NINETEENTH-CENTURY EXPERIMENTS IN SEX AND MARRIAGE

Although the family, founded in monogamous marriage, was considered the basis of society in the nineteenth century, its sanctity and its assumption of sexual exclusivity of husband and wife, were not unchallenged. Utopian communities, with missions of economic, religious, or social reform, sought to change or exclude marriage as antagonistic to the communal spirit. Some of these were celibate, some adopted polygyny, and some had a system of “complex marriage,” in which every man was married to every woman, and vice versa (Muncy). The most important of these was the Oneida community in New York, founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848.

Exclusive attachments were not permitted at Oneida. Any man could approach any woman, but she was under no obligation to accept his proposal, even if he were her legal husband. The young did not mate exclusively with the young but were introduced into the system of complex marriage by older persons of the opposite sex. Thus, virgins learned about sex from the skilled attentions of older men, and boys were taught to give and receive pleasure by experienced women. Noyes regarded the amative function of sex as superior to the procreative function, knowing that children were expensive and childbirth dangerous. He developed the art of what he called “male continence,” the restraint of ejaculation through self-control. The female orgasm was the objective, and when the male became skilled at the technique, intercourse could last for an hour or more and pregnancy could be avoided. Though not foolproof, male continence was highly regarded at Oneida, and careless or unskilled men were avoided by the women of the community (Muncy).

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