April 1st, 2009 by Pelle Billing

Monogamy is often given a bad rap these days. According to many feminists, monogamy is a way of controlling women and enforcing patriarchy, and rebelling against this social convention is an integral part of women’s liberation.

Before accepting this worldview, it’s important to examine why monogamy was introduced in the first place, because it certainly hasn’t been around since the dawn of humanity.

As we all know, virtually all modern societies only permit monogamous marriages. However, most cultures that now consider polygamy to be illegal, at some point allowed men to have more than one wife. As long as a culture was governed by an emperor or tribal laws, chances are that polygamy was allowed, especially for men who had the resources to provide for more than one woman.

The interesting thing to note, is that there is a clear correlation between the formation of traditional (conventional) societies, and the abandonment of polygamy. As it turns out, a region or country was simply much easier to organize if monogamy was the norm.

Monogamy decreases violence and civil wars, since almost all men get a wife. Polygamy leaves a lot of men unmarried, and groups of unmarried men have always been a source of civil unrest. In polygamous cultures, wealthy men are the ones who get several wifes, while poor, low status men go without. The only way for these unmarried, poor men to raise their status and get access to one or more women may be to start raiding or robbing, and constantly dealing with those kinds of troubles is not the way to have law and order prevail.

Furthermore, in addition to motivating men to stay law-abiding, monogamy was and is a way for the state to make sure that all children have two parents (and therefore likely to be supported and survive without any help from the state). Lots of children surviving and thriving was tremendously important to the evolution of any culture at this point in time, since population growth was a key factor for progress before the advent of industrialization.

Monogamy was thus a key building block in the creation of a functioning traditional society, that had moved beyond chaos and lawlessness. For all its faults and shortcomings, the traditional way of life represented a huge step forward in human civilization, and monogamy can therefore be said to represent real progress at that point in time.

What’s interesting is that homosexuality likely became taboo in traditional societies and traditional religions since it was perceived as a threat to the (unconscious) model that prescribed heterosexual monogamy and “child production” as the cornerstone of society. This is obviously not the only reason that homosexuality has been discriminated against, but it is one interesting factor that is not often discussed.

What Did Monogamy Mean For Each Sex?

I started out this post by saying that feminists are often critical of monogamy, and view it as a patriarchal construct that benefits men at the expense of women. However, given the historical facts just outlined, we can see that monogamy meant that:

  • Men had to support their wife and family
  • Each child was assigned a father (whether biological or not)
  • Men were expected to give their lives protecting their wife and children
  • Each man had a very good chance to become married and have children
  • Women’s sexuality was controlled, so that the biological father be known with some certainty
  • Women could be sure of being supported and having the children be supported, since divorces were illegal

Many of these implications of monogamy are still true, and therefore it is clearly unfair and incorrect to state that monogamy only benefited men. Women, children and men alike benefited from monogamy – even though it certainly wasn’t a perfect model by any measure, since the static male and female gender roles were still around.

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4 Responses to “Monogamy”

  1. Is being true to one partner realistic? | Says:

    [...] Monogamy [...]

  2. Deva Ariza Says:

    Is it fair to say that monogamy benefited/benefits men *more* than it benefited/benefits women? I’m thinking of contemporary societies in which women have less recourse to divorce than men (particularly Islamic). Perhaps these are merely confounding factors which happen to occur jointly with enforced monogamy, but do not necessarily have to… In any case, I would argue simply that women bring more to the un-socially-constructed table. What men offer women has primarily had to be constructed, i.e. access to money and hierarchical power. What women offer men is bodily, a force of nature. Sex, food, children… And yet, in traditional societies where monogamy is expected and people play traditional gender roles, we continue to see children raised by mothers but named after fathers. Why?

  3. Pelle Billing Says:

    I agree that women offer men a lot, but I think you’re forgetting what men offer. Men offer to support the whole family financially (in traditional societies) even if that means working long hours in a mine, building roads, or some other dangerous activity.

  4. Deva Ariza Says:

    I agree that in traditional arrangements men do provide the financial support, sometimes by engaging in dangerous work, sometimes not. But this does absolutely nothing to explain why men are given name recognition for the work that traditional women do, raising children at home.

    Why is is that men get credit for the work they do AND for the work the woman they mate with does?