[Touchstone, November 2002 — expanded version of “Free Love Didn’t Come Cheap”]
In the middle of the room there was a woodburning stove. The small iron door was open on this chilly day, and the red flames could be seen leaping within as if in time to music. For there was music, too, a marching song, and the little girls who circled the stove marched around it in time. The girls were not happy.
Each girl was holding in her arms her favorite doll. These were pretty dolls with painted faces, who usually wore fancy clothes reflecting current fashion. But today the clothes had been left in a pile, and the wax figurines were exposed, hard and bare. One by one, each girl marched up to the open door of the stove. One by one, each girl threw her doll into the “angry-looking flames.”
The phrase is that of Harriet Worden, a woman who participated in the sacrifice that day and recalled the painful event long after. It was 1851, in the utopian community of Oneida, in upstate New York. What was being burned up that day was an unseemly trait that their teachers had observed developing in the little girls of the commune. The dolls had become too important to the children; these were frivolous toys, indicating an affection for worldly finery and vain display. Women of Oneida were expected to bob their hair rather than fuss it to flattering styles, and to wear efficient clothing rather than long, sweeping gowns. They were to work in the factories alongside the men, while men took their equal share of labor in the kitchen. Pretty dolls were a tantalizing, subversive distraction.
But there was another concern: little girls were becoming attached to specific dolls. A child might choose one as her favorite, rock it and croon to it, tuck it in at night. This was a dangerous tendency.
Oneida was founded on the principle of “Bible Communism.” Founder John Humphrey Noyes insisted that, under his personally-devised philosophy, there were to be no selfish attachments, no hoarding of love. The tender affection a little girl might feel for a special, beloved doll had to be burned away. So each girl marched up to the oven door with her “long-cherished favorite” in her arms, then stared as the flames consumed it. “We…saw them perish before our eyes.”
What was being burned up that day was the tendency for any human to form an intense and private bond with another. Noyes could not permit this, because he had put sexual freedom at the head of his agenda; he was the inventor of the term, “free love.” The Yale Divinity School student and sometime Congregationalist minister believed that “complex marriage” was God’s will, as indicated by the scripture, “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” [Mt 22:30]. (This may not be how most of us imagine the angels pass the time, but the American 19th century was a fertile time for private interpretations of the Bible.)
“The abolition of sexual exclusiveness is involved in the love-relation required between all believers by the express injunction of Christ and the apostles,” Noyes wrote. “The restoration of true relations between the sexes is a matter second in importance only to the reconciliation of man to God.”
“Sexual freedom” is a term that could suggest a carefree heedlessness that did not obtain at Oneida. A man wishing to enjoy the company of a specific woman would submit his request to an appointed official who kept a ledger of such engagements. This official would then present the request to the woman who was the target of the man’s intentions, and she might agree or refuse as she chose, though agreement was the general rule. According to the records, most women had two or three visitors per week, and a popular young woman might entertain as many as seven.
The purpose of the ledger, however, was not to restrain the free exchange of sexual favors. Nor was it to track the fathers of children born in the community. Such a task would have been nearly impossible in any case, but considering the era and the circumstances, astonishingly few children were born. Noyes understood that, for a scheme of sexual freedom to succeed and not be overwhelmed by progeny, non-procreative sex must be absolutely required. This was accomplished through Noyes’ command that men utilize a primitive method for the prevention of pregnancy. It was effective: over a twenty-year period, only thirty-five children were born in the community of a hundred adults.
The purpose of the ledger was not to restrain sexual freedom, but to ensure it, by monitoring whether any couples were becoming overly attached to each other. There was always the terrible danger that a man and woman might fall in love and begin consorting with each other to the exclusion of others. Such incipient selfishness had to be stamped out.
Noyes phrased it this way: “The new commandment is that we love one another…not by pairs, as in the world, but en masse.” When a man confessed that he had fallen in love with a woman in the community, Noyes responded sharply, “You do not love her, you love happiness.”
