Free Love

Make love, not war

The term free love has been used to describe a social movement that rejects marriage, which is seen as a form of social bondage. The Free Love movement’s initial goal was to separate the state from sexual matters such as marriage, birth control, and adultery. It claimed that such issues were the concern of the people involved, and no one else. Much of the free-love tradition is an offshoot of anarchism, and reflects a libertarian philosophy that seeks freedom from state regulation and church interference in personal relationships.

According to this concept, the free unions of adults are legitimate relations which should be respected by all third parties whether they are emotional or sexual relations. In addition, some free-love writing has argued that both men and women have the right to sexual pleasure. In the Victorian era, this was a radical notion. Later, a new theme developed, linking free love with radical social change, and depicting it as a harbinger of a new anti-authoritarian, anti-repressive sensibility.

Many people in the early 19th century believed that marriage was an important aspect of life to ‘fulfill earthly human happiness.’ Middle-class Americans wanted the home to be a place of stability in an uncertain world. This mentality created a vision on strongly defined gender roles, which led to the advancement of the free love movement. While the phrase free love is often associated with promiscuity in the popular imagination (especially in reference to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s), historically the free-love movement has not advocated multiple sexual partners or short-term sexual relationships. Rather, it has argued that love relations that are freely entered into should not be regulated by law. The term ‘sex radical’ is also used interchangeably with the term ‘free lover,’ and was the preferred term by advocates.

By whatever name, advocates had two strong beliefs: opposition to the idea of forceful sexual activity in a relationship; and advocacy for a woman to use her body in any way that she pleases. Laws of particular concern to free love movements have included those that prevent an unmarried couple from living together, and those that regulate adultery and divorce, as well as age of consent, birth control, homosexuality, abortion, and prostitution. The abrogation of individual rights in marriage is also a concern—for example, some jurisdictions do not recognize spousal rape or treat it less seriously than non-spousal rape. Free-love movements since the 19th century have also defended the right to publicly discuss sexuality and have battled obscenity laws.

In 1857, Francis Barry wrote that ‘marriage is a system of rape,’ stating that the woman is a victim where she can do nothing but be oppressed by her husband, as he tortures her in her home, which becomes a house of bondage. In one of his articles, Barry wrote: ‘The Object of this [women’s emancipation] Society, according to Article 2 of its [free love] constitution, shall be to secure absolute freedom to woman, through the overthrow of the popular system of marriage.’ At the turn of the 20th century, some free-love proponents extended the critique of marriage to argue that marriage as a social institution encourages emotional possessiveness and psychological enslavement.

The history of free love is entwined with the history of feminism. From the late 18th century, leading feminists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, have challenged the institution of marriage, and many have advocated its abolition. She was one of the first women to contribute to the free love movement with her literary works. Her novels criticized the social construction of marriage and its effects on women. In her first novel, ‘Mary: A Fiction’ written in 1788, the heroine is forced into a loveless marriage for economic reasons. She finds love in relationships with another man and a woman. Mary makes it clear that women ‘had strong sexual desires and that it was degrading and immoral to pretend otherwise.’

A married woman was solely a wife and mother, denying her the opportunity to pursue other occupations; sometimes this was legislated, as with bans on married women and mothers in the teaching profession. In 1855, free love advocate Mary Gove Nichols described marriage as the ‘annihilation of woman,’ explaining that women were considered to be men’s property in law and public sentiment, making it possible for tyrannical men to deprive their wives of all freedom. For example, the law allowed a husband to physically discipline his wife. Free love advocates like Nichols argued that many children are born into unloving marriages out of compulsion, but should instead be the result of choice and affection—yet children born out of wedlock did not have the same rights as children with married parents.

Sex, to proponents of free love, was not only about reproduction. Access to birth control was considered a means to women’s independence, and leading birth-control activists like Margaret Sanger also embraced free love. In the 1850s, Hannah R. Brown contributed to the journal, the ‘Una,’ made lecture tours, and edited her personal journal, ‘the Agitator.’ In one of her articles, she stated, ‘the woman is regarded as a sort of appendage to the goods and glories [of a man].’ She advocated that true marriages could be formed if only women were allowed to choose freely.

Francis Barry was also a prominent advocate for the free love movement in the middle to late 19th century. He agreed that marriage socially bound a woman to a man, and that women should be free. Although this movement largely concerned women, the chief organizers were mostly men. This helped foster a male ideology, and proved to women, such as Mary Gove Nichols and Victoria Woodhull that men were just as serious as they were about this issue. Although men were the main contributors to the organized and written part of the free love movement, the movement itself was still associated with loud and flashy women. There were two reasons for why free love was more agreeable to men. The first reason was that women lost more than men did, if marriage were to become ‘undermined.’ The second reason was that free love ‘rested on the faith in individualism,’ a quality that most women were afraid of or unable to accept.

