Why Hugh Hefner May Be On The "Wright" Track: Little Known Reasons That Polygamy May Benefit Women

Tuesday, October 10, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

Okay, so if you're all about the monogamous union for reasons other than personal choice, you may want to stop reading now. Because while hate mail is obviously fun, it's nowhere near as fun as polygamy. (Ba dum dum, ching.)

Let's be clear up front: I am not advocating for this arrangement, nor am I trying to promote it. There are even pieces of this particular issue that make me a little queasy. I see this more as a discussion of an interesting evolutionary argument--a mind bender, an article to explore a side of an issue I never before considered. Humans did not evolve to be specifically monogamous, but that's beside the point. Because according to Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, there may be a liberal feminist argument for polygamy1.

"Our husbands get to sleep with more than one person, but we don't? And it's a feminist argument? Seriously, what in the fuck!?" 

Obviously, this seems contradictory. But, according to Wright, male animals with fewer assets do best to focus on one female and her offspring, rather than risk spreading things too thin and ending up with no surviving children. However, in animal species where resources have more striking class divides, females gravitate towards a few higher-ranking males and have no problems sharing because of the financial benefits he provides.

And we might be one of those species.

Many will have issues with this argument, based on the idea that sharing a man seems to be a fairly misogynistic thing, plus the ick factor for those who don't want to sleep with someone who is actively banging someone else. Some will also have issues with this from a class perspective and 1% privilege, since it's unlikely that the lower class or even the middle class would be able to afford polygamous union with a single male wage earner. And the whole "men as heads of households/female dependency thing" really deserves its own post, as does the nature of religious belief and sexual health. 

But let's try to put all of that aside for a moment. Because it is possible that socially imposed monogamy actually benefits men at higher rates than women. 


Okay, so, here's my interpretation of Wright's theory:

Generally, individual women and men partner with someone of similar marketable rank, i.e. we are predisposed to seek out the best we can get based on our view of our value. 3s marry 3s, 8s marry 8s. According to David Buss, author of The Evolution of Desire, these ratings would be based on physical attractiveness, fidelity, signs of good motherhood  and inherited personality traits like intelligence (for men) and provisional resources like the ability to support a family financially, intelligence and personality traits of caring and kindness (for women). 

That's why when we see a gorgeous, young woman with a creepy-looking old guy, we assume he's got some cash. We automatically make up for his lack of physical marketability with an overcompensation of resources.  

While that is clearly not an exhaustive list, and many factors come into play for determining marketability, let's say for the sake of simplicity that the following rows of people have the following ratings: 

Women: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
Men: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Again, for simplicity, say they pair like this:
Women - Men
      1         1
      2         2
      3         3
      4         4
      5         5
      6         6
      7         7 
      8         8
      9         9
      10      10

Simple enough. In the monogamy model, every man gets married. Awesome. Good for them. 

How would it look if women were allowed to choose polygamous union?

In modern polygamous union, women generally have a say in who gets chosen to enter the marriage. It becomes a consenting group partnership as opposed to a harem-style reproductive baby mill. And it doesn't necessarily have to be polygamy; polyamory, where partners have extended relationships with other people may also provide additional benefits with or without polygamous unions. 

So, let's say our lady #10 needed some help, or was otherwise open to such an arrangement (and if she wasn't, she could very well demand monogamy based on her own marketability). The women in the middle may not be motivated to improve their lot slightly in exchange for resources and another wife. The men in the middle couldn't afford to take on another wife, and wives in the middle would be unlikely to agree to take on another person in the relationship without some serious benefits from the individual themselves. So, in most cases, the women who benefit are those who married lower-ranking guys, if they choose to accept the arrangement.

Say that now things look like this:

Women -  Men
    None    1
    None    2
      1         3
      2         4
      3         5
      6         6
      7         7 
      8         8
      8         9 
  4, 5, 10  10

Women 4 and 5 improved their financial standing significantly with a polygamous union. Woman 1, 2 and 3 also got a better mate selection, despite not being involved in polygamous union.  

Men 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 however, have all decreased their prospects, either with lower-ranking mates or none at all. 

Uh oh.

Love is a complex series of chemical reactions, triggered by things like marketable status and inherent benefits of that partner. If you believe Wright, this model would be like choosing to marry a guy of higher rank and sharing him with others in exchange for a higher social status, less (or no) financial worry and the potential for a cooperative care model of childrearing not unlike that enjoyed by our ancestors. And there might well be lots of love.  

While on the surface it might sounds a little gold-diggery, financial security (or at least a lack of severe stress) is often a contributor to mate selection regardless of how high it ranks on our internal list of "important things in a husband".  Hard working women are rarely excited to marry someone with no drive, no prospects and no job. And the male model of attraction that is only partially true (skinny young women with large breasts) is celebrated across the board instead of harassing men for openly seeking these features.