A policy of free sex sounds like a dandy idea to a great number of people, something on the order of free ice cream. What’s the harm in it? “To be ashamed of the sex organs is to be ashamed of God’s workmanship,” said Noyes. It feels good, so do it. Love is a good thing, and the more people you love the better. Free sex speaks to all the popular virtues: generosity, tolerance, pleasure, broadening of experience, deepening of empathy. The tree is good for food, a delight to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise.
Those who are old enough will recall the onset of the contemporary sexual revolution, back in the late ‘60s. The movement was heralded by a titillating novel, “The Harrad Experiment,” which imagined a programme of intentional sexual freedom being staged on a college campus. It wasn’t just racy stuff (though it was that), it was also a seriously-advanced philosophical position, an example of progress marching on. As at Oneida, the sexual revolution was seen as an attribute of utopia. It was promoted in every form of media and entertainment, from Make Love, Not War buttons to the musical “Hair.”
We can gain some historic perspective by comparing this free-love message with another message popular at the time. Though it’s hard to believe now, there was once a time when mind-altering drugs were recommended; they were thought to actually be beneficial. Promoting this view is how Harvard prof Timothy Leary won his fame. A drug like LSD was represented as “mind-expanding,” and who could oppose expanding your mind? There was no doubt that drugs could induce altered states of consciousness, and it was claimed that these altered states would produce great art and deep thoughts. The enlightening effects supposedly produced by drugs were contrasted contemptuously with the effects of alcohol. Booze made you stupid and sloppy. Drugs made you wise.
This theory swiftly went down in flames. Nearly everyone with any contact with this experiment saw uncontrollably hallucinating, terrified friends carted into mental hospitals. Everyone knew someone who had been seriously, perhaps permanently, burned by drugs. It turned out that these chemicals didn’t produce great art after all, but incomprehensible garbage. The deep thought looked stupid the next day. Of course, despite all this disillusionment, drug use didn’t cease entirely, and the problem remains to this day. But drug use did lose its trendy glow. It became impossible to continue the pretense that drugs held promise of enlightenment.
It’s important to note something here. Mind-altering drugs did not lose their status because of a clever anti-drug campaign, or hard-hitting public service announcements, or improved anti-drug legislation. They lost their cachet because they were found to be damaging. Drugs turned out to be not as advertised. The heartening news here is that it is possible for cultures to change for the better, once given a dose of truth. Like a body, a culture has an innate impulse to health. Though this can be subverted in a million ways, it can be nurtured as well. That should give us hope.
As we all know, however, the sexual revolution message was more successful than the pro-drug movement. While a measure of shame has been restored to taking drugs, sex outside of marriage is still viewed as a harmless pastime. One reason this revolution was so successful is that the locus of shame was shifted; not the practitioners, but those who oppose free sex, were supposed to be feeling shame. This was especially true during the first blush of this movement, when free sex was presented as just one more aspect of the cheerful, daisy-sprinkled, bell-bottomed sixties. Only sour-faced moralists would disapprove of anything so innocent and pleasant. They must think sex is dirty, it was presumed; they must have unresolved sexual hang-ups. Thus the tables were turned; to oppose the sexual revolution was to stand revealed as a cramped and dirty-minded snoop. An advocate of the revolution, on the other hand, was a free and healthy child of nature. In a clever twist, those who indulged in behavior previously thought shameful turned the weapon against traditional morality, and accused them of shameful thoughts.
Why didn’t the sexual revolution meet the same fate as the drug movement? It was swiftly clear that drugs were damaging lives pretty severely, sometimes beyond repair. Free sex, on the other hand, appeared to be like that bowl of free ice cream. It was a distinct and severable experience, with no impact on any other part of life—mere pleasure, with no repercussions.
Of course, this isn’t true; free sex has innumerable repercussions, physical, emotional, and spiritual, and they can replicate indefinitely through many lives, and even through generations (just look at the cost of growing up without a daddy). But these effects are delayed. If your friend took some bad acid it was evident within hours, and the sight could be enough to scare you off the stuff for good. But at the moment sex feels good, and it might feel good in memory for a while afterwards. Sometimes there are no perceived ill effects at all.
