From Susan's Place Transgender Resources
Jump to: navigation, search

The term polygamy (literally many marriages in late Greek) is used in related ways in social anthropology and sociobiology.

In social anthropology, polygamy is the practice of marriage to more than one spouse simultaneously (as opposed to monogamy where each person has only one spouse at a time). Like monogamy, the term is often used in a de facto sense, applying regardless of whether the relationships are recognised by the state.

In sociobiology, polygamy is used in a broad sense to mean any form of multiple mating. In a narrower sense, used by zoologists, polygamy includes a pair bond, perhaps temporary.

Forms of polygamy

Polygamy exists in three specific forms, including polygyny (one man having multiple wives), polyandry (one woman having multiple husbands), or group marriage (some combination of polygyny and polyandry). Historically, all three practices have been found, but polygyny is by far the most common.

A notable example of polyandry occurs in Hindu culture in the Mahabharata, where the Pandavas are married to one common wife, Draupadi. Today it is almost exclusively observed in the Toda tribe of India, where it is sometimes the custom for several brothers to have one wife. In this context, the practice is intended to keep land (a precious resource in a populous country like India) from being split up amongst male heirs. Polyandry was traditionally practiced among nomadic Tibetans, where it meant two poor brothers sharing a wife.

Group marriage, or circle marriage, may exist in a number of forms, such as where more than one man and more than one woman form a single family unit, and all members of the marriage share parental responsibility for any children arising from the marriage. Another possible arrangement not thought to exist in reality, although occurring in science fiction (notably in Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), is the long-lived line marriage, in which deceased or departing spouses in the group are continually replaced by others, so that family property never becomes dispersed through inheritance.

Strictly speaking, cohabitation involving three or more sexually-involved people does not count as polygamy unless the participants at least claim to be married.

Related terms


Bigamy is marriage to two people at the same time; a person doubly married is a bigamist. Many countries have specific statutes outlawing bigamy, making any secondary marriage a crime.

Note that these laws aren't limited to cases of traditional polygamy, where the spouses know about each other. They also cover cases such as a man who breaks up with his wife, and without divorcing her, marries another woman. It even covers the occasional case of a man who sets up a second family with a second wife, keeping his dual marriage a secret from one or both of them. In both of these cases, the effect of these laws is to protect people from being married under false pretenses.


In 17th to 19th century England, Trigamy referred to someone who had three spouses at the same time.

From the modern legal perspective, this is just seen as two counts of bigamy.


The term polyamory refers to romantic or sexual relationships involving multiple partners at once, regardless of whether they involve marriage. Any polygamous relationship is polyamorous, and some polyamorous relationships involve multiple spouses. "Polygamy" is usually used to refer to multiple marriage, while "polyamory" implies a relationship defined by negotiation between its members rather than cultural norms. Polyamory, in its broadest usage, is the practice or lifestyle of being open to having more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved. Persons who consider themselves emotionally suited to such relationships may define themselves as polyamorous or polysexual (a blanket term), often abbreviated to poly.


Polyamory is a neologism] and a hybrid word: poly is Greek for many and amor is Latin for love. It has been independently coined by several people, including Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart whose article "A Bouquet of Lovers" (1990) encouraged the popularization of the term, and Jennifer Wesp who created the Usenet newsgroup alt.polyamory in 1992. However, the term has been reported in occasional use since the 1960s, and even outside polygamous cultures such relationships existed well before the name was coined; for one example dating from the 1920s.

In 1999, Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart was asked by the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary to provide a definition of the term (which the dictionary had not recognised). Her definition was:

"The practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved."
This term was meant to be inclusive, and in that context, we have never intended to particularly exclude "swinging" per se, if practitioners thereof wished to adopt the term and include themselves. As far as we have understood, swinging specifically does not involve "cheating," and it certainly does involve having "multiple lovers"! Moreover, we understand from speaking with a few swinging activists that many swingers are closely bonded with their various lovers, as best friends and regular partners.
The two essential ingredients of the concept of "polyamory" are "more than one" and "loving." That is, it is expected that the people in such relationships have a loving emotional bond, are involved in each other's lives multi-dimensionally, and care for each other. This term is not intended to apply to merely casual recreational sex, anonymous orgies, one-night stands, pick-ups, prostitution, "cheating," serial monogamy, or the popular definition of swinging as "mate-swapping" parties.'

However, no single definition of 'polyamory' has universal acceptance. It is generally agreed that 'polyamory' involves multiple consensual, loving relationships (or openness to such), but beyond that the term is ambiguous as the word love itself. A relationship is more likely to be called "polyamorous" if it is long-term, involves some sort of commitment (e.g. a formal ceremony), and involves shared living arrangements and/or finances, but none of these criteria are necessary or definitive.

Polygamy worldwide

According to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook derived from George P. Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas recorded the marital composition of 1231 societies, from 1960-1980. Of these societies, 186 societies were monogamous. 453 had occasional polygyny, 588 had more frequent polygyny, and 4 had polyandry.

Patterns of occurrence

At the same time, even within societies which allow polygyny, the actual practice of polygyny often occurs only rarely. To take on more than one wife often requires considerable resources: this may put polygamy beyond the means of the vast majority of people within those societies. Such appears the case in many traditional Islamic societies, and in Imperial China.

Within polygynous societies, multiple wives often become a status symbol denoting wealth and power. Similarly, within societies which formally prohibit polygamy, social opinion may look favorably on persons maintaining mistresses or engaging in serial monogamy.

Some observers detect a social preference for polygyny in disease-prone (especially tropical) climates, and speculate that (from a potential mother's viewpoint) perceived quality of paternal genes may favour the practice there. The countervailing situation allegedly prevails in harsher climates, where (once again from a potential mother's viewpoint) reliable paternal care as exhibited in monogamous pair-bonding outweighs the importance of paternal genes.


*Some information provided in whole or in part by http://en.wikipedia.org/