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An answer (now deleted) at the new Islam.SE site made the following claim:

If one takes a look at society where polygamy is banned or discouraged, you will see that some men will always try to fulfill their need for more partners by illegal means; which gives rise to the ‘oldest profession in the world’: prostitution. Seldom has there been a demand for male prostitution in the annals of history.

The same claim is mentioned on this Islam site:

At this point, the apologist usually falls back on a defense of polygamy - claiming that it reduces prostitution, for example - while effectively conceding that men and women are equal in Islam except with[sic] they aren't.

And again in this news release (full article quoted, due to reports of unreliable paywall):

Kadyrov Says Polygamy Reduces Promiscuity

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said Monday that he supports polygamy among Russian Muslims because it reduces sexual promiscuity and prostitution.

“That’s a tradition we’ve always had. God allows Muslims to do so,” Kadyrov, 33, said in an interview broadcast by state-run RT television. “Is it better to have 20 lovers rather than four lawful wives?”

Kadyrov said he was not asking federal authorities to the change law, which prohibits multiple marriages. Polygamy makes men accountable to their wives and reduces philandering, he said.

Kadyrov is “married with seven children,” according to his web site.

Is it true that a banning or discouraging of polygamous behavior (specifically polygyny) leads to lower rates of marital infidelity and/or prostitution?

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In the end though: The muslim claim was about promiscuity. What is their definition of promiscuity? If you have four wives and sleep with them all, is that less promiscuous than sleeping with 3 that you aren't married with? –  Alan Escreet Jun 25 '12 at 19:29
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@Flimzy Then it's just shifting the goal posts. The amount of sex with different women is the same, they've just declared it okay by the act of marriage. –  Alan Escreet Jun 25 '12 at 19:31
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The simple answer to the question is that of course polygamy reduces infidelity. This is just by definition. If fidelity is defined as sexual exclusivity with married partners, then by increasing the number of married partners, you can simply marry the ones you would have had sex with anyway. This answer though is not referenced. It is just a logical conclusion based on definitions and terminology. ...as to whether is reduces prostitution, that is a different matter entirely... –  Alan Escreet Jun 25 '12 at 19:36
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I think @AlanEscreet may have a solution here, if we just apply it ad infinitum. If we simply declare that every man is married to every woman (or do it properly and say every person is married to every other person), we eliminate promiscuity, infidelity and (statutory) prostitution in one fell swoop. –  Oddthinking Jun 28 '12 at 17:45
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We have now had 5 attempts at answering this question. Each has resorted to speculations about economic theory and evolutionary psychology. None have actually looked at the data. Anyone want to try that? –  Oddthinking Sep 4 '12 at 16:49

2 Answers 2

Very basic economics suggests that the opposite happens. If some males have many female partners that are exclusive with them, others will have no partners. So they will substitute intermarital sex by employing prostitutes or going to underage girls, which may be common among fundamentalist mormons - a splinter group of mainstream mormonism. According to this source, evidence for an increased demand for prostitution under polygyny exists.

A number of factors can lead to a high median age at marriage, which creates a large potential demand for commercial sex. One important factor in increasing median age at marriage is polygyny, which is common in much of West and Central Africa. In these regions 40 per cent to 50 per cent of married women are in polygynous marriages. Consequently, men marry 10 years later than women and at any time 50 per cent of postpubertal males have never married (Caldwell et al 1993).

In those countries in which bride-price must be paid, high bride wealth payments delay marriage for men and encourage high rates of prostitution (Caraël et al 1987).

It stands to reason that similar effects happen even without the need to make payments to parents.

The essential flaw in the original argument is that it takes the, quite reasonable claim, "that some men will always try to fulfill their need for more partners by illegal means" to be independent of the current number of partners. If the more females a male is involved with, the more he wants additional females, the claim would make sense. I doubt one will find direct data on this, but I consider that a priori to be very unlikely.

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Presumably polygyny will tend to increase demand for and reduce supply of prostitution. In a society like 7th century Arabia where many men died in battle, the latter effect might exceed the former. –  Henry Jun 26 '12 at 20:05
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"Very basic economics suggests that the opposite happens." This is not that obvious. From an economy standpoint, it should only happen if poligyny is significant in numbers, if the men without a partner prefer using prostitutes over having adulterous relationship (some men actually have morals), etc. –  Ebenezer Sklivvze Jun 27 '12 at 21:46
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-1 for trying to apply "very basic economics" to one of most complex and culturally-affected areas of human behaviour. Your sources do not directly address the claim: that polygyny reduces infidelity and prostitution. –  Oddthinking Jun 28 '12 at 4:06
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Polygamy used to be much more practical when so many men died in battle that there were so many women without husbands. Now population teeters between more men and more women so affluent men would have all the women and others would have none. So yeah if it was the societal norm all the girls would be married and us poor sobs would probably be the poolboys and gardeners trying to get with the mrs of the home. –  Tjaart Jun 28 '12 at 20:37
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@Tjaart: All the men were dying in battle? References please! Was it more than the women dying in child-birth? –  Oddthinking Jun 29 '12 at 0:31

There are two causative factors. One is cultural, the other is sexual proclivity.
Let Y be number of wives, where Y = {0, 1 ... n}
and
P be prevalence of prostitution

P is a categorical variable such that any increase in prostitution when compared to baseline levels for that society is denoted as P = 1

If prostitution is arbitrarily small, or there is a structural near-impossibility for prostitution (details to follow), then P = 0

One

These matters are very much culturally based. Consider modern China. There is a large disparity in the number of women versus the number of men, due to the "one family-one child" policy of the Cultural Revolution, and the tendency to want that one child to be a boy.

