In the perhaps unlikely polygamy debate that’s emerged in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage, it’s been widely acknowledged that polygamy—or more technically, polygyny, the marriage by one man to multiple wives—is bad for women and children. But when it comes to polygyny’s global resurgence, from re-legalization in Libya to decriminalization in Russia, it is not only women who should beware: New research shows that polygyny is bad for security, too.
Historically, polygyny has been very common; more than 70 percent of societies studied by anthropologists have allowed men to marry more than one wife. The practice began to decline over the past several centuries as formal legal permission and religious sanction for marriage became less common, along with patrilineal-only inheritance rights. But recently, polygyny, still widely practiced throughout much of Africa, has been making a comeback elsewhere, even in places where it might be technically illegal. While hard numbers aren’t available yet, there are countless reports of the practice becoming decriminalized, whether in a de facto or a de jure sense, in societies where it was once rare.
In 2013, the practice was relegalized in Libya, and it is on the agenda for possible relegalization in Tunisia. Post-Soviet nations such as Kyrgyzstan, where polygyny has become a status symbol, are openly moving in the same direction. Legalization attempts failed in 2010, when female lawmakers demanded that if polygyny were made legal, then polyandry, which would allow a woman to take multiple husbands, should also be allowed. Nevertheless, almost all Kyrgyz elites have between two and four wives, usually married around age 18. And in May, 17-year-old Luiza Goilabiyeva, a Russian citizen, was married off under less-than-fully-voluntary circumstances to an already married Chechen district police chief three times her age. Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman of Chechnya, danced at the wedding with nary a peep from Russian President Vladimir Putin—even though polygyny is illegal in Russia. In the North Caucasus, particularly in Muslim enclaves, polygyny was never completely eradicated. It used to be the case that second and third marriages were at least “off the books,” but times are changing: Goilabiyeva’s marriage was openly formalized.
That’s to say nothing of those, like Chief Justice John Roberts, who see the practice as merely an extension of the increasingly liberal sexual mores and loose definitions of marriage that have allowed for same-sex weddings to be legal nationwide. Gallup recently found that 16 percent of Americans believe polygamy is morally acceptable, up from just 7 percent in 2003, leaving Roberts and other pundits predicting full legalization in Western nations over the coming decades, including the United States. If women willingly choose to enter into polygynous marriages or relationships, some wonder why we should stop them. Indeed, Utah weakened its anti-polygyny law in 2014, finding it violated the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause and had no basis under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.
Before we shrug at the resurgence of this anciently rooted practice, however, it is important to remember that the issues involved in the polygyny debate are not only ones of personal liberty, or, as in the Chechen case, personal security. Polygyny affects national and international security, too—in ways that even its proponents should recognize as dangerous.
At the level of human security, let’s be clear: Polygyny is the cause, not the consequence, of a vast array of negative outcomes for women and their children, research has shown. For example, greater sexual freedom for men to marry multiple women typically exists side-by-side with extreme coercion of adolescent women to become brides. These young brides, in turn, have higher fertility rates, and thus bear more children when they are younger. As a result, maternal mortality rates are five times higher in societies with the highest rates of polygyny compared to those with the lowest rates. At least partly as a result of increased risk of death in childbirth, women in societies with the highest rates of polygyny also have reduced life expectancies—rarely above age 60, compared to expectancies in the high 70s for women in societies with the lowest rates of polygyny. Not surprisingly, violence toward women appears endemic within the context of polygynous societies: Such cultures show rates of sex trafficking and domestic violence toward women that are twice as high as the rates in low-polygyny societies, while the risk of female genital mutilation in highly polygynous societies increases a hundred fold. And when it comes to children, both boys and girls in polygynous societies are at higher risk of malnutrition and also receive less education, making social mobility challenging.
But if women’s safety and health isn’t reason enough to oppose polygyny (we’re looking at you, Vladimir Putin), it must be noted that the practice has real security ramifications. Let’s do some “polygyny math” to see how this works. When each man in a society is wed to multiple women, this produces an imbalanced sex ratio in the marriage market: If each man takes more than one wife, it leaves other men, most likely poor men, without any wives at all. As a result, approximately half the boys in polygynous cultures need to be ejected from their primary community at puberty in order to sustain this imbalance whereby few—usually older, wealthier, more powerful men—claim a disproportionate share of women for themselves. Because these “lost” boys tend to come from the poorer segments of society and are often left with less education and little social support, few options are available to them, short of violence, to make their way in the world. No wonder researchers have recently found a significant association between the prevalence of polygyny and the ease of recruitment into terrorist groups. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense is funding research by one of us (Hudson) and her colleagues on this very linkage.