The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 3 (Fall 2017)

The Complex Marriage Complex

Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table

Ellen Wayland-Smith

New York, NY: Picador, 2016.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 3)

This past spring, for the second time in six years, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story introducing its readers to the virtues of open marriage, or, as its practitioners sometimes call it to distinguish it from mere adultery, “ethical non-monogamy.” Both stories went about this introduction in much the same way: They took their reluctant, prudish reader by the hand and assured him that they appreciated his squeamishness about infidelity, but if he would just open his mind a bit, he might soon find himself opening up his marriage as well.

The great problem with monogamous marriage, as divorce statistics illustrate, is that it is difficult to sustain one. Some or even most of us are not naturally content with just one lifelong sexual partner—cue the disquisitions on evolutionary biology and the practices of exotic tribes in the Amazon or Micronesia—and that arrangement is unjustifiably patriarchal and sexually repressive in any case. But according to both stories, we can rescue the floundering American family and liberate ourselves from artificial social constraints in one stroke by making marriage a more flexible arrangement, one that is capacious enough to allow for a lot more sex with a lot more people. That way, fewer married people will be condemned to suffer unfulfilled desires or to break up their families in efforts to fulfill themselves. Open marriage is, as Mark Oppenheimer cleverly concluded in his 2011 New York Times Magazine essay on the subject, an essentially conservative proposition, just one that also happens to be enticingly new and radical.

Only it is not quite so new and perhaps not so radical as some of its proponents might hope. Experiments in free love and sexual communism, and indeed communism of all other kinds, have been occurring in America’s nooks and crannies since the early nineteenth century. Any impartial observer of American history must admit that eccentric, separatist communities devoted to violating nearly every social taboo are just as traditionally American as monogamous marriage itself. But just as often as they have cropped up, these open-marriage intentional communities have failed.

In her new book, Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table, University of Southern California professor Ellen Wayland-Smith delves into the history of one of the longest lived of these efforts, the Oneida Community in upstate New York. Founded in 1848 in the ferment of the Second Great Awakening by the self-appointed Perfectionist prophet John Humphrey Noyes, Oneida grew out of Noyes’s contention that the Second Coming had already come, unnoticed by all but him, so men were now capable of moral perfection and even immortality in this life. The requisite means to such perfection was Noyes’s theology of “Bible Communism”—total communalism in property as well as in sexual partners. Sustaining itself on the profits from the manufacture of animal traps and silk thread (the flatware for which it is famous was introduced only later), the Oneida Community flourished under Noyes’s rule for more than thirty years, working out the nuances of its institution of “Complex Marriage” as it grew in number to more than three hundred by the time of its dissolution in 1881.

Wayland-Smith, herself a descendent of Noyes and his inner circle, points out many of the things that made Oneida so interesting and contradictory: its strict communism kept afloat by profits from capitalist industry, its effort to fuse mystical and millenarian Christian theology with emerging developments in materialist science such as electricity and evolution, its progressive social views that arose from a theology expressly disdainful of progressive principles. But it’s clear that Wayland-Smith’s primary interest is the community’s weird sexual practices. If the Oneidans had not practiced free love, they would have been just another long-defunct curiosity in America’s colorful religious history, sharing the footnotes with sects like the Amana Colonies and the Shakers, who, like the Oneidans, live on in the American consciousness primarily through their home furnishings.

But unlike the abstemious Amanans and Shakers, the Oneidans encouraged sex, and lots of it. Indeed, according to Bible Communism, sex, released from matrimonial restrictions, was itself the means to immortality. Wayland-Smith is at her best in her wry descriptions of Noyes’s theory of “electro-spiritual conductivity”:

The healing power of Jesus Christ was “a fluid which passed from him, as electricity passes from the machine that generates it”.… When we are open to being plugged into Christ, we receive the equivalent of “the shocks of the galvanic fluid…accumulating chronic magnetic power in our life, and assimilation to Christ.” This life force could be passed from person to person through the exchange of words, ideas, and healing touches. But the highest form of “spiritual interchange” in the resurrected state, according to Noyes’s magnetic theory, would be sexual intercourse.… Freed from the artificial restrictions of the worldly fashion of chaining one man to one woman, the union of male and female would fold into the original God-Jesus battery, intensifying its effect.… Thus fused into one gigantic divine sex battery, humans would accumulate enough electrical force, according to Noyes’s theory, to overcome death itself.

The result of this theological insight was the institution of Complex Marriage, according to which community members were encouraged to pursue their desires with whoever was reciprocally willing. “All experience testifies…that sexual love is not naturally restricted to pairs,” Noyes wrote, in evident anticipation of the New York Times. “The desire of the sexes is a stream ever running [and] if it is dammed up, it will break out irregularly and destructively.… The only way to make it safe is to give it a free natural channel.”

This natural channel could not be entirely free, however. The usual consequences of such conduct first had to be addressed. In order to alleviate the burdens on women of frequent pregnancies, community men were required to practice what Noyes, a genius for euphemism, termed “coitus reservatus” (a technique somewhere between “the pulling out method” and “blue balls”). Where this failed, either intentionally or due to the turpitude of certain “leakers,” both parents were relieved of the responsibilities of child rearing by the establishment of a communal nursery, which raised all the children in common. Adolescents, whose unruly sexual energies and tendency “to have sex exclusively with each other” posed a threat to the community, were tamed by the introduction of “ascending fellowship,” a requirement that the young men be sexually initiated by the old women. (Praxagora, from Aristophanes’s Assemblywomen, would surely have been pleased to learn that the necessity of her much-derided policy had finally been recognized.) The purpose of all these rules was to reduce the cost of sex and permit relatively frictionless movement among partners.