As Josh McDowell wisely asks teens, if you’re doing it because it feels good, how long does it have to feel good? Fifteen minutes? The rest of the day? Does it have to feel good when you find out you have herpes? What about AIDS? When your lover tires of you and spreads gossip about your body, or your adequacy in bed? What about when you find out you started a baby? Or when your parents find out? When you walk into the abortion clinic? When you’re a school dropout, raising a child as a single parent? How good does it have to feel now, to make up for how bad it’ll feel then?
Similar questions apply to adults as well. Will it feel good to be alone at the end of your life because you always played around and never made a commitment? When you’re middle-aged and saggy and can’t attract lovers any more? Will it feel good when all the classmates at your 30th high school reunion are showing pictures of their grandchildren, and you’re showing a picture of your dog? Will it feel good when you divorce? When you get to see the kids only on weekends? What about when your lover skips off to enjoy “free sex” with someone else, and you left behind, a loser nobody loves? Those are the rules of the game, and anyone who plays can lose everything.
Reality has a way of freeing us from confusion. This happened quickly with drugs, but it’s taking longer with sex. Yet there has already been a marked toning-down of initial pro-free-sex rhetoric.The complex knots in the human heart—jealousy, insecurity, the craving to be loved alone—can’t be untied by an act of will, no matter how lofty the sentiment.
This was why John Humphrey Noyes set a goal of combating possessive love, and why the little girls had to burn their dolls. It may look like free sex is as innocuous as free ice cream, but it has reverberations that run all down human relationships, requiring distancing and independence where interdependence would be the natural norm. It requires shifts in the underlying ways we view each other and interact, and touches a wider range of human experience than would be initially thought necessary. The repercussions of free sex are not as immediately visible as those of mind-bending drugs; but, because they take longer to emerge, they resound more deeply.
The initial problem free sex poses is that the sexual urge is, at root, a reproductive urge. It is planted in us to ensure that we have children, that the human race goes on. The urge is strong because it is a survival urge, as strong as the impulse to eat, drink, and find shelter. This is not to say that everyone who is moved to have sex does so because he or she consciously wants to have a child. The contrary may well be true. Likewise, some may gobble a bowl of ice cream while hoping it has no effect on the waistline. Wishes to the contrary, our craving for yummy fats is strong because it is a command of basic nutrition; fats are necessary to our bodies’ health, the basic energy fuel. We want it because of something our body commands from the depths, though our mind may have a very different intention.
Sex is most deeply about reproduction, and human reproduction is a long-term project. It requires ongoing attention from two adults, not just one. The human child is born vastly more unformed and immature than any other mammal, unable to communicate, unable to feed itself. It requires care so intensive that a single mother and child operating alone are a fragile family; they are vulnerable to too many kinds of danger, in the jungle, the arctic, or the inner city. She needs a male to protect and provide for herself and the child; he needs to protect them, or the child will not survive and his deeper goal of reproduction will fail. The circle of man, woman, child is the basic unit of any human society.
Sex is about reproduction, and reproduction requires sex. Contrary to popular opinion, God is in favor of this. It was his idea, after all. He devised many different ways for creatures and plants to reproduce on this earth, and lots of them don’t look like much fun. Probably there were more efficient ways—and certainly more dignified ways—that God could have designed for human reproduction. But this funny business was his idea, and every indication is he meant us to enjoy it.
We=re sometimes told that the historic Christian Church is opposed to sex, but this is simply not true. Christians have always favored sex within marriage but opposed its appearance in other situations, much as we approve water in a pitcher but oppose it in a basement. Sex within marriage is not merely permitted but honored.
The icon known as “The Conception of the Theotokos” demonstrates this. “Theotokos” is the name Eastern Orthodox Christians apply to the Virgin Mary; it means “God-bearer.” An ancient heresy suggested that Mary bore only Jesus’s humanity; the Church responded that no, she was the mother of the Incarnate God himself.
The conceptions of St. John the Baptist and of Jesus are described in scripture, and these rapidly became annual celebrations in the early Church. Not much later, the conception of Mary was honored as well. But although the Bible records miraculous stories surrounding the conception of Jesus and his cousin, Mary was conceived in the regular way. The icon of the feast, accordingly, shows a married couple in the privacy of their bedroom. In my copy, Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, are standing on a blue carpet before their bed, which has a blue striped cover and an embroidered pillow. They look serious, yet tender. They are in a graceful embrace; Anna has stretched up on tiptoe to press her face against her husband’s, with her arm around his neck. This is how the life of a daughter begins.