In 1857, Minerva Putnam complained that, ‘in the discussion of free love, no woman has attempted to give her views on the subject.’ There were six books during this time that endorsed the concept of free love. Of the four major free love periodicals following the civil war, only two of them had female editors. Mary Gove Nichols was the leading female advocate, and the woman who most people looked up to, for the free love movement. She wrote her autobiography, which became the first case against marriage written from a woman’s point of view. Many of the leaders of first-wave feminism attacked free love. To them, women’s suffering could be traced to the moral degradation of men, and by contrast, women were portrayed as virtuous and in control of their passions, and they should serve as a model for men’s behavior. Some feminists of the late 20th century would interpret the free-love ethic of the 1960s and 1970s as a manipulative strategy against a woman’s ability to say no to sex.

The famous feminist, Gloria Steinem at one point stated, ‘you became a semi-nonperson when you got married.’ She also famously coined the expression ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,’ Steinem dismissed marriage in 1987 as not having a ‘good name.’ Steinem got married in 2000, stating that the symbols that feminists once ‘rebelled against’ now are freely chosen, or society had changed.

A number of utopian social movements throughout history have shared a vision of free love. The all-male Essenes, who lived in the Middle East from the 1st century BCE to the 1st century CE apparently shunned sex, marriage, and slavery.  They also renounced wealth, lived communally, and were pacifist vegetarians. An early Christian sect known as the Adamites—which flourished in North Africa in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries—also rejected marriage. They practiced nudism while engaging in worship and considered themselves free of original sin. In the 6th century, adherents of Mazdakism in pre-Muslim Persia apparently supported a kind of free love in the place of marriage, and like many other free-love movements, also favored vegetarianism, pacificism, and communalism. Some writers have posited a conceptual link between the rejection of private property and the rejection of marriage as a form of ownership. One folk story from the period that contains a mention of a free-love (and nudist) community under the sea is ‘The Tale of Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman’ from ‘The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.’

Karl Kautsky, writing in 1895, noted that a number of ‘communistic’ movements throughout the Middle Ages also rejected marriage. Typical of such movements, the Cathars of 10th to 14th century Western Europe freed followers from all moral prohibition and religious obligation, but respected those who lived simply, avoided the taking of human or animal life, and were celibate. Women had an uncommon equality and autonomy, even as religious leaders. The Cathars and similar groups (the Waldenses, Apostle brothers, Beghards and Beguines, Lollards, and Hussites) were branded as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church and suppressed. Other movements shared their critique of marriage but advocated free sexual relations rather than celibacy, such as the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, Taborites, and Picards.

In 1789, radical Swedenborgians August Nordenskjöld and C.B. Wadström published the ‘Plan for a Free Community,’ in which they proposed the establishment of a society of sexual liberty, where slavery was abolished and the ‘European’ and the ‘Negro’ lived together in harmony. In the treatise, marriage is criticized as a form of political repression. The challenges to traditional morality and religion brought by the Age of Enlightenment and the emancipatory politics of the French Revolution created an environment where such ideas could flourish. Napolean, though at first an ardent, even dogmatic supporter of such liberating aspects of the Revolution, later repudiated them as Emperor, a move typical of revolutionaries who come to power. A group of radical intellectuals in England (sometimes known as the English Jacobins) supported the French Revolution, abolitionism, feminism, and free love. Among them was William Blake, who explicitly compares the sexual oppression of marriage to slavery in works such as ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion.’

English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft felt that women should not give up freedom and control of their sexuality, and thus didn’t marry her partner, Gilbert Imlay, despite the two conceiving and having a child together in the midst of the Terror of the French Revolution. Though the relationship ended badly, due in part to the discovery of Imlay’s infidelity, and not least because Imlay abandoned her for good, Wollstonecraft’s belief in free love survived. She developed a relationship with early English anarchist William Godwin, who shared her free love ideals, and published on the subject throughout his life. However, the two did decide to marry, just days before her death due to complications while giving birth. In an act understood to support free love, their child, Mary, took up with the then still-married English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at a young age. Percy also wrote in defence of free love (and vegetarianism) in the prose notes of ‘Queen Mab,’ in his essay ‘On Love,’ and in the poem ‘Epipsychidion’: ‘I never was attached to that great sect, Whose doctrine is, that each one should select; Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend, And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend; To cold oblivion… True love has this, different from gold and clay, That to divide is not to take away.’

