The Problem with Polygamy

by Steve Sailer

UPI, January 17, 2002


Osama bin Laden has put polygamy back in the news.

Published reports attribute to the suspected terrorist mastermind anywhere from three to five wives and 10 to 42 children. Despite this strong start, bin Laden may not live long enough to match his father's impressive marital marks. The al Qaida leader with the $25 million reward on his head is one of approximately 52 children that his illiterate billionaire father sired out of somewhere between 11 and 16 wives.

The merits of polygamy versus monogamy have been debated for thousands of years. Both sides normally assume that men, of course, like polygamy. So, they simply clash over whether polygamy is in the best interests of wives. In reality, however, polygamy victimizes men. You never hear about it because few men want to claim this particular kind of victimhood: that of the sexual rejectee.

I've been following accounts of polygamous societies ever since I saw an article in the early 1980s about a Kenyan man with 150 wives. It set the template for every first-hand description of polygamy that I've read since. The reporter diligently interviewed the youngest wife, who thought polygamy was terrific since it allowed her to marry the richest, handsomest, and most respected man in her village.

He also quoted the oldest wife, who was nostalgic for the days when she didn't have to share her husband with this army of younger wives. Nonetheless, she appreciated her status as her husband's chief of staff. She had 10 senior wives reporting to her, who each oversaw the work of about 14 junior wives as they toiled in their husband's fields. The husband, not surprisingly, thought industrial-scale polygamy was an all-around great idea and recommended that all men should marry multiple wives.

Anti-polygamists would argue, with some justice, that feelings of gender equality are impossible in a family where, simply to prevent anarchy, the man must organize his wives like a military unit with himself as the commanding general.

Pro-polygamists, in contrast, would note that the husband and the junior wives strongly approved of polygamy, while the older wives acquired enough consolations in status to at least find it a mixed blessing. So, since it doesn't hurt anybody badly, who could object?

But who's missing from this picture? Isn't there somebody else affected? This reporter, like all I've seen since him, forgot the existence of the people who were most definitely damaged by polygamy: namely, the 149 guys who didn't get a wife at all because Mr. Marriage-Minded had married 150. I have been looking in vain for 20 years for an article about polygamy that mentioned that for one man to take a second wife means, in the normal course of things, that another man will get no wife at all.

I have come to believe that this blind spot stems from it being virtually impossible for a man to imagine himself as one of the 149 losers, rather than the one big winner. He might prefer one wife to 150, but his male ego can't allow him to identify with all the men who end up rejected and alone. This psychological quirk creates a reality distortion field in the heads of men. Demography is not the sexiest of the social sciences, but one demographic fact that just about everybody knows is that among marriage-aged people there are almost exactly as many men as women. Indeed, among people between the ages of 15 and 64 in the world as a whole, there are 102 men for every 100 women, according to the "CIA World Factbook." Yet, men who favor polygamy almost never believe this basic constant of demographics.

I first became aware of this subconsciously willful misperception while shooting the breeze with a good friend from Cameroon, a country in West Africa. He was earning his Ph.D. from UCLA in the social sciences. He wanted to quickly finish his doctorate so he could go home, get a government job, and become rich enough to add three more wives to the one he already had. "But," I asked, "don't you feel sorry for the three fellows who won't be able to marry because you'll have four wives?"

"What do you mean?" he responded, genuinely puzzled by my ignorance. "Don't you know there are many more women than men? If not for public-spirited men like me, the world would be full of spinsters."

Similarly, here's a news story that sounds like it's from The Onion, that font of superb deadpan satire, yet is a genuine British Broadcasting Corp. news story of last August:

"Sudan's President Omar Hassan al Bashir has urged Sudanese men to take more than one wife in order to double the country's population of 30 million ... 'We should achieve this aim by having many wives,' Bashir said." In other words, a man who hoards wives isn't selfish, he's patriotic!

A 1999 Los Angeles Times account of another Kenyan patriarch, Ancentus Akuku Oguela, who has been married more than 100 times and has 172 children, showed once again how confused polygamy makes even normally logical people. The newspaper claimed, "Social researchers estimate that among Kenya's 29 million people, more than 50 percent of the men are polygamous and 30 percent of the women are part of a plural marriage."

Wait a minute. If "more than 50 percent of the men" have at least two wives, wouldn't that mathematically require that not 30 percent, but more than 100 percent of the women be part of a plural marriage?

Of course, thinking straight about polygamy is not something that the human mind seems wired to do.


Steve Sailer ( is a columnist for and the film critic for The American Conservative.

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