Polyandry - tell me everything
October 17, 2014 7:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a dystopian sci fi novel and it's coming along sparkingly. Yay. One of the plot lines involves a shortage of women, and the development of new family units utilising polyandry. I'm looking for resources - primarily non-fiction - of both positive and negative experiences of polyandry.

While I've done a fair amount of research, I know you guys will take me in thought-directions I haven't considered so I'm not going to distract you by telling you what I already know or have found. Give me your links to anthropological/social/philosophical sites/books/movies/media, your personal anecdotes (in thread or by memail) of unexpected issues and advantages, practical solutions to non-intuitive novel difficulties, social repercussions...

If it matters, the book is set near future, in rural Australia (low socio-economic area, somewhat conservative characters - Australian standards, not US, so not overtly religious).

I know I can't use AskMe as a survey, as much as I'd like to, so if you know of anything that describes people's (both male and female) thoughts and feelings about being in a gender imbalanced society, and having to share their partner or go without, that would be really helpful too.

(If you are going to include fetlife or reddit or similar mass sites, can you please give me specific links - I get lost in those places.)
posted by b33j to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

FWIW in an anthropological context, polyandry is much more common when there's a land shortage, not a woman shortage. The idea is that, rather than split up the land or screw over the younger sons, all the sons of a family collectively marry one woman, inherit property together, and raise children in common.

This style of polyandry is most common in Tibet. I'm not sure if other cultures implement it differently or for different reasons.
posted by Sara C. at 7:20 PM on October 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks Sara C. I get that. Not all my characters are going to be polyandrous but the story is about a group of people trying to cope with change in available sexual partners. I want to find out about day to day life for polyandrous people. Thanks for helping me focus the question better. (The Tibetan model doesn't fit the characters very well because there's that family and cultural background, brothers, expectations of hierarchy etc.) Without that tradition, how might a polyandrous group make decisions about chores, sexual availability, and so on. Particularly in contemporary society, where the partners may well enter the relationship with varying levels of vanilla->kink.
posted by b33j at 7:30 PM on October 17, 2014

Since you're asking about something fictional which doesn't reflect actual reality, there's no answer to your question. Just make up whatever you want.

Personally I would not assume that people drastically changing their social mores in response to a dramatic situation like a shortage of partners would necessarily embrace kink to a greater degree than people tend to in real life.

In fact, in the context of a shortage of partners, my guess is that you'd have a lot of women who REALLY were unhappy with polyandry and simply refused to have sex with most of the men. In fact, this is probably why polyandry doesn't tend to arise in situations of population stress: it's not really a remedy for that unless you assume widespread marital rape.
posted by Sara C. at 7:52 PM on October 17, 2014

Rather than looking at polyandry you might consider looking for research on the social effects of gender imbalances in populations, in particular societies that have a lot more men than women. I don't have a specific citation from you, but my memory is that you have a lot more endemic violence and repressive policies. People have studied this in an attempt to understand possible implications of widespread sex-selective abortions in some parts of the world. It may also have been studied in apes. It is not a happy outcome.
posted by alms at 7:59 PM on October 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Personally I would not assume that people drastically changing their social mores in response to a dramatic situation like a shortage of partners would necessarily embrace kink to a greater degree than people tend to in real life.

In fact, in chaotic situations or crises, people might be more likely to set up rigid rules, to mitigate the chaos. So if there was polyandry, it might have a lot of rules about who, what, where, etc.

With a shortage-of-women situation, you run the risk of more patriarchy, in that technically males are more expendable in terms of reproduction, and therefore some males might very well attempt to keep all the available females for themselves, either killing surplus males or castrating them. Now, if your females were physically or otherwise strong enough, or your society eschewed violence, or something, then you could have a more equitable situation.

The tendency in human history has been to treat females as property, and therefore increased scarcity would seem likely to exacerbate that tendency.

Also the fact that women can only have one child a year at most, assuming enough food and health to keep her fertile, so that doesn't give her many opportunities to reproduce with a lot of different males.

One way to get around that might be to make women much longer-lived than men, so that they would simply outlive each mate and need to move on to the next one; also that would allow them to consolidate their power over time. Or men could have been affected in such a way that their fertility was limited and they were only good for one go (as with bees and other species).
posted by emjaybee at 8:20 PM on October 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Peter Freunchen wrote about his time with the Eskimo of Northern Canada and Greenland. He retold things he heard and saw, and had descriptions of women sharing husbands and some of a woman sharing two husbands.

The solutions that they had for sharing either way might be helpful for your book.
posted by 101cats at 8:57 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ursula Le Guin has an interesting four-way marriage systems she revisits in her Hainish (I think) novels and shorts - Day/Night and Male/Female, with one same -sex and one heterosexual relationship across, but platonic in the other direction, the sedoretu.

One thing to note is that in any group marriage, there are frequently same-sex illicit partnerships occurring, because it's meant to be one-directional to the single dominant gender, but unless they've got group sex happening or some way to be intensely occupied the rest of the time, they're going to fall in love/lust with the others. Mormon sister-wife relationships are going to be the easiest to find this, but the same would apply to your multiple husbands.

Either way you have to deal with the reason for the extra of the other gender. You either have few women due to some natural disaster (sex-selective abortions as in China/India tends to create just a huge bachelor group of lower-income men, imported sex workers and trafficked wives, and not giving women more power because the imbalance comes from discrimination) or you've got to have something for all the women who aren't married off to do in place of family/relationships - are they travelling, is it illegal for them to have husbands, are they kept busy with government programs to stop them rioting? Are they living separately so they don't realise there's such an imbalance in numbers?
posted by viggorlijah at 8:24 AM on October 19, 2014

Like a few others, I'm skeptical of the jump from woman-shortage to polyandry, but you have an entire book to spend making readers believe it's plausible. Two book suggestions:

The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families ...This is primarily about the positive and negative effects of being in a polyamorous family. Many of the families profiled are polyandrous; the author comments on finding male-female-male triads the most common and stable relationship configuration of those she studied.

Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population ...I haven't read this one, and it isn't about polyandry, but definitely about gender imbalance.
posted by orangejenny at 11:44 AM on October 22, 2014

Another thought, have you looked into studies of societies with temporary gender imbalance after war? This article came up in a quick Google search for "lost generation" and "women". Might also search for "post-conflict" to get more modern work.
posted by orangejenny at 12:28 PM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know you prefer non-fiction, but you may want to look into the historical novel "Sacred Hunger" by Barry Unsworth which features a polyandrous society in the second part of the book.
posted by Leontine at 1:39 PM on November 5, 2014

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