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Moral issues with having multiple partners

Moral issues

Is having multiple partners somehow wrong?

Polygamy is a form of polyamory, except that it is within multiple marriages (usually polygyny, or one husband, many wives). While it is well-known that Muslims in Malaysia are allowed four wives, many may not be aware that polygamy was also lawful for non-Muslims here before 1982, when the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act came into force.

Among Malaysian Chinese, it was certainly not uncommon for wealthy men in the 1960s and 1970s to have legal second and third wives. During the Rajah Brooke era in Sarawak, the Ibans would offer visitors to the deep interior one of the women of the longhouse as a sign of hospitality. This custom stopped only after “modernisation” and conversion to Christianity.

The nagging feeling remains that having multiple partners is perverse and unnatural. But statistics say otherwise.

Of the 1,270 human societies catalogued in Murdoch’s Ethnographic Atlas, about 85% indicate some form of multi-spouse relationships. A Psychology Today article (June 5, 2008) on polyandry (one wife, many husbands) states: “A comprehensive survey of traditional societies in the world shows that 83.39% of them practise polygyny (multiple wives), 16.14%, monogamy, and 0.47%, polyandry.”

A check on Wikipedia reveals that 62 countries worldwide recognise polygamy under their civil or traditional laws. A prominent polygamist is South African President Jacob Zuma, who, like many traditional leaders of his Zulu community, is a polygamist (he has married five times).

While I was searching for interviewees on Facebook, my friend Alistair King helpfully pointed out: “Polyandry has happened in Asia for centuries (in certain tribal groups). Check out the Paharis of North India and the Todas of South India. The Todas, with whom I lived, have a system (going out now) in which the wife was ‘married’ to all the brothers of a family. They all have a go and when the child is born, a ‘Naming of the Father’ ceremony is held, whether or not the person named is the biological parent.

Is polygamy (referring to polygyny and polyandry) thus hard-wired into our minds?

Welcome to the world of polyamory, a July 2006 article in The Observer newspaper says: “In order to replicate his genes, the best thing a Stone Age man could do was ... try to impregnate as many other women along the way as possible. And how much have we evolved since the Stone Age?”

But why would women have multiple partners?

The Time magazine cover story of August 1995, entitled Infidelity – It may be in our genes, suggests that women evolved that way to get more help in raising kids.

It quotes Nisa, a woman from a !Kung San (the bushmen of the Kalahari desert, Africa) hunter-gatherer village, telling an anthropologist that “when you have many lovers... one comes at night with meat, another with money, another with beads. Your husband also does things and gives them to you.”

Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hardy theorised that women copulated with several men so as to have them think they might be the father of her children, and thus treat them kindly.

How about modern women?

A Psychology Today article on polyandry estimates that cuckoldry (whereby a man unknowingly raises another’s genetic child) in monogamous societies ranges from 13%-20% (of marriages) in the United States, 10%-14% in Mexico, and 9%-17%, Germany.

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