Alternative Forms of Marriage Polyandry

About the alternative form of marriage known as polyandry, history of the practice and people who have them.

Alternate Forms of Marriage


The Practice: It is not because of the sexuality of women that polyandry--the marriage of one woman to more than one man--is rare, for it makes ultimate sexual good sense, given the claims of sex researchers who say that many women are capable of having several orgasms in a short period of time and are just as interested in having several sex partners as men are. Such findings give the lie to the old rhyme:

Higamus, hogamus,

Woman's monogamous;

Hogamus, higamus,

Man is polygamous.

The rarity of polyandry stems from the historical powerlessness of women, who have not had enough social or economic clout to make it a reality.

In the few primitive cultures in which it has existed, polyandry has been for the convenience of men, not women. It has also been a question of economics. Unable to afford a wife all to himself, a man shares one with other men. Often, those who do the sharing are brothers with still another motive--to keep their land in the family. To hold the population in the right balance for polyandry, some tribes have killed off a percentage of the female babies. The Jats, a peasant tribe of northern India and Pakistan, for example, supposedly had the custom of putting baby girls in buffalo pens to be trampled. Groups which practice or have practiced polyandry are largely located in Tibet, Siberia, and other places not very hospitable to human beings.

The Nayars, a warrior group of the Malabar coast of India, once practiced a peculiar form of polyandry in which the prepubescent girl was "married" to a man she often never saw. He received a fee for this and was considered the official "father" of her children. From adolescence, she was free to copulate with several husbands, presented to her by her mother or her mother's brother. Each husband would spend a few days at a time with her and had the privilege of hanging his weapons on her door. He also paid part of her support, though he did not live with her. As wars became less common among the Nayars, they moved in the direction of monogamy.

In Tibet, a woman might marry a family of brothers; one would stay with her while the others were at war, herded sheep, or went on trading expeditions.

The herder Todas, who live in the hills of southern India, practiced female infanticide and the sharing of a wife by several brothers. The first child of the wife was said to be fathered by the oldest brother, the next by the next-oldest brother, and so on. When the British, horrified at the killing of the babies, discouraged the practice, the Todas turned to a form of group marriage in which a family of brothers would marry a family of sisters.

Practitioners: Polyandry is rare in European and Asian civilizations. Perhaps its most common form is a menage a trois. For example, Voltaire, the rationalist philosopher, had a 16-year affair with the Marquise du Chatelet ("the divine Emilie"); during part of it, he, Emilie, and Emilie's husband lived together. Lady Montagu noted in 1716 in Vienna that many women of the nobility there had two "husbands"--one for the name, the other for the "game." It was considered gauche not to invite all three to dinner.

Where It Stands Today: Neither form of polygamy--polygyny or polyandry--is likely to replace monogamy.

Polyandry is against U.S. law. For people who choose to live in "nonlegal" marriage of a woman and more than one man, the law is looser. In places where sex between consenting adults is not prohibited, polyandrous groups are unlikely to be troubled by the police.

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