Marina Adshade

Economist, Writer, and Speaker | Women, sex, love, and work

Would Polygyny Create Army of Angry Sexless Criminals?

A recent article suggests that allowing polygyny would increase violent crime to such a degree that it would stifle economic growth. This is a logical conclusion if you assume that polygyny leaves many men without wives. The modern economy, however, has already disenfranchised the majority of low-income men from the marriage market.

So are we certain that polygyny in the industrialized world would make a difference to crime rates?

The authors of this paper write:

Faced with high levels of intra-sexual competition and little chance of obtaining even one long-term mate, unmarried men will heavily discount the future and more readily engage in risky status-elevating and sex-seeking behaviours. This will result in higher rates of murder, theft, rape, social disruption, kidnapping (especially of females), sexual slavery and prostitution.

There is plenty of evidence to back up this claim. Using data that followed men with criminal records throughout their lifetime (from age 17 to age 70), one study found that men were half as likely to commit a violent crime in periods of their life in which they were married compared to periods in which they were single.

A second study, using inmate data from Nebraska, found a similar result and provided additional evidence that marriage reduces binge drinking and drug use – two behaviors which themselves contribute to criminality.

My question, though, is not whether single men are more likely to be criminals, but rather whether legalized polygyny would actually reduce the propensity of low-status men to marry in industrialized countries.

The authors of this paper provide a back of envelope example illustrating that a system in which 5% of men have four wives, 10% have three wives, and 25% have two wives, leaving 40% of men unmarried.

That may seem like a veritable army of angry sexless men all poised to commit unthinkable criminal acts. However, in the U.S. today only 48% of men with a high school education are married compared to 72% of the same men back in 1960 and 64% of college educated men today.

The economic realities of modern life – such as the ability of women to support themselves and the low earning ability of unskilled male workers – has already done what polygyny could only do if it was adopted at completely unrealistic levels. Many, many low-income men already have very little chance of finding a long-term mate leaving many, many women available to marry hypothetical polygynists.

This does leave us with one unanswered question: If single men are more likely to engage in criminal activity, why is it that while the bachelorhood rates of low-income men have been increasing over the past several decades crime rates have been steadily decreasing?

Perhaps the answer is that the high rate of incarceration is reducing both crime and marriage rates. We have talked about this before (see The War on Drugs is Reducing Marriage Rates), but as far as I know incarceration explains only a part of the decline in marriage and almost none of the decline in crime.

This post originally appeared on my original blog Dollars and Sex at Big Think.


Henrich, Joseph, Robert Boyd, and Peter J. Richerson (March 2012). “The puzzle of monogamous marriage.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0290 1471-2970


Misery Really Does Love Company


Taking the Christianity out of Sex


  1. Terry Pratt

    While the majority of low-income men are (already) disenfranchised from the marriage market, the majority are not (yet) disenfranchised from sex.

    Polygyny has the potential – some would say the likelihood – of leaving many men without both wives and sex – if, as likely, it reduces the number of unmarried women.

    • M. Adshade

      That’s a great point. Of course polygamy is generally correlated with prostitution, so while they might loose their access to free sex they are not necessarily losing access to sex all together.

  2. Simon

    “Of course, simultaneous polygyny, of the kind depicted in Big Love and practiced by Jeffs, is illegal in all 50 states. However, many Americans (and others) practice serial polygyny, through a series of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. For all practical purposes, the consequences of serial polygyny are exactly the same as those of simultaneous polygyny.

    When a man like Bill Henrickson — the fictional polygynist on Big Love — has three wives simultaneously, the mathematical consequence, given a roughly 50-50 sex ratio, is that he is depriving two other men of their reproductive opportunities. Two other men cannot have a wife and children because Henrickson has three wives. When Donald Trump has had three wives sequentially, he too deprived two other men of their reproductive opportunities, because by the time he divorced his previous wives, they were past their reproductive age. The strongest predictor of remarriage after divorce is sex; men typically remarry, women typically don’t. Neither Ivana Trump nor Marla Maples remarried after divorce from Trump (although Ivana was briefly married without children before Trump).”

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