Most discussions of polygamy center on men with multiple wives. What about women with multiple husbands?
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Part two of a series on poly lifestyles in Black America. See part one here.
A friend recently reminded me that I was ?way ahead of [my] time? in high school.
Aside from the fact that I wrote my final paper on BDSM in our tenth grade psychology class, I was also the first person she knew who had multiple concurrent partners ? partners who knew one another and were cool with sharing. She was fascinated by it. She couldn?t get enough of my stories about my boyfriends and that year, for my birthday, she even gave me two books in their honor ? one to suit each relationship.
Specifically, I had two boyfriends. Let?s call them ?L? and ?M.? I had two hot, black boyfriends and I loved each of them in their own way.
M absolutely adored me and I thought he was the sweetest thing ever. He was ever so slightly shorter than I was, brown-skinned with his hair in short box braids (think Larenz Tate in Menace II Society), and had an athletic body that could often be found bouncing off the walls and monkey bars around Washington Square Park.
He didn?t smoke pot but was cool with me smoking and would even buy it for me sometimes. My fellow vampire- and werewolf-obsessed ?90s kids will understand what I mean when I say he was a vampire, like me. He was tender and open with his feelings, he lived with his dad in Harlem (our shared home), and he spoke like he thought we?d be together forever.
And then? then there was L. He was taller than M, a bit rounder, and had locs like mine which he liked to toss back and run his fingers through. At the time, I thought this was the hottest thing ever.
We both rocked the androgynous fashion of the grunge era, replete with work shirts and oversized jeans, which meant we often dressed almost alike. Take into account our similar body sizes, complexion, and hair, and people often assumed we were siblings? until we started making out.
L, M, and I were all cool with each other, and L and M knew I was seeing them both. They weren?t exactly friends but they were cordial. Most importantly, they respected each other and would back off to give the other his time and space with me as needed. If L entered a space and I was already there with M, he?d come say hi, then go do his thing, and vice versa. I can?t speak for how they felt inside but their behavior was mature and on point, especially considering that we were in high school.
Although it was not entirely intentional, the three of us did frequently end up sharing the same space. The larger mega crew of ?Park kids? to which our smaller crews (often based around school or residency) belonged would congregate after school and hang in Washington Square Park until cops or curfews sent us home. When it was too cold to be outside, we would sneak into the NYU student union or huddle in Taco Bell around a few divided bean burritos. Much like those burritos, I divided my time between the two boys, ensuring each got his due and neither felt slighted.
They weren?t exactly friends, but they were cordial. Most importantly, they respected each other and each would back off and give the other his time and space with me as needed.
If I?m being honest, though, I liked L a little more.
He lived all the way out on Long Island so he often had to leave our gatherings early, which always left me wanting more. He was a wolf ? my vampire clan?s sworn enemies ? so there was also the excitement of the taboo. Where M was syrupy sweet and expressive, L was a bit more aloof, a tad wittier, and a little sharper-tongued. Alright, I?ll admit it: he was a bit of a Dylan McKay. And I was smitten.
But I truly did care for M, too, and the times we shared felt warm and comfortable. We were from the same ?hood and I knew my mama would like him more. I really didn?t want to choose between them.
And thankfully, I didn?t have to.
What is polyandry?
Polyandry is the practice of a woman having legitimate sexual or romantic access to more than one man, through marriage or other social agreement.
The very mention of polyandry is often enough to make many heterosexual men ? especially black men ? throw out an immediate ?Hell nah!? Sistas, on the other hand, often respond with a deep nod and an ?Mm-hmm!? of approval. ?They?re always talking about multiple wives. If he can do it why can?t I do it too!??
Multiple men sharing access to a single woman seems to be one of the biggest no-nos in the world of sexual and romantic relations. Indeed, even among those men who purport to be polyamorous or polygamous, it?s not uncommon to find that they have an ?OPP? ? a ?one penis policy.? They?re okay with their female partners having other female partners but consider theirs to be the only ?pole in the hole,? so to speak.
So, what gives? What is it that makes men ? and many women too ? cringe at the thought of polyandry? And why is it so much less discussed than polygyny (one man with multiple wives)?
First, let?s be clear that our attitudes about polyandry are deeply tied to our attitudes about women?s sexuality. This is especially the case when we?re talking about black women.
The cover of A Taste for Brown Sugar, a must read.
In her (excellent, must read) book A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography, Mireille Miller-Young notes that the American ?discourse of black female hypersexuality? inaccurately presumes black women to be ?oversexed hoes.? She says this discourse, coupled with a healthy dose of American Protestant puritanism, has caused many black women to err on the side of hyper-respectability, shunning any any type of non-socially accepted sexual behavior.
Typically, the only sexual act considered legitimate in black American society ? and American society at large ? is heterosexual sex within the confines of marriage or, at the very least, love and commitment of some sort. While sexual mores have loosened over time, black Americans are still ? at least publicly ? more sexually conservative than white Americans. This conservatism is particularly present as it pertains to women?s sexuality. For instance, one study showed that young black women consistently report having fewer sexual partners and less sex, even while in relationships, than their white counterparts. Whether this is true or whether the women in question were under-reporting, this pattern underscores black women?s sexual conservatism and adherence to the the oft-heard refrain that less ? when it comes to partners and sex itself ? is more.