Sharing the free-love ideals of the earlier social movements—as well as their feminism, pacifism, and simple communal life—were the utopian socialist communities of early-19th-century France and Britain, associated with writers and thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier in France, Robert Owen in England, and, perhaps most far-reachingly, the German composer Richard Wagner. Fourier, who coined the term feminism, argued that true freedom could only occur without masters, without the ethos of work, and without suppressing passions: the suppression of passions is not only destructive to the individual, but to society as a whole. He argued that all sexual expressions should be enjoyed as long as people are not abused, and that ‘affirming one’s difference’ can actually enhance social integration.

The Saint-Simonian feminist Pauline Roland took a free-love stance against marriage, having four children in the 1830s, all of whom bore her name. Wagner’s position seems quite similar; he not only advocated something like free love in several of his works, he practiced what he preached, and began a family with Cosima Liszt, then still married to the conductor Hans von Bülow. Cosima had been one of three children born out of wedlock to the ultra-popular Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt by Countess Marie d’Agoult. Though apparently scandalous at the time, such liaisons seemed the actions of admired artists who were following the dictates of their own wills, rather than those of social convention, and in this way they were in step with their era’s liberal philosophers of the cult of passion, such as Fourier, and their actual or eventual openness can be understood to be a prelude to the freer ways of the 20th century.

Friedrich Nietzsche spoke occasionally in favor of something like free love, but when he proposed marriage to that famous practitioner of it, Lou Andreas-Salome, she berated him for being inconsistent with his philosophy of the free and supramoral Superman, a criticism that Nietzsche seems to have taken seriously, or to have at least been stung by. The relationship between composer Frederic Chopin and writer George Sand can be understood as exemplifying free love in a number of ways. Behavior of this kind by figures in the public eye did much to erode the credibility of conventionalism in relationships, especially when such conventionalism brought actual unhappiness to its practitioners. European outpost, Australia, which began its existence as a penal colony, had a much more flexible view of cohabitation and sexual bonding than was known in Europe itself at the time: ‘Neither the male nor the female convicts thought it was disgraceful, or even wrong, to live together out of wedlock.’

Christian socialist writer John Humphrey Noyes has been credited with coining the term ‘free love’ in the mid-19th century, although he preferred to use the term ‘complex marriage.’ Noyes founded the Oneida Society in 1848, a utopian community that ‘[rejected] conventional marriage both as a form of legalism from which Christians should be free and as a selfish institution in which men exerted rights of ownership over women.’ Noyes also supported eugenics; and only certain people were allowed to become parents. Free love advocates also trace their roots back to Josiah Warren and to experimental communities, which viewed sexual freedom as a clear, direct expression of an individual’s self-ownership. The most important American free love journal was ‘Lucifer the Lightbearer’ edited by Moses Harman and Lois Waisbrooker.

Elements of the free-love movement also had links to abolitionist movements, drawing parallels between slavery and ‘sexual slavery’ (marriage), and forming alliances with black activists. They also had many opponents, and Moses Harman spent two years in jail after a court determined that a journal he published was ‘obscene’ under the notorious Comstock Law (which made it illegal to send any ‘obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious’ materials through the mail). In particular, the court objected to three letters to the editor, one of which described the plight of a woman who had been raped by her husband, tearing stitches from a recent operation after a difficult childbirth and causing severe hemorrhaging. The letter lamented the woman’s lack of legal recourse. Ezra Heywood, who had already been prosecuted under the Comstock Law for a pamphlet attacking marriage, reprinted the letter in solidarity with Harman and was also arrested and sentenced to two years in prison.

Victorian feminist Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for presidency in the U.S. in 1872, was also called ‘the high priestess of free love.’ In 1871, Woodhull wrote: ‘Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere. And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but, as a community, to see that I am protected in it. I trust that I am fully understood, for I mean just that, and nothing less!’ The women’s movement, free love, and Spiritualism were three strongly linked movements at the time, and Woodhull was also a spiritualist leader. Like Noyes, she also supported eugenics. Fellow social reformer and educator Mary Gove Nichols was happily married (to her second husband), and together they published a newspaper and wrote medical books and articles, a novel, and a treatise on marriage, in which they argued the case for free love. Both Woodhull and Nichols eventually repudiated free love.

Sex radicals were not alone in their fight against marriage ideals. Other 19th century Americans saw this social institution as flawed, but hesitated to abolish it. Groups such as the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Latter-day Saints were wary of the social notion of marriage. These organizations and sex radicals believed that true equality would never exist between the sexes as long as the church and the state continued to work together, worsening the problem of subordination of wives to their husbands.

