich, who served as an expert witness for British Columbia’s Supreme Court case involving the polygamous community of Bountiful, B.C.” (Henrich, 2012)
Outlining the events in the essay, we can begin with the discussion of polygamy. We mostly discussed polygyny, in where a man marries more than one wife. This form of marriage is the one mostly discussed in the media; others forms of polygamy are usually hidden deep in cultural values. Polygamist culture has been pounded on for their traditions, and for statistics proving children and wives are not better off in these families. The legal bans to remove polygamy entirely are so far been unvictorious (March 246), but government efforts have not stopped. Whether the case is that is is degrading to woman, or that it is harmful to children, anti-polygamists have certainly researched many points for the situation at hand.
Monogamy is the form of marriage that is considered normal to most. It is where a man marries a woman, a woman marries a woman, or a man marries a man, and each stay faithful to another. With monogamy, there are no main issues of concern; it is what people have been doing for thousands of years. But had monogamy shaped the way we look at other forms of marriage? Some say yes, it has made us more biased and less open-minded, while some say no.
Same-sex marriage is most susceptible to harassment and judgement, as it is more in the public eye of others. Homosexuality has come a long way from where it used to be, but there is still room for improvement of anti discrimination and same-sex marriage laws.
Whether one is against or for polygamy, monogamy, or same-sex marriage, in my opinion, it’s their own decision. People can believe whatever they want about what values are right and what are wrong, but everyone needs to understand that they are the choices of the culture, the choices of the religions, and the choices of the people. If people are being forced into these situations, then that can be deemed wrong, but however most are not. However you look at it, marriage is a tricky topic. What we view as normal, others might not, and it becomes a never-ending cycle. In the fashion of D. NeJaime, we can vaguely conclude with this question; “Where exactly does this leave us?”
Al-Krenawi, A., & Slonim-Nevo, V. (2008). Psychosocial and Familial Functioning of Children From Polygynous and Monogamous Families. Journal Of Social Psychology, 148(6), 745-764.
Gagnon, Lysiane. “Polygamy’s Degrading to Women – End of Story.” The Globe and Mail [Toronto] 5 Dec. 2011: n. pag. The Globe and Mail. Web. 2 Nov. 2012.
Haviland, W., Kilmurray, L., Fedorak, S., & Lee, R. (2012). Cultural anthropology. (4th ed.). Toronto: Nelson Education.
Henrich, Joseph. “Monogamy Reduces Major Social Problems of Polygamist Cultures.” Public Affairs [UBC] 23 Jan. 2012″ Web. 13 Nov. 2012.
March, Andrew F. (2011). Is There a Right to Polygamy? Marriage, Equality and Subsidizing Families in Liberal Public Justification. Journal of Moral Philosophy, vol. 8, 246-272.
NeJaime, D. (2012). Marriage Inequality: Same-Sex Relationships, Religious Exemptions, and the Production of Sexual Orientation Discrimination. California Law Review, 100(5), 1169-1238.
“Polygyny”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.