Polyamorous people may feel they are in the minority, but they know that outside of the narrow social, religious, and cultural confines of western history, polyamory has been a common practice.
But did polyamory ever mean polyandry—women having multiple husbands?
Contemporary polyamory prioritizes choice, consent, equality, and sexual liberation for women, and rejects rigid gender roles, homophobia and transphobia. So it doesn’t always identify with historic versions of polyamory that may have been oppressive to women.
However, it is still essential to understand the cultural variety of sexual arrangements and other expressions of polyamory. Non-monogamy is not unusual, rare, or kinky. It is natural in much of the animal kingdom and throughout most cultures in all of history.
Polyamory, however, yes, was almost always synonymous with “polygyny,” or men having multiple wives or mistresses, and seldom with “polyandry,” or women having many husbands.
The anthropological term “polygamy” simply means marrying many but is almost always equated with men marrying many women.
Polygamy was sometimes an agreeable arrangement for women, and sometimes not. It could protect women and their children by offering family and providers when women could not work. In warrior societies, women often outnumbered men. Friendships between wives could be positive social connections and shared childcare eased burdens.
Polyandry in comparison seems to be a rare and mythical creature, another kind of unicorn!
It does and did, however, always exist.
Modern Polyandry in Female-Led Relationships, Cuckolding, and Hotwifing
There are many kinds of polyamory today, but a very popular and sought after version is actually polyandrous, where the women lead the relationship and have multiple partners. The men are monogamous to their women, or they participate with their wives and her lovers.
Female dominant or femdom relationships are increasingly sought out by all kinds of men. While polyandry or marrying more than one male is technically illegal, many women have multiple lovers and relationships while their partner does not.
This expression of polyandry restores some of the balance to gender history. Not all men want the freedom to pursue multiple partners, and many seek out a dominant female who puts them in their place.
They may find it sexually exciting in and of itself to be monogamous while she is polyandrous. The extraordinary popularity of hotwifing and cuckolding today show this fact.
Polyandry does not have to be about dominance and submission relationships or about cuckolding kinks. While these are popular forms of polyandry, some female-led relationships are female dominant without male cuckolding.
In the same way that many satisfying past relationships quietly entailed the male taking lovers and the woman looking away, many men today accept polyandry without any particular kink for it. They may simply feel she is all he wants and needs. They choose not to pursue lovers, or are committed solely to their partner, while she is free to take other lovers and relationships if she wishes.
Little is known about ancient cultures that predate written record keeping, or whose languages we have not been able to decipher. But throughout Mesopotamia and other ancient civilizations there have been various polyamorous practices.
Female divinity was common in ancient cultures and worship expression often took the form of sex rites where the female had multiple lovers.
Interpreted inscriptions from ancient Sumer show that polyandry was practiced in 2300 BCE. The records show a king abolishing the practice upon punishment of being stoned to death, a hideous form of torture and shaming that is still used in surrounding cultures of the region today, including Pakistan and Iran, specifically for female adultery.
Before monotheism in Arabia, many men shared property, wealth, and one wife.
Central Asian Polyandry
The “white huns” or Hepthalites of Central Asia practiced polyandry. Special horn hats showed how many husbands a woman had. The husbands were all brothers! However, if a man wished to marry and did not have brothers, he could be “adopted” by another man to marry his wife.
In the Bhutan region polyandry was the norm until the early 1900s.
Sri Lanka Polyandry
Polyandry was widespread in Sri Lanka until British colonialism abolished it in 1859.
Polyandry is still practiced today in remote Himalayan regions.
Polyandry in Nigeria
The Irigwe people of Nigeria traditionally have “co-husbands.”
Polyandry was widely accepted in Tibetan culture, and as late as the 1980s was still fairly common at about 13%.
Polyandry in India
In Hindu lore, a queen named Draupadi had five husbands, and in different regions of India polyandry has been a historic commonality. In remote regions it is still practiced today.
There are countless other examples of polyandry practiced throughout the continents, most often in older or remote or rural cultures.
Anthropological Polyandry Terms
There are different kinds of polyandry or ideas concerning polyandry. Here are a few.
Dyandry is the polyandrous practice of having two husbands. This is the practice the Sumer inscriptions were showing as being abolished.
Fraternal polyandry or adelphic polyandry is when a woman marries many brothers.
In caste societies fraternal polyandry keeps families away from lower caste communities. In agrarian societies, it was often about distribution of labor.
This custom combines polyandry and polygyny. A woman may marry multiple men, and the men may also marry multiple wives. This village kinship structure was known in Cameroon and Nigeria, among other regions, and was about forming alliances between tribes.
Successional polyandry is where a woman takes a husband one at a time, or in succession, and acquires several husbands, as opposed to traditions where she marries numerous men at once, a common practice for fraternal polyandry when a woman marries many brothers at one time.
Polyandry is often the norm in cultures where individual paternity is not significant, as this motivator for sexual jealousy often underlies the misogyny behind some forms of monogamy.
In partible paternity, it is believed that a child has multiple fathers. This may be a symbolic, “it takes a village” type belief, or literal belief, that multiple males contribute to reproduction of a child. Cultures with beliefs in partible paternity focus only on matrilineal ancestry.