Polygamy as a social practice is against the law in most countries, though there is still the occasional instance of this marriage structure. The term refers to a marriage in which there is more than one spouse, usually more than one wife.
The word “polygamy” comes from the French, Latin and Greek roots in ancient times, meaning “often married” or “many marriages.” For centuries, there have been cultures that accepted polygamy as a standard way of life, usually with a man having several wives but occasionally a woman having more than one husband.
The term is not to be confused with bigamy, which has come to mean two separate marriages rather than multiple spouses living in one household as in polygamy. In many cases, when two spouses are in the same household the situation is referred to as polygamy.
Other terms used to discussion a marriage with multiple spouses are “plural marriage” and “polyfidelty,” in which a person is true to only two or more spouses. This would separate the way of life from that of someone who has relationships with several people but some outside the marriage.
Polygamy is generally used in reference to marriages of human beings, but the term can also apply in anthropology and zoology. In the past, the anthropological term referred to ancient cultures in which polygamy was traditional and not illegal. In zoology, scientists refer to polygamy as well, since some animals will mate with more than one member of the opposite sex.
The native residents of the African country of Senegal have polygamous marriages as a traditional part of their culture. In this nation, the religious rule of Islam might limit polygamy to a man and four wives. Studies have shown that about half of the women in Senegal are in polygamous marriages.
Cultures have explained polygamy in the past as a necessity, especially in rural areas. Men sometimes had more than one wife in order to produce additional children who could help with the farm work and other labor.
One study by Garenne and de Walle shows that each woman in a Senegalese polygamous marriage has fewer children than the average for women in a single-spouse marriage. In most cases of polygamy, the wives share cooking, cleaning and child-raising duties, generally with little distinction between the children when it comes to feeding and instructing them.
The term has been misused in recent years when referring to sexual activity that does not involve marriage. Some have said that sex with multiple partners is polygamy, but technically the term is one that should be used by sociologists, anthropologists and other scientists who analyze and report on marriage practices in various cultures. One question that has come up in this discussion is whether polygamous marriages involve group sex, in which more than one wife has sexual activity with the lone husband at the same time as another woman. This may occur in some cases but a polygamous marriage is usually conducted with the man and one wife alone for sexual activity.