Why you should care
Who wants to be a sister wife?
Marriage is hard work, and not everyone is up for it. In fact, about a fifth of people in a recent survey of the U.K. said that their ideal number of spouses was zero. While marriage is still far more popular — there are worse ways to keep your feet warm, not to mention express commitment to a person you love — there’s a more surprising number to be gleaned from the responses:
12 percent of British men say they’d ideally like to be in a polygamous marriage.
From a biological standpoint, this makes some sense. “Many millions of years of hominid hardwiring suggests that it’s in men’s best interests to pursue, sure, quality, but quantity too,” says Janet Bennion, a professor of anthropology at Lyndon State College. “That being said, studies since the ’70s have shown that it’s in women’s best interest to be libidinous, that women too can benefit by sleeping with a variety of different men.”
In a Gallup poll this year, 17 percent of Americans said they regard polygamy as “morally acceptable.”
But only 4 percent of women in YouGov’s survey, conducted in July, responded that they’d want a plural marriage. To be clear, this isn’t a poll about general polyamory: It’s specifically about plural marriage, and plural marriage is widely associated with cultures, like fundamentalist Mormonism, that are highly patriarchal. While mainstream Mormon culture has long repudiated polygamy, it’s still practiced in some isolated sects (and occasionally by individuals in the suburbs, like the housepainter with three wives who spent months painting my family’s Victorian house bright blue in 1999 and who told me I’d “make someone a good second wife.”)
Plural marriage is not legal in the United States, though the American Civil Liberties Union has been vocally on the side of those who want the right to practice polygamy since the mid-1990s. And following the Supreme Court verdict legalizing gay marriage, there was a raft of editorials theorizing that plural marriage would or should be the next domino. Opponents point out that polygamy, in reserving two, three, four or more women for each man, often leads to young men staying single or being expelled from society, and that there are quite enough angry young men as it is.
In a Gallup poll this year, 17 percent of Americans said they regard polygamy as “morally acceptable,” up from 14 percent just last year and 5 percent in 2006. In that decade, polygamy, particularly its American variant, had a fleeting pop culture moment, with HBO’s Big Love and multiple reality-TV shows about men with multiple wives flooding the airwaves (and newspapers) with images of modern polygamists. That too has contributed to polygamy’s acceptance. As Bennion says, “We see things in the media, and they become real to us.”