Indeed, even among those men who purport to be polyamorous or polygamous, it?s not uncommon to find they have an ?OPP? ? a ?one penis policy.?
The six types of polyandry
Of course, another reason polyandry isn?t discussed as much as polygyny is simply because it?s way less common, and it always has been. While it?s not as rare as we once thought it was, polyandry is still typically found only in communities in which fertile women, land, or genetic diversity ? sometimes all three ? are scarce.
A 2017 study by Laura A. Benedict looked at 43 societies in which polyandry is practiced and found that there are six types of polyandry:
1. Fraternal polyandry
This form of polyandry, once common in Tibet and Nepal, is where one woman marries two or more brothers in a family. ?Polyandry leads to more powerful households by preventing multiple heirs from dividing family resources,? wrote Jeff Willet in his 1997 article on the topic. The result is that the family?s land remains in one large, more useful parcel rather than being split into smaller pieces. It also ensures there is only one set of heirs to inherit the land.
Polyandry also served as an effective means of population control in such societies. Since a woman can only maintain one pregnancy at a time no matter how many times she has sex or how many men she has sex with, the number of children born is limited. A 1976 study showed that a switch from polyandry to monogamy would increase the community?s population by 16%. Maintaining control of the population is important in a place like the Himalayas, where land is not super fertile and food can be scarce. In addition to Tibet and Nepal, this form of polyandry was also common among native Hawaiians.
2. Associated polyandry
Associated Polyandry occurs when a woman is married to two or more men who are unrelated to one another. This was once fairly common among Native North American communities, such as the New York Cherokee. Most commonly, it involved a woman bringing in a younger husband to help her first husband with hunting, farming, or other work. A second husband might also be brought in if the woman?s first husband was ill or significantly older than her and unable to perform to her satisfaction sexually.
3. Secondary polyandry
Secondary polyandry is when a man and woman are married, divorce (and perhaps marry others), but still maintain a relationship and sexual access to one another. In societies where this is practiced, the first man is still considered a husband to the woman and her sexual access to him is accepted both by her current husband and his current wife (if he has one). The Gwi culture of Southern Africa and the Irigwe culture of Nigeria are known to practice this form of polyandry.
4. Familial polyandry
Familial polyandry is similar to fraternal Polyandry except that the ?marriages? in this case are not necessarily meant to be permanent. All of a man?s male relatives would be considered ?husbands? to his wife and may expect sexual access to her, especially in the husband?s absence. It must be noted that this type of polyandry in particular is not always something the women in these societies are fully desirous of or in control of, but they might agree to the situation due to pressures from their husbands, or either or both of their families.
Polykoity occurs when a woman and man are married but the woman engages in sex with other men to whom she is not married. Now, before you say ?that?s cheating!? note that this occurs with the husband?s full approval and sometimes his encouragement. Through a type of polykoity called ?paritable paternity,? a woman might ?add fathers? to her children?s lives; that is, she might claim more than one man as a child?s father. By doing so, she gains access to his skills and resources to help support the children and he gains sexual access to the woman as well as an expanded personal network.
6. Walking marriage
Walking marriage is probably the most similar to what L, M, and I were doing. This happens when a woman is unmarried and able to choose any man she likes from among those who are eligible. Typically, these men are unmarried and of a certain age. The Lele culture of Democratic Republic of Congo and the Mosuo culture of China are probably the most well-known practitioners of this form of polyandry in the world. In these societies, women traditionally, have all the control. They choose the men they want, the men only come to women?s houses after dark, and they leave by morning. They also have no dominion over either the women or the children produced from these pairings.
So, there we have it. Not one but six different ways polyandry is practiced across ethnicities and cultures. While less common than polygyny, polyandry exists both historically and contemporarily. It?s largely our own sexual hang-ups ? many of which derive from a patriarchal desire to control women ? that keep us feeling ?some type of way? about it.
You?re probably wondering what happened with L, M, and me. Well, as the ?Dylan? types often do, L ended up breaking my heart.
I entered our shared sanctuary of Washington Square Park one day to find L hugged up with this girl. Okay, no big, I thought. I?m progressive and what?s good for the goose is good for the gander. Then the other shoe dropped. He disentangled himself from her arms just long enough to tell me he couldn?t see me anymore. Apparently she wasn?t into the poly thing and wanted him all to herself. L said he had tried to convince her but she wasn?t having it. He wanted to ?see where things would go? with her. He finished his explanation with a gentle kiss on my cheek and then looked me in the eye, raising his eyebrows as if asking my acceptance and permission to leave. I looked at L for a long moment, and, just as I felt the lump growing in my throat and tears welling in my eyes, I turned wordlessly on my heel and walked away.
I was devastated.
I didn?t want anyone to see me crying, most of all M. But he had been watching the whole exchange and immediately rushed over when my deliberately slow steps didn?t bring me to him fast enough. Although he was out of earshot, it was clear what had happened.
His face twisted in pain and anger. He looked deep into my eyes and said earnestly: ?You want me to go f*ck him up??
It might not sound like the most romantic statement but given the context, it was the sweetest and most sensitive thing he could have said. He could have rejoiced, could have been happy that now he had me all to himself. But in that moment, it wasn?t about him. He internalized my pain and let my hurt override his own feelings.
To this day, that stands as one of the most compassionate acts I?ve ever experienced, an act that was only possible from within our own walking marriage. M, wherever you are, thank you. I pray you?re being loved well.