How Can I Embrace Monogamy While My Genes Crave Polygamy?

Q: Nature pushes polygamy. Culture pushes monogamy. How does someone deal with polygamous urges in a monogamous country in a healthy manner? -Kei

Dear Kei,

sperm competition and human evolutionYou’re right. Monogamy is not humanity’s strong suit. Most cultures have endorsed some form of polygamy. Even in Western society, where it is a crime, polygamy often wins out in the end. But as I’ve said elsewhere, no individual is a statistic, a society, or a slave to genetics. If you and your partner desire monogamy, it’s all yours.

Let’s start with your premise, Kei, that humans are built for polygamy. Such a cold appraisal! Where’s the romance? Well, if we accept the lessons of evolutionary psychology, you may be right. It’s important to know what you’re up against if you’re going to disagree with your genes, so let us consult the research.

In human evolution, monogamy is the exception more than the rule. Polygyny – the marriage of one man to more than one woman – seems to be every man’s genetic ambition and has been acceptable to the majority of cultures (Murdoch, 1967). Polyandry – the marriage of one woman to multiple men – is “vanishingly rare” and usually ends poorly (Trevithick, 1997).

Robert Wright (1994) sums up each gender’s genetic motivation: “Men can reproduce hundreds of times a year, assuming they can persuade enough women to cooperate.… Women, on the other hand, can’t reproduce more often than once a year.” Different motivations lead to different behaviors. To borrow the title of a recent study, “Men Are Dogs” (Knox et al., 2008). There should be a follow-up study titled “And Women Are The Beneficiaries.”

I warned you this would be sexist. I’ll explain that last statement later. First things first: are we really designed to be promiscuous? There are several pieces of evolutionary evidence in the affirmative, including:

  • Sperm competition: At the microscopic level, there is fierce competition between rival sets of sperm in pursuit of the same egg. For example, men appear to be equipped with the ability to determine whether a woman has had recent opportunity to mate with other men. If so, his ejaculate will contain a higher concentration of sperm than otherwise. And when rival sets of sperm find themselves in the same reproductive tract (which they sometimes do) they actively try to interfere with each other (see, for example, Goetz & Schackleford, 2006). These mechanisms would only have reason to evolve in a non-monogamous species.
  • Mechanics of copulation: Recent evidence suggests that even the anatomy of the male member is designed to thwart the competition. The delicately titled article Secrets of the Phallus (Bering, 2009) convincingly proposes that the odd shape of the human phallus, which is unique in the animal kingdom, is designed to extract the semen left behind by a competing male and replace it with one’s own. Again, only a promiscuous species would need that sort of adaptation.

We could go on with that kind of sordid evidence, but we would be here all day. It is perfectly safe to conclude that humans are built for foolin’ around. However, the word “polygamy” suggests multiple partnerships, which is quite a different thing from multiple matings. We partner with the opposite sex because our offspring are uniquely vulnerable and costly, and that makes both genders uniquely invested in their survival. Enter the long-term relationship in all its titillating forms.

Monogamy: An Agreement Between Men
In the past, most societies have allowed polygyny. Even today it is allowed in many cultures. Islamic societies like those in Syria and Iran allow a man to take more than one wife, usually with the first wife’s permission. Apparently, polygyny is preferable to divorce, which is seen as a last resort in Islam (Hammudah, 1974).

In Uganda, polygyny has more pragmatic underpinnings. Men with land are more likely than men of low means to have multiple wives (Pollet & Nettle, 2009). Ugandan women apparently prefer the divided attention of a baron to the undivided attention of a serf.

Here in the West, we do things differently. It’s one woman for one man. Or at least we try. On the surface, this may seem more enlightened – what could be more fair to the fairer sex? Besides, one of the tradeoffs made by polygynous societies is an increase in violence from desperate young males vying for female attention. Miller & Kanazawa (2007) note that:

“across all societies, polygyny makes men violent, increasing crimes such as murder and rape, even after controlling for such obvious factors as economic development, economic inequality, population density, the level of democracy, and political factors…”

But Western monogamy has tradeoffs, too.

For example, a monogamous society may seem more respectful to the feminine gender, but only if we ignore some important factors. As Steven Pinker (1997) points out, societal monogamy is not an agreement between the genders. It is an agreement between more powerful and less powerful men.

Less powerful men benefit from societal monogamy because every man has a shot at partnering with a woman. More powerful men benefit by drawing the most attractive women without having to fend off the angry hoard of lonely, horny, competitors.

As with most collusions between men, women pay the price. In this case, the cost to women is fewer options. Consider the monogamous woman who is stuck with a poor or abusive man. In a polygynous society she would have the option of joining a more powerful man’s family. This creates an incentive for polygynous men treat their women well, assuming they lack the power to imprison and opress their wives.

Even with Western sensibilities, polygamy can still win out in the form of serial monogamy. At regular intervals, a Western man can divorce his wife and remarry someone younger and more attractive. This is an expensive proposition, and so it works best for men who have power and money. The result is essentially the same as openly polygynous societies: men of means snap up the most attractive women, who ignore the less attractive men.