This is a popular icon in Orthodoxy, one often given as a wedding gift and hung near the marital bed. It is a reminder of the goodness of sexual love, and God’s intention that we use it in joy. But Christians do oppose the misuse of sex, including temporary heterosexual encounters that lack a wedding ring. This is an impulse associated more with men than with women. Some theorize that the male is programmed to impregnate as many women as he can, and the woman’s task is to capture and domesticate him against his will. There’s a flaw in this logic, however. Reproduction only succeeds if the child survives and grows up to reproduce again; this is much more likely to happen if the child has two parents. Nature is biased in favor of reproduction, and what serves it best we find deepest in our hearts.
Thus we find a profound, instinctive conspiracy that binds mother, father and child ever closer together. When another item is moved to the top of the agenda—sex without commitment, sex without consequences—it flings them apart. A culture such as ours, which has been dominated by the notion of free sex for decades, makes at least three shifts to accommodate the demands of that ethic and to avoid the demands of the nuclear family. First, it must eliminate the requirement that some lasting, exclusive commitment (like marriage) be made before sex. Second, it must find a way to prevent or eliminate children conceived in these uncommitted sexual relationships. Third, it must train women to support themselves with no help from men.
As John Humphrey Noyes understood, one of the first things required is a valiant commitment to eradicating “selfish” love. For free sex to succeed women and men must be willing to forego deep emotional commitment to each other. Not that these connections never happen, but that they cannot be required as a prerequisite to sex. It is apparent that, under this arrangement, women lose. The old saying goes: girls give sex in order to get love, boys give love in order to get sex. When the board at the commodities exchange reads “Free Sex,” girls aren’t getting a very good deal. A teenage girl told me that a friend had confided in her, “I slept with Rick last night. Do you think he likes me?”
Ironically, this kind of sexual availability was promoted by feminists a few decades ago as an aspect of women’s equality and freedom. The double standard was decried, as well it might be, but the remedy suggested was that women adopt male values. If men want sex without commitment, it must be what women want too. The Playboy philosophy—sex without commitment—was transformed from an example of oppression to one of liberation.
Looking back on this from the vantage point of thirty years, I think we got conned. Women fell for a shell game, and gullibly assumed that male sexual values were better than their own traditional, self-protecting ones. And like many victims of a clever con game, they continue to tell themselves that they got a good bargain.
Some, even in the feminist camp, are rethinking this. How did that which purported to liberate women somehow end with women feeling more endangered than ever? Instead of women’s bodies becoming more securely their own private possession, these bodies were presumed to be open for business, available for public evaluation and use. Sociologists like Deborah Tannen and Carol Gilligan began writing about women’s tendency to frame all interactions in the context of human relationships, unlike men who were more able to run mental, emotional, and physical functions on separate tracks. Much more than men, women are apt to be thrown off balance when sex is snipped out of the fabric of personhood and isolated as sheer mechanical act. A sexuality that more accurately respects women’s nature is going to look a lot more like the kind of commitment-based arrangement that our mothers, grandmothers, and their ancestors demanded. In the history of women’s sexuality, free sex is a brief, crazy experiment, and it has failed.
Second, in order to implement a regime of free sex, the sex that takes place must be free of children. John Humphrey Noyes insisted that men practice “male continence,” but many less onerous methods are available today. The pill, which made its debut in the early sixties, is widely credited with enabling the sexual revolution. It and other chemical and mechanical methods have enjoyed seasons of popularity, but nearly all come with side effects that can give pause.This should not be surprising. Fertility is a condition deeply inscribed in the female body, and chemicals and devices strong enough to overcome it are likely to have other effects as well. As a friend of mine said regarding the birth control pill, “Why would I put in my mouth something I wouldn’t put in my compost heap?”
