Polygamy is the practice of being married marriage to more than one spouse at a time. The person married to several spouses could have more than one wife, more than one husband, or both. The topic of polygamy is taboo, with many countries around the world enforcing moral or legal sanctions against those who practice it. This article will outline the different types of polygamy practiced today, as well as information on the legal status of polygamy in various countries.
Types of Polygamy
There are two different types of polygamy: polygyny and polyandry. Polygyny occurs when one man is married to several women, or carries on sexual relationships with several women simultaneously. This is considered the most common form of polygamy.
Polyandry is the less familiar form of polygamy. It occurs when one woman is married to or is involved in sexual relationships with several men at the same time. This form of polygamy is typically found in cultures where the scarcity of resources forces several men to join together to buy one bride, such as some high-altitude communities in the Himalayas.1 In addition, some Inuit cultures practice polyandry because the practice of having multiple husbands for one wife means that the wife would be protected if one of the husbands must travel or be absent from the community for a period of time.2
Polygamy and the Mormon Church
Many cultures and religions have historically practiced polygamy. One religious group that is commonly associated with polygamy is the Mormon Church. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, practiced polygyny, which allowed it to become an accepted lifestyle within the religion. The Mormon Church officially rejected polygamy in 1890 after facing conflict with the United States government, which had banned the practice.1
Despite the official ban on polygamy, some Mormon fundamentalists still practice it in secret today. For example, a fundamentalist Mormon community was discovered in Texas in 2008. Members of the community were illegally practicing polygamy. The community’s leader, Warren Jeffs, was eventually sentenced to life in prison for aggravated sexual assault against children.3 Elissa Wall, one of the young women who grew up in the community, wrote a tell-all memoir about her experience titled Stolen Innocence.4
Polygamy and the Law
There is an ongoing worldwide debate about the moral status of polygamy and if it should be legal. The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations asserts that polygamy negatively impacts women and recommends that it be banned in all nations1; however, many cultures view it in a positive light and permit their citizens to practice it.
In America, polygamy is currently illegal in all fifty states.1 Though polygamy is still considered taboo, Americans have adopted more accepting attitudes toward this practice in recent years. A survey conducted in 2017 indicated that 17% of Americans find polygamy to be morally acceptable, up from 7% in 2001.5
In various countries around the world today, polygamy is legal or is permitted for certain groups. For example, some Asian countries such as the Philippines allow only Muslims to practice polygamy. Recent data shows that polygamy is either generally accepted or officially legal in 33 countries. In an additional 41 countries, it is partially accepted or legal for certain groups of people.6
Polygamy has existed throughout history in many cultures and religions around the world. It is a controversial topic with every culture having different standpoints on its positive and negative aspects. Though it is considered taboo and banned in many countries such as the United States, others continue to practice it today.
- Levay, Simon et al. Discovering Human Sexuality. 3rd ed., Sinauer Associates, Inc., 2015.
- Dreger, Alice. “When Taking Multiple Husbands Makes Sense.” The Atlantic, 1 Feb. 2013.
- Associated Press. “Texas: Polygamist Leader Gets Life Sentence.” The New York Times. 9 August 2011.
- Wall, Elissa, and Lisa Pulitzer. Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs. William Morrow, 2012.
- Dugan, Andrew. “Moral Acceptance of Polygamy at Record High — But Why?” Gallup.com, 28 July 2017.
- “Population Facts: World Marriage Patterns.” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. December 2011.
Last Updated: 7 February 2019.