The adverse sex ratios shown in the 2000 census which have been increasing over the decades is highly problematic for the Chinese traditional notions which highlight the importance of marriage for all.

Many men are realizing that they will never have the opportunity to marry:

The growing population of unmarried men affects the prevalence of commercial sex activity and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections... In the 1980s, sex workers represented a small share of the population, but between 1990 and 2000, prostitution expanded rapidly. Current estimates range from 1 million women whose primary income comes from commercial sex to up to as many as 10 million women engaging in paid sex of some kind.

The question asks whether banning or discouraging polygamous behavior leads to lower rates of marital infidelity and/ or prostitution. The prior scenario indicates that
IF Y = 0 THEN P = 1

Two

My impression for Muslim men is that yes, they may have as many as four wives. However, they must have sufficient resources, both financially and emotionally to care for each woman. Of course, one wife, not necessarily the first, may be the one who bears a child first, or bears a favorite child, or the firstborn male child, or for whom there is some family pressure to make the marriage work, and thus might get more attention than the other wives. But insofar as there are laws about this in Muslim countries, a man may not take on additional wives unless he adequately perform his marital duties, which include the children from his marriages e.g. paying for home, clothing, school etc.

It is certainly possible that having more wives will result in greater fidelity by the husband, and less philandering. This scenario is described by
Y = {1 ... n} where n = 4 and P is unknown

Consider this though: The lowest status wife may be more likely to turn to prostitution to supplement inadequate financial support for her and her children, should there be the need, which is the rationale for having the means to provide for a family, as mentioned above. IF the societal and legal requirements are upheld (legal with the assumption of a theocracy), and genuinely considered to be agreeable by the population, THEN this scenario should be extremely unlikely. Yet it remains incorrect to infer that P = 0

Three

There are very few (renegade) Mormons who still engage in the practice of having multiple wives. There are some though, geographically close to where I live and was raised. They do not abide by the same social construct as described above. The situation is one where a small number of men in the community have a large number of wives, a minimum of three, including girls under the age of 18:

The 10,000-strong Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), which broke away from the Mormon church in 1890 when the mainstream faith disavowed polygamy, believes a man must marry at least three women to go to heaven.

This leaves other men in the community with no hope of marriage, and worse:

teenage boys have been separated from their parents and thrown out of their communities to make more young women available for older men, Utah officials claim. Some boys as young as 13 have simply been dumped on the side of the road...[this is necessary in order to] change the arithmetic so there are more young girls available for polygamy, with the 40 year old leader of the sect known for having fathered at least 56 children by 40 wives

These illegal Mormon marriage patterns are unlikely to be sustained in the few small communities who engage in such practices. This is because the shortage of available women becomes extreme:

the younger boys' expulsion had more to do with the ruthless sexual arithmetic of a polygamous sect. "Obviously if you're going to have three to one or four to one female to male marriages, you're going to run out of females. The way of taking care of it is selectively casting out those you don't want to be in the religion," [according to investigators]

For as long as these practices can be sustained, Y > 1 and more likely, Y > 3. Due to the demonstrated shortfall of women for even monogamous marriages, it follows that, within the community, prostitution is effectively nil. Thus in Scenario Three IF Y = {3 ... 40} THEN P = 0

Summary
We know that
IF Y = 0 THEN P = 1
IF Y = {1 ... n} where n = 4 THEN P is unknown
IF Y = {3 ... 40} THEN P = 0

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I certainly agree with the last sentence. You need some references to fact to corroborate. –  Oddthinking Jun 28 '12 at 17:40
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@Oddthinking Working on it. Sorry, should have waited till I found them all before posting. Am furiously scrolling through bookmarks right now. –  Ellie Kesselman Jun 28 '12 at 17:43
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Feral, I'm afraid the major changes and pseudo-mathematical language haven't actually helped make this an answer. It is still speculation based on poorly defended anecdotes. For example, in China you argue that insufficient numbers of available women causes single men to resort to using prostitutes, where as in polygamous communities, insufficient numbers of available women causes prostitution to be effectively nil. What you didn't do was actually quote statistics to show there is effectively no prostitution, nor relate this to other communities. –  Oddthinking Nov 19 '12 at 23:31
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You've also "shown" the lack of any spouse leads to less prostitution, in the case of FLDS. China, as a whole, is one data point, despite the number of people in it. Where is the control? Has prostitution also increase by the same amount in other countries? –  Oddthinking Nov 20 '12 at 0:47
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+1 For use of mathematical variables. –  Mew Jan 29 '13 at 2:37

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