The method that has won widest approval is condoms, perhaps because they are cheap and require no prescription, and alone among all methods provide some protection against disease. They are not perfect, of course, and can fail in many ways; failure is most guaranteed when they are left in the drawer of the bedside table. For this is the feminists’ greatest complaint against condoms: men don’t want to use them. Since it is the one modern method that men control, their refusal leaves women unprotected. And refuse they do. Although condoms are available in small towns across the nation for less than the price of a pack of cigarettes, and their use is promoted as nearly a patriotic act, half of all women having abortions said they were using no prevention method at all during the month they got pregnant.
Even when contraception is used, it isn’t always effective, as indicated by the other half of abortion customers. As Maggie Gallagher points out, if contraceptives properly used are 95% effective over a year, a sexually active woman who uses them faithfully over a 10-year period stands a 43% chance of getting pregnant at least once. Her chances jump dramatically if she uses them with less than exacting care.
But free sex requires freedom from babies, so the second, grimmer enabler of the sexual revolution is abortion. A million and a half of these are done every year, one for every four births. About three-quarters are performed on unmarried women, often signaling the sad end of a fleeting affair. There was a time, of course, when unexpected pregnancy would be the occasion of some fast maturing: a young man would do the right thing, marry and support his family, or a young woman would quietly have the baby out of town and place it for adoption. The availability of contraception has subtly changed the equation, though; it promises that people have the right to have sex without pregnancy. If contraception fails, the appearance of a pregnancy is felt as an injustice, and the baby viewed as a trespasser. In this perspective, abortion is a right.
One might charge that, though there are some parallels between Oneida’s regime of free sex and that of the present day, no one would command children to burn dolls. The maternal instinct to bond with a child is not feared but admired. We love children; we dote on them. Yet it seems to me that sometimes there is something unhealthy in the way we love them—perfect, beautiful children, wanted children, chosen children, the ones who survived when their unwanted siblings went in the abortion clinic dumpster.
We love children, all right, but not in their own right, with their own needs. We love them in the manner of Shel Silverstein’s rhyme: “Do I like children? Yes I do! Boiled, baked, or in a stew!” We love children as consumer items: pets, toys, providers of entertainment and prestige to their owners. Their existence is permitted if they fit adults’ plans—if adults want them. If they fail to please, the results are not pretty.
The change in the rate of child abuse over twenty years of abortion tells the story. In 1974, 60,000 cases were reported: over a thousand children were being battered each week. But hope was on the horizon: Roe vs Wade was only one year old. As availablity of abortion spread, women could weed out the children they didn’t want before birth. Soon, only wanted children would get born. A world of wanted children, as the slogan goes, would make a world of difference.
Two decades later, the world is very different. Every person in America under the age of 30 could have been aborted; every child, teen, and 20-something living escaped that fate by being sufficiently “wanted.” And the reported cases of child abuse inflicted on all these chosen children? After twenty years of abortion it was still 60,000—except that was the figure for a single week. In 1994, the total number of reported child abuse cases was 3.1 million.
How can this be? Perhaps it’s due to better reporting; perhaps people are under more stress. Perhaps the disintegration of the family means that parents pushed to the limit no longer have an aunt or grandma—or husband—to take the baby for a while. (Though single-mom households make up only 17% of the population, they account for 40% of reported child abuse.)
But a simple, seismic shift was contained in the very notion that children had to be “wanted” before they earned the right to live. Parents’ pleasure superceded their offsprings’ right to breathe, and there was no reason this right would cease after birth. In fact, numerous studies confirm that the most “wanted” children are the most likely to be abused. As measured by parental eagerness for the child during pregnancy, the child’s being named after a parent, the mother going early into maternity clothes, the percentage of “wantedness” among abused children is between 91% and 96%. Perhaps the higher the (unrealistic) expectation, the deeper the disappointment. A cuddly bundle of joy in the delivery room may not be so wanted at the age of Terrible Two, or five, or fifteen, and the parent’s right to reject feels just as valid then as during the Supreme-Court-sanctioned initial nine months.
Does our current free-sex utopia eradicate the maternal impulse by requiring little girls to throw their dolls into the fire? No, it does it by requiring grown women to throw their children away in abortion clinics; and if children are something to throw away before birth, they are never safe after.
