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Free love is the principle that anyone should be allowed to have sex with anyone else without any legal or social opprobrium, and throughout history it has been variously considered to be evil or revolutionary. Although as with most things there is a dark side.
In areas such as Europe and North America there have long been taboos, religious rules, and laws against sex outside marriage, adultery, polygamy, and anything other than lifetime marriage with sexual fidelity. Hence, advocating free love has been seen as shocking, and an affront against morality and conventional values. It has been associated with a wide range of revolutionary movements, including religious antinomians such as the notorious Brethren of the Free Spirit and the hippies of the 1960s and 70s. It has also been a part of the rituals of many notorious religious cults (although such cults often advocate free love for the male leader and celibacy for other less exalted male members).
It has also often been used as a slur against unpopular groups, for instance to discredit religious sects and groups opposed to traditional moral hypocrisies. So not everybody accused of free love actually practiced it.
Historically, advocacy of free love was normally associated with heterosexuality, although there is no necessary connection. But this means that free love can often have a sexist element with women expected to submit themselves to anyone who wants to fuck them: while in traditional monogamous culture women were viewed as property of their husbands, in free love groups they can be viewed as communal property to be shared.
There was a lot of talk about free love in classical and post-classical times, but seemingly little in the way of organised practice or advocacy, with eccentric religious types almost invariably trending towards asceticism. The Adamites were a 2nd-4th century CE Christian sect who reportedly worshipped in the nude and seemingly rejected marriage, but it's not clear if they did anything else in the nude or practiced chastity and asceticism.
There seems to have been a belief among early Christians that the ancient Greeks practiced free love. The fake Fifth Epistle of Pope Clement I mentioned Greeks including Plato who believed in common ownership of property and free love; Plato's Republic advocated a form of communal property ownership, but he doesn't seem to have been in favour of free love. In reality, while customs differed across Greece, in Athens, women were expected to stay home and raise children while men could have sex with prostitutes, concubines, and boys. Classical philosophers from the Stoics to the Epicureans were keener on resisting desire than on sleeping around.
There were a range of beliefs that could inspire medieval Christians to reject conventional sexual morality, but two main strains seem to have been antinomianism and anarcho-communism, which often mingled. Antinomians believed they could sin all they like and still get into heaven. Medieval European anarcho-communists believed that the natural state of man was egalitarian, sharing both possessions and women; mainstream sources downplayed the free love aspect mentioned by the false Clement and a few other early medieval sources, but for radicals the possibility was there.
The Brethren of the Free Spirit are perhaps the most notorious. Inspired by gnosticism and other mystical traditions, they rejected the asceticism and self-flagellation common among medieval anti-clerical movements in favour of claims that they were at one with God and could do what they liked. Historian Norman Cohn wrote the classic account of the movement:
According to one adept, just as cattle were created for the use of human beings, so women were created to be used by the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Indeed by such intimacy a woman became chaster than before, so that if she had previously lost her virginity she now regained it.
In 15th century Bohemia, an apocalyptic sect known as the Bohemian Adamites appear to have practiced free love. They were a radical offshoot of the Taborites, themselves a radical and apocalyptic Hussite sect with some strong views on the Eucharist. The Adamites were initially led by a priest called Peter Kanis, until he was captured and burnt as a heretic, and an unknown leader sometimes called Adam-Moses took over. They seem to have more or less believed they were living an Edenic, pre-Lapsarian existence, avoiding clothes and hoping God would provide and they wouldn't have to do any work. They reportedly rejected monogamous marriage; but permission from Adam-Moses was required to have sex. He would bless the union and tell them "Go, be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth." The Taborite leader Jan Žižka sent an army against them and they were all (or almost all) killed.
English civil war
Free love was commonly used as a slur against radical groups who opposed church hierarchies or advocated for the abolition of private property. Hence the amount of free love actually practiced was far lower than the amount talked about. Nonetheless Abiezer Coppe and Laurence Clarkson are amongst figures associated with radical groups such as Ranters and Levellers who are claimed to have advocated free love.
Rationalism and early feminism
A more serious promotion of free love began in the mid 19th century; this continued in the 20th century often influenced by Freud. The term "sexual revolution" is sometimes used for this, and it was associated with radical and socialist ideas, and with feminism. It was particularly popular in bohemian artistic circles in Europe, but also proposed in the United States and elsewhere.
The American women's rights campaigner Mary Gove Nichols (1810-1884) was an early proponent of free love along with many other feminist causes: criticism of marriage, educating women about their bodies, and opposing male control of healthcare. For her, free love meant sexuality that was free of the control of men, rather than necessarily promiscuity. She also promoted the Water Cure, and along with her second husband, the progressive writer Thomas Low Nichols, attempted to establish a free love and hydrotherapy community called Memnonia at Yellow Springs, Ohio in the 1840s. It never had many members, and later they converted to Roman Catholicism and emigrated to England.
In Norway, Hans Jaeger (1854-1910) and his Kristiania group were important advocates of free love from the 1880s: Jaeger advocated free love at least within his own group of bohemian refugees from the Norwegian upper class, and his movement was popular with the growing population of students (after prosecutions and the failure of the movement, Jaeger moved to Paris and promoted political anarchism). Edvard Munch dabbled, but didn't seem to have the temperament for it.
The movement was often linked with radical leftism, particularly anarchism. The American anarchist Emma Goldman was another advocate, as was the writer Upton Sinclair. However the decline of anarchism in the US and the rise of communism in the 20s and 30s reduced the focus on women's liberation and the private sphere of personal freedom, replaced by male-dominated workplace issues. There were nonetheless frequent Red Scare attempts by the right to portray all left-wing politics as posing a grave threat to the traditional American family.
