Summary: 34th Gentle Thinkers Debate (Polygamy)

Marriage laws – how broad should they be? Should polygamous marriage be legal and if so, within which limits? How would the legal system need to change to accommodate polygamous marriage?

Note: This summary is interpreted from notes taken during the second debate on this topic and may contain errors. It is not a definitive text and should be used a means of sharing and developing ideas. Edits have been made to make this summary easy to read therefore it does not reflect the actual flow of conversation.

If you wish to correct mistakes, be attributed to or contribute content, please contact me or post a comment.

More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.


Pre debate discussions [Link to debate 1] and [Link to debate 2].


  • Polygamy – A relationship that includes more than one partner
  • Polygyny – A relationship where a man has multiple wives
  • Polyandry – A relationship where a woman has multiple husbands
  • Polyamory – Intimate relationships (not necessarily marriages) involving multiple people where all members have mutually agreed to be part of it

Exclusive monogamy is rare in ­­the animal kingdom; this appears to be a recent (human) development. Relationships between animals are mostly for reproductive purposes. It is costly in terms of time and energy to birth and raise offspring so having a partner to share the duties is desirable and beneficial for some species.

Biologically, males have the capacity to have more offspring than females and are able to have multiple partners. Females have no genetic benefit to having multiple partners. More husbands don’t produce more babies with one woman. During baby booms large families are common and women get worn out by near constant production of children. Polygyny may be a boon to women in such circumstances, allowing them to share the burden of child-production.

Humans are an exception to the majority of animals. This is due to factors like human offspring having a long development period, they are highly dependent on their parents, it’s costly to raise children and ovulation is not displayed in an obvious manner.

Unless a male guards his spouse, he’d be unsure of the paternity of his offspring. Monogamy forces men to stay at home (or close to it) to validate paternity.

Traditional marriage laws and customs demonstrate what is considered ideal in a partner. Some of these include prerequisites for a bride to be a virgin, bridal dowries and matching horoscopes.

Polygamy was traditional until the development of the state. Nobility may have viewed polygamous marriage as a privilege of their class. The rise of the democratic city states during Ancient Greece and Rome may have influenced the prevalence of monogamy as a means of motivating armies to be loyal to their state.

Very few societies are polyandrous despite matriarchal societies’ prevalence in ancient societies.

Monogamy is favoured by cultural evolution. Some may argue that it is better for societies to adopt this model. Some studies have suggested that monogamy reduces crime rates in unmarried young men as they aren’t being pushed out of the marriage market by wealthier and older rivals and don’t have to resort to risky and violent behaviour to earn gratification. [Link to paper on this]

Polygamy may have enabled one male to appear in your genetic family tree multiple times.

Polygamy may have derived from farming communities without economic systems. Women forming the majority of the workforce may have influence the need to have more family members to share the work load.

Where will it end? How can you defend against polygamy and bestiality? – This is a slippery slope argument often bought up during arguments against legalising homosexual or “alternative” forms of marriage.

One member suggested that marriage is a prefabricated contract to suit the majority of the population. This contract should be customisable to accommodate individual needs.

We have a default marriage contract and customising it in the legal system can be expensive and difficult to do.

Some of the legal and social benefits of marriage:

  • Responsibility and rights of children

  • Property division

  • Social recognition and acceptance of a relationship

  • Emotional and sexual monopoly of an individual

Marriage could also been seen as a societal means of quarantining and preventing the spread of STDs and STIs. Married people also share superannuation, tax and pension etc.

We may be making and living as extended families to share the costs of living. There have been some trends developing like couples sharing homes and mortgages. Could polygamists do the same to split the costs?

Marriage for some is considered to be an emotional improvement to a relationship. We may have marriage as a social construct that is advantageous. It may assist with social cohesion. Marriage laws suggest society values married couples. If so, why do they?