Thirdly, if an ethic of free sex replaces the nuclear family, women must be able to support themselves with no expectation of help from a male partner. Popular imagination might suppose that a free-sex utopia like Oneida was a disorderly paradise of leisure, but such was not the case. Men and women trooped off to work together daily, and the many products of the Oneida community made it a highly successful economic concern. It remains so to this day, though company philosophy about employee behavior has become more conventional. (The Oneida silverplate platter remains a staple wedding gift, and every newborn needs an Oneida baby cup.) Oneidans were taught to expect women to labor at the same jobs as men, and men were required to share women’s work in the communal kitchen.
A similar thing happened, of course, with the advent of the sexual revolution a few decades ago. The opportunities for women to compete in the public sphere have been a blessing, and I have been the beneficiary of groundbreaking work done by those women who demanded just such a chance. A problem can arise when the demand is not for a chance to compete, but for guaranteed success. I think this insistence on equality of outcome is a backhanded insult, implying that on a level playing field women couldn’t compete. Speaking personally, being a woman has been far from a handicap, and is more like an advantage. Conservative, pro-life, and Christian groups, in my experience, go out of their way to give women a chance. Maybe on the other side of the fence sexism and anti-female bias are more common; women on that side are clearly more touchy about it and more insistent on regulatory enforcement of “fairness,” suggesting that discrimination is a familiar problem.
A strong work ethic is, of course, not a bad thing. Where the problem arises is when women are expected to provide for themselves without support from men, and where the thrill of a paycheck is supposed to be a substitute for long-term romance.
When free sex becomes the dominating social value, a society must adjust in many ways. We’ve examined just three of them: discouragement of a requirement of commitment before sex, methods to avoid childbearing, and expecting that women be self-supporting. All three of these were values championed by the feminist movement as essential to improving women’s lives. Thirty years later, many elements of womens’ lives—and those of men and children as well—are worse. There has been an explosion of sexually transmitted disease, single mothers and children living in poverty, child abuse, teenage childbearing, divorce. It’s not clear that anyone is happier. Free ice cream has a high price.
The root problem is that it’s not sex that animates us so, but something deeper and more broad: eros. Sex and eros are not the same thing. Sex is a physical act, but eros is the underlying emotional attachment, and it is much more powerful. eros is the force that makes you want to claim this man, or this woman, as your own, and cling to him or her forever. It’s exclusive, craving fidelity and rejecting competitors.
John Humphrey Noyes knew it to be the ultimate enemy of Oneida’s dream, capable of wrecking his utopia of “free love.” Sex was to be spread abroad in that garden of delights, but true love was the enemy. Eros commands with a more powerful voice than mere physical appetite. And Eros wins in the end.
Thirty years after they burned the dolls at Oneida, John Humphrey Noyes’ dream was falling apart. As an old man he had fled the grounds of the commune under cover of darkness, a step ahead of rumors that Oneida defectors were telling federal investigators that he had been having sex with underage girls. These charges were true. Though Noyes wrote exhortatory letters to his followers from exile, and many tried to follow his dream, the old longings for fidelity and marriage began appearing once more.
Before long, virgins were refusing to follow the custom of being initiated into sex by the older men; they were holding out for marriage. Women who had borne children out of wedlock now began refusing further sexual relations, likewise demanding a wedding ring and exclusive fidelity. Teenaged couples were falling in love and pledging fidelity to each other, against all the rules. Younger women began growing their hair out and wearing long-skirted dresses. Mothers would no longer allow communal child-care workers ultimate control over their childrens’ lives, but demanded the right to raise them as they saw fit. The dream of Bible Communism was ending.
Women want to raise their own kids; it’s a longing that can’t be burned away as easily as burning a wax doll. Men love women, and feel a yearning they can hardly understand to select one and cherish her, provide for her, even risk his life for her. We have tried for decades to burn away those longings by setting out bowls of free ice cream, and they have looked beguiling indeed, on movie screens, magazines, and MTV. But the body has an impulse to health, and can’t live on ice cream alone. Pretty soon people start looking around for healthier fare. In the process they are apt to find each other, settle down, and form families once again. And in the heart of many a healthy family is a little girl holding a doll.