Updated 28 November 2016

Polygamy: valuable tradition or license to philander?

Health24’s Great South African Sex Survey of 2010 sheds some interesting statistical light on the subject.


I tend to be skeptical of "tradition", especially when it’s invoked to justify actions that would otherwise be considered unacceptable or downright reprehensible. Many traditional institutions and behaviours add valuable structure and beautiful colour to our lives, of course, but when they’ve outlived their usefulness, I’m all for dumping them.

Polygamy (together with the rest of patriarchy), for example, is a cultural institution I personally would quite happily consign to history right now. I don’t need to review Jacob Zuma’s intricate and prolific multi-marital and extra-marital sexual activities to prove that in South Africa today this tradition appears to have only limited positive social value. Instead, it seems to me, polygamy is increasingly seen by men as a license for sexual promiscuity and a cultural shield behind which they are free to sow their wild oats with impunity. Thanks for that particular role model, JZ!

It turns out that Health24’s Great South African Sex Survey of 2010 sheds some interesting statistical light on the subject (on this particular issue it is important to remember that the survey only captures educated metropolitan adults aged 20 to 60 and specifically excludes rural populations among whom polygamy is undoubtedly more widely accepted):

  • Only 23% of South African’s taking part in the survey believe that polygamy should be legal.
  • It should come as no surprise that only 15% of women think it should be legal and that the idea of having multiple wives is most popular among black men, who represent the only group in which a majority supports polygamy.

What’s more revealing, however, is that:

  • Some 63% of men who are pro-polygamy have cheated on their partners compared to 45% of men who are against polygamy;
  • Some 55% of pro-polygamy men have had sex with strangers compared to 40% of anti-polygamy men;
  • Some 40% of pro-polygamy men have paid for sex compared to 25% of anti-polygamy men.

What these figures suggest to me is that many men who say they believe in polygamy are just horny philandering bastards. I wouldn’t want to imply that there are no polygamists who are happily faithful to their wives, of course. All I’m saying - and I’m looking at you here Mr. Zuma - is that it looks like there are many guys who simply use the idea of polygamy to sleep with as many different women whenever and wherever they damn well please. Personally, that’s just not an aspect of "culture" I can get behind and it’s also not one that I want my sons to inherit. So I say, let’s can it!

(Andrew Luyt, Health24, February 2010)

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