One source of friction could never be quite overcome, however. Jealousies and singular attachments, disparagingly called “sticky love,” were viewed as serious doctrinal violations of the communist spirit, and were subject to public chastisement and forcible separations engineered by Noyes (often by the convenient means of a coupling between himself and the female half of the sticky pair, which appears to have been a reliable solvent). Similar admonitions and forced separations were applied to overly solicitous mothers, whose “philoprogenitiveness,” as it was named, inclined them to single out their own children for undue maternal affection. Further restrictions on pairings were introduced in the 1860s, when Noyes inaugurated a eugenic breeding program (“stirpiculture”) at Oneida that required couples wishing to have children to receive permission from the “central committee” before proceeding. By the end, the Oneidans’ “free natural channel” for the “desire of the sexes” turned out to require quite a bit of “damming” to keep things flowing peacefully.

Wayland-Smith attributes Oneida’s demise to a confluence of causes. There was a problem of succession, as Noyes’s self-appointed heir, his son Theodore, turned out to be something of an apostate from Bible Communism. In the midst of this crisis, some community members began to demand more democratic governance, especially over decisions about sexual access. Legal pressure from recent crackdowns on obscenity and Mormon polygamy added to the mix, and Noyes abruptly abandoned the community and fled to Canada under cover of darkness in 1879. After that, the situation declined rapidly, and by 1881, the community had put an end to Complex Marriage, divided up its property among members, and re-emerged as Oneida Limited, manufacturer of flatware. The former community members entered into monogamous marriages, a messy process that often required choosing among the numerous parents of one’s children at the expense of others, and that left several women and their children alone and impoverished. The high degree of inbreeding among Oneidans permitted the silverware company to be run as a “family business.” So many of the original members remained in the neighborhood and continued to constitute a community, though now only in the mundane, secular sense of the term.

In a contradictory analysis, Wayland-Smith indicts Noyes himself as a narcissistic, hypocritical tyrant, describing his theology as “an almost laughably transparent attempt to accommodate his own peculiar psychosexual needs, a structure jerry-rigged to house a fragile ego,” but celebrates the “energy and imagination” and the inadvertently progressive social achievements of the community he created and ruled more or less autocratically for thirty years. For Wayland-Smith, Oneida’s greatest failing was not its autocratic government or any of its harebrained sexual practices, or even the possibility that it encouraged incest, but rather its eventual capitulation to bourgeois respectability, its “slide into the great gray mass of the American middle class.” Nonconformity certainly has its virtues, but it is not a virtue in itself, and it can’t vindicate a life in pursuit of an absurd delusion simply because that delusion differs from the ones pursued by the bourgeois majority.

Still, Wayland-Smith’s defensiveness is understandable and perhaps even excusable: These are her own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents in question. In her effort to rehabilitate the family reputation, she offers in Oneida a highly readable history of one fascinating example of the American phenomenon of little utopian communities, religious and secular, nestled in the midst of the great mass of the nation’s practically minded cities and towns. And in spite of itself, her history illustrates the limits of such utopianism, and the reason that these communities keep on appearing and, just as often, disappear.

The temptations of free love, and of the kind of freedom from taboos and externally imposed constraints that it represents, ever abides in us. But even the sincerest efforts to transcend the “spirit of legalism” that Noyes disdained require a new system of laws. Oneidan free love was free relative to the prevailing conventions of American society but entirely subject to the minute oversight and regulation of Noyes himself; accordingly, it collapsed immediately after he departed. The same specter of slavishness haunts all our modern efforts at self-liberation, including that of contemporary “ethical non-monogamy.” It is a euphemism worthy of Noyes, since it simultaneously morally elevates the practice (ethical!) and reveals the catch (ethical!): Bad old adultery is a straightforward flouting of social rules, but ethics demands that we abide by rules, which remain constraining, even if they are not rules to which we have voluntarily agreed. In the more recent of the two New York Times Magazine treatments of open marriage, Susan Dominus describes the paradox as one in which “[nonmonogamous] couples did not perceive their desire to see other people as a symptom of dysfunction but rather as a fairly typical human need that they thought they were up to the challenge of navigating.” Freedom from upholding one demanding social expectation amounts to the “challenge” of “navigating” a new one. It is very tiring to be free.

The Oneida Community that Wayland-Smith depicts was neither a paragon nor a disaster. It was a fizzled “experiment of living,” as Noyes’s contemporary, the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, described such efforts. It remains interesting to us for much the same reason that Mill advocated such efforts: “that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them.” What Mill in his exuberance for progress and belief in human perfectibility overlooked was that our ability to envision new “modes of life” might be more limited than he hoped, and that most of these modes had already been tried. Experiments of living are, as often as not, experiments of reliving. But as Mill and his fellow perfectionist Noyes and the writers and readers of the New York Times who require a reintroduction to free love every five years or so demonstrate, not everyone is persuadable by the likes of Aristophanes, or even by history. Experiments of living, or reliving, like Oneida and modern open marriage, may exact some costs from their participants, but they are perhaps the least harmful antidote to our constitutional amnesia, at least for those who require an experiential course in human nature.

Rita Koganzon is Associate Director of the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy, and a Lecturer in the Politics Department at the University of Virginia.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.3 (Fall 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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