Be An Informed Consumer
Before you commit to a lifestyle choice, Kei, let’s discuss your relationship options.

Polyamory: Sometimes described as “responsible non-monogamy,” polyamory is “a form of relationship where it is possible, valid and worthwhile to maintain (usually long-term) intimate and sexual relationships with multiple partners simultaneously” (Haritaworn et al., 2006). For our purposes, a polyamorous network consists of both men and women. The professional literature on polyamory is scant, but in my professional experience (alas, no personal experience) polyamory is not for the faint of heart. By definition, all who are involved in a polyamorous network are aware of all other relationships. As you might imagine, alliances, jealousy, and conflict arise.

Maintaining a complex, polyamorous social network requires uncommon skill and commitment from all involved. If you have the time, energy, money, fortitude, self-confidence, relational acumen, libido, conflict management skills, generosity, selflessness, honesty, and intestinal fortitude to pursue this lifestyle, The Ethical Slut (Easton & Liszt, 2008) will help you avoid some of the pitfalls. Good luck.

Covert polygamy: This usually entails one man secretly hitching to multiple women. I recommend against this house of cards. Remember John Edwards? I rest my case.

Overt polygamy: Again, this typically refers to one man joined to multiple women, but openly so. If evolutionary psychologists are right (and I think they are), we are geared to tolerate this arrangement. But in a mainly monogamous society like ours, legal and social sanctions make this a difficult path to follow. If you choose this lifestyle, be warned: you will not only be walking a relational tightrope, but a legal one as well.

Male homosexuality: I have no dog in this fight and no judgments either way, so please let’s keep the hate mail to a minimum. The professional literature repeatedly reports that Western gay males tend toward polyamory and do so with reasonable success. Says one study:

“An important difference between gay men and heterosexuals is that the majority of gay men in committed relationships are not monogamous. Some of these men are polyamorous.… Monogamy is a morally neutral subject within the gay male community” (Bettinger, 2006).

Another study noted that

“a distinctive feature of relationship [advice books] for gay men is the presentation of (non-) monogamy as a matter of choice and negotiation… Manuals for gay men usually contribute significant space to the question of non-monogamy…” (Klesse, 2007).

If you desire polyamory and the gay male community is a option for you, then problem solved.

Serial monogamy: Serial monogamy seems to be Western culture’s answer to polygyny. It takes a deep pockets but serial monogamy keeps relational complexities and social sanctions to a minimum. If you can afford it, you have your society’s blessing.

One Final Option
Finally, Kei, you could forgo polygamy and pursue the gravid challenges of a life-long, monogamous (and hopefully satisfying) relationship. Everything I’ve written above, while true, is perfectly irrelevant to you. You are not a slave to your genes. You possess free will and the power to veto genetic urges. The key, I think, is a clear understanding of your own values.

Values can be difficult to pin down because it is easy to become distracted by all that we want. I want monogamy. And I want to screw around. There is no limit to the things we can desire.

Perhaps there are more useful questions in this situation: How do I want to conduct myself in my relationships? How do I want my children to think of me? How do I want to be remembered at my funeral? Only you can answer those questions. Your genes will simply have to accept your ruling.


Bering, J. (April 27, 2009). Secrets of the Phallus: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? Scientific American. Downloaded on June 28, 2009 from:

Bettinger, M. (2006). Polyamory and gay men: a family systems approach. In Bigner, J.J. (ed.), An Introduction to GLBT Family Studies. New York: Hawthorne Press.

Hammudah, A-A. (1974). Modern problems, classical solutions: An Islamic perspective on the family. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 5(2), 37-54.

Haritaworn, J., Lin, C., & Klesse, C. (2006). Poly/logue: a critical introduction to polyamory. Sexualities, 9(5), 515-529.

Klesse, C. (2007). ‘How to be a Happy Homosexual?!’ Non-monogamy and Governmentality in Relationship Manuals for Gay Men in the 1980s and 1990s.The Sociological Review, 55(3), 571-591.

Knox, D., Vail-Smith, K., & Zusman, M. (2008). ‘Men are dogs’: Is the stereotype justified? Data on the cheating college male. College Student Journal, 42(4), 1015-1022.

Liszt, C.A. & Easton, D. (2008). The Ethical Slut. Eugene, Oregon: Greenery Press.

Miller, A.S. & Kanazawa, S. (2007). 10 politically incorrect truths about human nature. Psychology Today 40(4), 88-95.

Murdock G.P. (1967). Ethnographic Atlas. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Pinker, S. (1997). How The Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Pollet, T.V., Nettle, D. (2009). Market forces affect patterns of polygyny in Uganda. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(7), 2114-2117.

Pound, N., Shackelfor, T.K., & Goetz, A.T. (2006). Sperm competition in humans. In Shackelford, T.K. & Pound, N. (Eds.) Sperm Competition in Humans: Classic and Contemporary Readings. New York: Springer. 3-32.

Trevithick, A. (1997). On a panhuman preference for monoandry: Is polyandry an exception? Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 28(3), 154-181.

Wright, Robert (1997). The Moral Animal. New York: Vintage Books.