Seeking financial security, or someone who is hardworking is not a shameful thing. It is an innate part of our existence, one that can coexist with "love". In fact, it is often external cues of resources and stability that can trigger love in the first place. I also tend to be an advocate for the ability of women to choose, regardless of what my own choices might be in a similar situation. 

But there is a complication, and it has to do with those lower ranking fellows.

Marriage: The Great Pacifier

Marriage in general might do more than lead to sexual monotony. According to researchers Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, marriage tends to have a "pacifying effect" on males2

Single men, particularly those in lower ranking stations (our numbers 1 and 2 above) tend to compete more ferociously for mating rights. These are the men with something to prove from an evolutionary standpoint, men who are more predisposed to robbery in order to increase resources and attract a mate, men more likely to commit murder2. These are also the men more likely to rape2, a biological throwback to the days when if you couldn't attract a mate, you simply took what you wanted and hoped that over time some of your offspring would survive to reproduction themselves.

Rape was, in part, an evolutionary way to hedge bets when no one actually wanted to fuck you. Today there remains some truth to this though our complicated psyches also allow for strong elements of control in such crimes. However, the complex nature of rape requires its own set of posts to do it justice.

Polygamy and Monogamy: Flip Sides of the Same American Coin

Now clearly, some of those lower ranking men are simply those who wouldn't have gotten married to begin with due to this lower marketability factor, but monogamy does have some benefit in terms of reducing the number of single males who might be more likely to harm others in their uncoupled state.

However, even with marriage as a cultural norm, we are nowhere near a monogamous culture. If anything, we are a nation of serial monogamy lovers, as evidenced by high divorce rates and remarriages. Only sometimes are we "till death do us part" people. More often we mate for a season and find ourselves back on the market, often with a lower marketability ranking than we started with. And both women and men suffer terribly in these exchanges when they are replaced by another individual instead of being able to stay there with their children, even with the added caveat of another person in the house.

And as Wright argues, higher ranking men often monopolize large numbers of women anyway during their peak reproductive periods as opposed to marrying one and sticking with her.    

Right Hef? 

Quasi-polygamy. The choice of rich playboys, rock stars and actors everywhere. 

But what about us?  Can the ladies have a bunch of husbands too?

Polyandry and Hypocrisy

The flip side of the polygamy model is polyandry, but Wright argues that while having additional partners to share the workload and bills may be nice, women don't need additional opportunities for reproduction, and a wealthy woman could just hire a housekeeper if she needed help.

Wright also argues that this may decrease the opportunities for lower-ranking women if those in higher positions snap up more dudes. As ironic as it is, allowing women to have additional husbands might serve to increase inequality and increase mate competition for women, whereas polygamy allows for increases in female equality in terms of improvements in mate choice, at least in the way we currently practice marriage in this country. It might all work out in a hippie-commune type of situation, though.

I'd argue that having another husband to leave their socks on the fucking floor would do me in, but who knows? Maybe one of the other guys in my man stable would pick them up. There's also the fact that due to our societal structure, and our susceptibility to shame, going against the grain would likely cause more stress for those engaging in it. 

But if you lived at Bill Gate's place, you might not care.

Stress or no, there are times I might consider letting my husband sleep with someone else if I could just get some help with the freaking laundry. 

All that said, Wright's model is a little suspect. Not only does it assume that women would be willing to give up monogamy for higher status or resources, but it also has a pretty stark class divide. While it may make sense from some perspectives, the reality may be different, particularly when deepening privileges for upper-class individuals even as you hypothetically increase opportunities for lower-class women who wish to engage in these unions.  

I'm not advocating such a model, nor am I excited to engage in a partnership like it (so don't even try it, honey.) However, I do think that women are intelligent enough to weigh the costs and benefits of such an arrangement and decide for themselves if it may be beneficial to them. At any rate, it's the start of an interesting discussion. 

  1. http://www.amazon.com/The-Moral-Animal-Evolutionary-Psychology/dp/0679763996
  2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0162309582900279


Topic-Relevant Resources

The Moral Animal
Journalist Robert Wright explores human nature from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

Sex At Dawn
Exploration of modern relationships from the evolutionary perspective. Everything you ever wanted to know about male penis size.

What Do Women Want?
An exploration of female sexuality through interviews with prominent researchers in the field, including not yet published research (at this time)

The Art of Choosing
Research on personal choice and its implications for mental health

The Woman That Never Evolved: With a New Preface and Bibliographical Updates, Revised Edition
Anthropology, wit and the evolution of the modern female.