November 21, 2007

What is free love??

Filed under: free love/ radical love,women's history — polywog @ 11:13 p11

I’m in a women’s history masters program in New York, where I’m working on history and historiography projects about free love in the 1800s in the Pacific Northwest. When people ask what I’m researching, i feel like I’m that weird kid on the unicycle all over again. I used to get predictable comments that everyone thought were so brilliantly unique, most notably, “you lost your other wheel.” I’d hear it five, seven times a day and everyone would think they were so original! Now with free love, I get “I…I don’t think… Idon’tthinkIknowwhatthatis.” The other common response is “That is SO Awesome,” as if they know exactly what free love is and exactly what I’m all about based on those two words. One time, i was joyfully surprised to hear something to the extent of “oh, well if you need a contemporary experience for comparison….” But i don’t think he was serious! It was probably just an equivalent to the occasional unicycle joke that stands out from the rest.

So here are some historians’ definitions of 19th century free love:

“‘Free love’ is a problematic term because of its contradictory meanings. Mainstream newspaper editors and clergy, free love’s most vocal critics, called anyone who deviated from customary ideals of proper behavior a ‘free lover.’ Nineteenth century sex radicals further confused matters because they could not agree on the term’s application in daily life: for some it meant a lifelong and monogamous commitment to a member of the opposite sex, others envisioned it as serial monogamy, a few advocated chaste heterosexual relationships except when children were mutually desired, and a smaller number defined it as variety (multiple partners, simultaneously) in sexual relationships…. No matter what their practical interpreation of free love, they shared two core convictions: opposition to the idea of coercion in sexual relationships and advocacy of a woman’s right to determine the uses of her body” (Joanne Passet, Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality, 2).

“Free love simply allowed no coercion in sexual relations, whether from the legally prescribed duties of marriage or from the unrestricted urgings of libido…. Andrew Jackson Davis…summarized important principles of free love, among them the priority of female control in the sexual and generative relations, the irrelevancy of positive law to the attractions, the justification of seminal expenditure only for reproduction, and the attractional definition of marriage, which held that those who were joined by transcendental affinities were automatically and truly mated and that those who were not were divorced, regardless of legalities. Less conservative free lovers of later periods–such as Ezra Heywood, Victoria Woodhull, and Moses Hull in the 1870s, and the Moses Harman circle still later in the century–would add agitation for birth control and “free motherhood” to these principles and would disagree that coition could only be justified for procreation…” (Hal Sears, The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America, 4-5).

“‘Free love,’ during the Victorian era, referred not to unrestrained lustful pursuits, but to the belief that love and sexual relations should be free of coercion from church, state, or hedonistic urgings. Sexual relations should be the result of spiritual affinity and love” (Lois Waisbrooker, A Sex Revolution, 3).

“To [Henry Addis], free love encompassed several anarchist tenets. It was at once a matter of personal freedom and an act of defiance of church and state. He believed that sexual freedom was as important as any other kind of freedom and wondered why a couple having decided that they could live more happily together than apart should not unite their lives without having to secure the permission of the church or state…. Furthermore, according to Addis, free love promised to liberate women from ‘sexual slavery’ by preventing men from holding ‘their’ wives in legal bondage” (Carlos A. Schwantes, Free Love and Free Speech on the Pacific Northwest Frontier, 282).

“‘Free love'” usually meant no more than marriage that could be entered and ended without coercion. ‘Free Motherhood’ similarly signified a situation in which the woman had the right to determine whether or not to bear children” (Angus McLaren, Sex Radicalism in the Canadian Pacific Northwest, 1890-1920, 533)


1 Comment »

  1. Radical Love, yes this is a difficult term to neatly and cleanly sum up in a few concise words.

    This is my definition of Radical Love: engaging in intimate and possibly romantic relationships while simultaneously maintaining unrestrained independence and the ability to pursue one’s own dreams.

    This encompasses sustainability, bodily integrity, and the need for a system that encourages such behavior.

    I believe the period you are studying as well as the period we are living in now are both at the forefront of radical love, and unable to embrace radical love, as the civilization we live in is neither supportive of radical love, nor comfortable with the possibility of a paradigm shift towards radical love. This puts those who are radical lovers at the front of the curve, and in a dangerous position. It is possible that as the power structures in place 150 years ago have remained in place, the ability to grow the radical love movement has been greatly stunted.

    I think this comes back to needing to first grasp what it is to be sustainable, on all fronts. I say this because just as patriarchy is a mechanism for the enforcement of exploitation and subordination, sustainability threatens the existing power structure and those who benefit from the power structure currently in place.

    Similarly I find a parallel between the notion that feminism is somehow getting somewhere positive when a female takes a patriarchal position, and the idea that radical love is gaining popularity simply because more people are having multiple sexual partners or multiple relationships consisting of serial monogamy. These are tricks, guises designed to fool, to placate the “radicals” while keeping them neatly within the guidelines of the system.

    One of this civilizations most terrible atrocities is the degradation of language. Industrialization and violence have wiped out many indigenous languages, and capitalism, capitalist propaganda media, along with government, have ruined and depleted the meaning of the words in our language.
    Take “radical” for example. As I have been taught “radical” can be “to the root” a deep look, something or someone core. Yet the word has been manipulated, and turned perverse. It is now seen as synonymous with extremists, violent peoples, and religious zealots. Through this degradation of language the actions that were once synonymous with the original words have been demonized, and in a way controlled. The use of fear of the stigma that accompanies the current societal definition of many words inhibits the honest effort to act out the motions dictated by the original definition and thereby content of language.

    So in essence we are losing not only the words themselves, but the culture and the ideas that go along with them. And as we lose these words, we lose the ability to teach others about the possibilities change can bring, and we lose the ability to effectively bring a radical change about.

    But just as I’ve managed to get more than one person who looked at my unicycle and said “where’s your other wheel,” to actually try it themselves, maybe all hope is not lost.

    Comment by eug — November 21, 2007 @ 11:13 p11 | Reply

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