Calculating and managing child support payments can be complicated to implement

Pre-nuptial agreements require and enable full understanding of the marriage contract by both parties. Having templates or kits for pre-nuptial agreements could make understanding the implications of marriage easier and lead to less impulsive decisions.

Some people get into marriage without being aware of the consequences. Marriage laws need to provide back-up support for when problems occur.

Being married may have intrinsic benefits in some social systems, you have to prove you were in a de facto relationship for at least two years (and a few other things) when breaking up to obtain property settlements.

Polygamy is not legal and not facilitated in the world but it can happen. It’s still a taboo to be in relationships with multiple people.

We have an idea of monogamy but we have an undercurrent of cheating and polygamy in Western societies. Mistresses are an accepted fact but mirror families are not. Is this ingrained?

What is the male equivalent of a mistress called? Mantress has been suggested. Cicisbeo [Wikipedia entry] or paramour may be more “classical” options

In Western societies we still uphold a chivalrous concept of love. Societal love is dualistic to a degree as it needs to be reciprocated otherwise it will die (attributed to Colin Turnbull).

Cheating = polygamy

Legalising polygamy could result in people bringing in more wives, thus circumventing immigration laws. Tax fraud could be quite easy for polygamists due to the larger pool of family members and types of claims that could be made.

Legalising polygamy may allow those in such relationships have a voice in the law courts if no legal provisions have been made. This may be beneficial to those who are dependent on the family head for an income and aren’t legally recognised. E.g. A person is not a legal wife may not be able to claim a share of an estate. Sharia law courts (or something similar) could enable this it’s very unlikely these would be set up in Australia.

People should consent and have choices. We shouldn’t criminalise relationships. We shouldn’t penalise people for choosing particular lifestyles. Polygamists may be feeling conflicted as their behaviour is discouraged culturally and legally.

Marriage laws should be equal for all.

Once different rights or treatment of a certain category of person is reflected in the law, it legitimises discrimination against those people.

We shouldn’t shun these people especially if they are transparent with each other about the nature of their relationships and have all consented to being in it.

There should be some legal recognition of polygamous relationships but full marriage won’t work in some cases. We could call it marriage and make it customisable or not refer to it as such but offer different rights for those engaged in polygamy.

Synchronised menstruation may be problematic form a polygynist household if all the women live together and the husband has sexual intercourse with a different one each night.

We may be better with minimal laws to make allowances for the improvement of legal rights. Laws can complicate things. In private policy, we have to prioritise so not everyone can get fair representation at the same time.Our elected representatives make the laws, at least we like to think that we or they can do this.

Interesting questions posed by the group

Is monogamy a recent phenomenon?

Did monogamy evolve with the concept of private property?

Has monogamy always been the norm? Is banning polygamy a recent custom?

Is a de facto relationship the same as marriage in the legal system?

What rights do you get by being married?

Can we afford to have large families? Do we choose not to have large families? If we chose to buy less material objects, would we have more offspring?

How does a normal marriage work?

What are the benefits to the participants and society of polygamous relationships? Would there be benefits if we legalised such relationships?

Would legalising these relationships legitimise discrimination against certain type of people?

Why do we focus on polygyny, rarely on polyandry and not at all on polyamorous relationships?

Has there been a purely Western society that is polygamist (not including the Mormons)?

Why do we always focus on (bad) examples of polygyny?

Would polygamy work in a Western culture?

What is marriage?

Is all marriage individualised?

Why should your partner (de facto, married or otherwise) be entitled to a share of your property when you break up?

What happens when a de facto relationship breaks up?

When did the laws regarding joint assets of defacto partners change? [Editor note: Commonwealth laws for the division of property for people in de facto relationships that break down commenced on 2009 and 2010 in South Australia].

How do you split assets or determine entitlements during a separation?

How do we use calculations of time and effort spent into relationships, offspring and property to determine equality in a relationship? Why do we measure these variables?

Do parents have a 50/50 split of their offspring and shared assets? Are all parties entitled to everything?