The free love movement evolved through four stages between 1853 and 1910. The first stage was a collective stage, where sex radicals put out print materials. The second stage was when the sex radicals encountered strong opposition; editors risked being arrested for writing about sexual topics. During the third stage, sex radicals challenged the government’s power to control women’s bodies and their private lives. The fourth and final stage was when the movement started to lose its drive. A new type of women’s movement was born, thus making it impossible to keep the free love movement alive.

Toward the end of the 19th century in the United Kingdom, free love was a topic of discussion among a minority of freethinkers, socialists, and feminists. Many of them were associated with The Fellowship of the New Life, such as Olive Schreiner and Edward Carpenter. Carpenter was one of the first writers to defend homosexuality in the English language. Like many of the movements before them who were associated with free love, the group also favored a simple communal life, pacifism, and vegetarianism. The best-known modern British advocate of free love was the philosopher Bertrand Russell, later Third Earl Russell, who said that he did not believe he really knew a woman until he had made love with her. Russell consistently addressed aspects of free love throughout his voluminous writings, and was not personally content with conventional monogamy until extreme old age.

Anarchist free-love movements continued into early 20th century in bohemian circles in New York’s Greenwich Village. A group of Villagers lived free-love ideals and promoted them in the political journal ‘The Masses’ and its sister publication ‘The Little Review,’ a literary journal. Incorporating influences from the writings of English homosexual socialist Edward Carpenter and international sexologist Havelock Ellis, women such as Emma Goldman campaigned for a range of sexual freedoms, including homosexuality and access to contraception. Dorothy Day also wrote passionately in defense of free love, women’s rights, and contraception – but later, after converting to Catholicism, she criticized the sexual revolution of the sixties. The development of the idea of free love in the United States was also significantly impacted by the publisher of ‘Playboy’ magazine, Hugh Hefner, whose activities and persona over more than a half century popularized the idea of free love to the general public.

From the late 1940s to the 1960s, the bohemian free-love tradition of Greenwich Village was carried on by the beat generation, although differing with their predecessors by being an apparently male-dominated movement. The Beats also produced the first appearance of male homosexual champions of free love in the US, with writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Like some of those before, the beats challenged a range of social conventions, and they found inspiration in such aspects of black culture as jazz music. The Beat movement led on the West Coast to the activities of such groups as the Merry Pranksters (led, according to Grateful Dead historian Dennis McNally, not by novelist Ken Kesey, but by hipster and driver Neal Cassady) and the entire San Francisco pop music scene, in which the implications of sexual bohemianism were advanced in a variety of ways by the hippies. With the Summer of Love in 1967, the eccentricities of this group became a nationally recognized movement. The study of sexology continued to gain prominence throughout the era, with the works of researchers like Alfred Kinsey lending a new legitimacy to challenges to traditional values regarding sex and marriage.

Free love became a prominent phrase used by and about the new social movements and counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s, typified by the Summer of Love in 1967 and the slogan ‘Make love, not war.’ Unrestrained sexuality became a new norm in some of these youth movements, leading certain feminists to critique the late 1960s/early 1970s ‘free love’ as a way for men to pressure women into sex; women who said ‘no’ could be characterized as prudish and uptight. The hippie movement embraced the old slogan of free love of radical social reformers of other eras and so ‘Free love made the whole love, marriage, sex, baby package obsolete. Love was no longer limited to one person, you could love anyone you chose. In fact love was something you shared with everyone, not just your sex partners. Love exists to be shared freely. We also discovered the more you share, the more you get! So why reserve your love for a select few? This profound truth was one of the great hippie revelations.’ Experimentation of sex alongside psychedelics also occurred due to the perception of them being un-inhibitors while others explored the spiritual aspects of sex.

In the 1980s, concerns over AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases tempered the promiscuity of the 1970s, but many of the sexual reforms advocated by earlier free-love movements had become mainstream: legalization of abortion, birth control, and homosexuality; freedom in choosing love, sex, or both; and women’s rights in general. Chastity, virginity, and subservience in marriage had much less power as social ideals for women. Modern descendants of free love could be seen to include the contemporary sex-positive, polyamory, and queer movements and figures such as Susie Bright, Patrick Califia, and Annie Sprinkle. Though they don’t often identify as free lovers, modern movements around the world against arranged marriage and forced marriage in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe share many of the same goals as the free-love movement. Legal aspects of the fruit of free love are far from settled. Some gains in the women’s rights movement have inverted, rather than corrected, the injustices of the past. For example, an unwed father has no right to see his child in the State of New York. American composer Max Schubel found himself in this category, and wrote the New York theater piece ‘Rubber Court’ to bring wider attention to the problem.


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