Could we settle divorce or separation without government and/or legal assistance? You may only need assistance if you disagree.

Once something is legalised, is it regulated?

Is Australia over-governed? Do we have too much legislation?

Is polygamy confusing for the legal system?

What are the social and welfare effects of a polygamist society? What about the emotional ones?

Could we handle being a part of a polygamist relationship?

Are the emotional bonds of a monogamist relationship strong?

Is western society nuclearised (Two parents and 1.5 children)? Has it splintered into small immediate family units without as much support from extended family as their used to be in human history?

Are polygamist families a version of the extended family?

What would be the social structure of a polygamist society? How could we afford the infrastructure to support this?

Is polygamy more prevalent in tribal societies? What is it about these societies that make polygamy work?

Are we marrying for love?

What would happen if we legalise polygamy? Would we become more rigid?

Can a Western society sustain polygamous families?

Would polygamy encourage wealth gaps? We may already be seeing this as wealthier people appear to have an easier time acquiring partners

What are the consequences if the husband of a polygynist family dies? What happens to his dependants?

Would polygamy be a fringe activity even if it was legalised?

How would legalising polygamy be emotionally stressful?

How would polygamist divorce work? How do they manage break ups?

Would the problems of polygamist relationships change if they were legalised? Would legalisation assist with the legal management of these problems?

Could someone create a template that could accommodate polygamy? Would it be complicated?

Why should we care what the government thinks or legalises?

Who are we to stop people from making choices?

Is the most popular type of polygamy the one where everyone wants to have fun?

Are there less dysfunctional polygamist relationships in a culture that promotes equality?

Do we assume polygamy is full of swingers?

Can we think of instances where polygamy would be beneficial? E.g. having another partner in the relationship allows for additional support if one is terminally ill. Stephen Hawking is an example of this.

Should there be behaviours that should be shunned?

Is killing animals worse than torture?

What is consent?

Who works out the benefits and disadvantages of a legislative change?

Why do most people prefer a monogamous relationship?

Is polygamy harmful? Would it depend on it cheating is involved or on mutual consent?

Are humans more devoted to a monogamous partner than we give credit for?

What are the cheating rates amongst the population and various kinds of relationships?

What is the success rate of arranged marriage?

Would divorce rates lower if we didn’t enforce and enshrine marriage?

Is marriage a fantasy and cultural institution?

Would marriage be abolished in the future?

Which countries or societies is polygamy legal AND successful?

How do we define love?

Why do people marry?

What is a soul mate? Are we indoctrinated to believe in this concept?

Is belief in soul mates and romantic love problematic because we are led to believe fairy tales as a reality?

Are we forcing people into monogamous relationships?

Should we make (marriage) laws solely on economical reasons? Are there other primary reasons to make laws?

Are polygamists and other social minorities being repressed? What percentage of the populations fall under these categories?

Do we and can we know all the issues of legalising different kinds of relationships?

What is the prevalence of STDs and STIs among the different relationships in any population?

How many people want to have sex with animals? How many animals want to have sex with people?

Is bestiality a psychological disorder?

Would legalising bestiality lead to an increase in the abuse of animals?

Additional content

Famous/infamous polygamists:

  • Genghis Khan and the large percentage of the Mongolian population who are his descendents
  • Henry the 8th and the rationale behind his marriages
  • King Solomon and his harem
  • The prophet Mohammad (who is attributed with saying you should only have multiple wives if you can treat them all equally)
  • John F Kennedy’s infidelity

Shotgun marriages

Generational stereotypes

Introduction of birth control

Rise of HIV and AIDS

Divorce and break up resolutions

Patchwork families


Fly In, Fly Out workers and the stress this has on them and their relationships

Bestiality, paedophilia and consent

Animal sex and rape of animals by other animals of different species

Mexico and 2 year marriage contracts

TV as a (totalitarian) idiot box

Peter Singer, Q&A [Episode guide] and “Heavy Petting”

Political philosophy

More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.

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