Ideas of free love were associated with radical strains in psychiatry, drawing on the Freudian belief that sexual repression was the source of most of the evil in the world, to produce the conclusion that there should be no sexual repression. Freud's disciple Otto Gross was an early proponent, combining ideas about free love and ending psychic repression with anarchist and socialist political views; he was involved in bohemian circles in central Europe.
Wilhelm Reich was another key figure in radical psychotherapy, who believed that having good orgasms was central to good mental health, and had great influence on countercultural ideas about the liberatory power of free love after World War Two.
Fred Newman's Social Therapy was in this tradition of political and sexual radicalism: he suggested it was fine for therapists to have sex with their patients, and his movement is often accused of being a cult.
The concept of free love is associated with various 60s/70s countercultural groups such as hippies and the Weather Underground, and notably the 1967 Summer of Love. There had been similar ideas in progressive movements earlier in the century from 1920s bohemians to 1950s beatniks, but the late 60s brought them to greater prominence beyond very small urban circles. Slogans such as "Make Love Not War" were mainstays of the movement, which sought to overthrow patriarchal structures and other hierarchies; it later expanded to include LGBT rights.
There were however a number of problems caused by America's youth suddenly starting to have lots of unmarried sex. There was a rise in sexually-transmitted infections. There was also a rise in unwanted pregnancies, and with abortion illegal until 1973, there were a lot of people either having illegal abortions or travelling to Mexico. Women were not necessarily treated well by radicals; Stokely Carmichael famously said "The only position for women in the movement is prone", and there are stories of women being passed around for sex by men, used as an alternative currency, or to entice men to join groups. There was also a large amount of pressure on women to have casual sex, whether they wanted to or not. It also led to a split between sex-positive feminism which allowed women the freedom to experiment sexually and a much more censorious anti-sex feminism, which opposed all pornography and was hostile to sex workers.
While some of the wilder ideas about ending the family and marriage were not realised, there were many positive social changes as a consequence of the sexual revolution: widely available contraception including the Pill (which was first introduced in 1960 but became more widely available later), greater rights for women, liberalisation of divorce laws, respect for LGBT rights, sex education for children, co-ed colleges, abortion rights, greater respect for sex workers, and the freedom to choose to have sex outside marriage (or not).
However, even today not all sex is free and consensual. Modern cults, much like the older examples discussed above, use sex in various ways:
- To ensnare potential members and gain blackmail material.
- To provide perks to leaders who are able to use the cult's apparatus to force people to have sex with them.
- Less commonly, letting members actually have sex, which has the downside for cult leaders that it may distract members from the religious and money-raising aspects of the cult.
The following cults have an element of free love or free sex, at least for some people:
- NXIVM, often called a sex cult, although not exactly proponents of free love. Members were required to submit sexually to the boss Keith Raniere, and some had to provide compromising, nude pictures as collateral to later blackmail them into compliance.
- Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh aka Osho, founder of Rajneesh movement, subject of 2018 documentary Wild Wild Country.
- Children of God movement, notorious for encouraging women members to sleep with men to encourage them into the cult.
- Oneida Community, 19th century American Christian cult, founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848. They practiced a form of free love called complex marriage, with older members encouraged to initiate younger members. At the same time, men were encouraged to practice coitus reservatus (sexual continence), in which the man does not actually orgasm, which helped reduce the number of children conceived.
- Charles Manson and his Family were accused of this. Manson reportedly used his charisma to get several women to join his group (and subsequently carry out actions including murder), and life in his organisation was often portrayed as one big orgy, although there is debate over whether that was exaggerated by people who really liked the idea of lots of casual sex.
- The Nudist Adamite Christian Sect, The Historian's Hut, November 10, 2018
- Were an Ancient Christian Sect of Nudists the World’s First Hippies?, Messy Nessy, July 7, 2021
- Sects That Professed Their Faith in the Nude, History of Yesterday
- Love, Sex, & Marriage in Ancient Greece, Ollie Wells, World History Encyclopedia, 25 March 2021
- Lucretius, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn, pp 193-197
- The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn, p179
- The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn, p 220
- The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn, pp 219-222
- Ranters, Spartacus Educational
- Mary Gove Nichols, Women History Blog, July 2013
- Hans Jaeger and the Kristiania-bohemes, Harald Fagerhus, Anarchy Archives, Pitzer College
- Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, John-Paul Stonard, London Review of Books, Vol. 41 No. 11 · 6 June 2019
- Edvard Munch, Peter Watkins, 1974
- Emma Goldman: Free Love, American Experience, PBS
- HG Wells: prophet of free love, David Lodge, The Guardian, March 11, 2011
- Big Head, Many Brains, Colin Burrow, London Review of Books, Vol. 33 No. 12 · 16 June 2011
- The Law of the Father, Freud Museum London
- Wilhelm Reich: the man who invented free love, The Guardian, July 8, 2011
- Fred Newman, Writer and Political Figure, Dies at 76, New York Times, July 10, 2011
- Free love: Was there a price to pay?, NBC News, June 22, 2007
- How NXIVM Seduced Hollywood Stars and America's Most Powerful Elite Into a Barbaric 'Sex Cult', Esquire, Sept 8, 2021
- The free-love cult that terrorised America – and became Netflix’s latest must-watch, The Guardian, April 7, 2018
- That time an Oregon free-love cult launched the largest bioterror attack in US history, Today I Found Out, July 20, 2021
- 25 years ago, the Children of God’s gospel of free love outraged critics. Under fire from deprogrammers and child-abuse authorities, the cult virtually disappeared. It’s back--calling itself ‘the Family’ and saying it has changed. But former members are skeptical. : A True Conversion?, LA Times, March 21, 1993
- The scandalous story behind a popular silverware brand: free love, religion and eugenics, USC, June 15, 2016
- The evolving mythology of the “Manson girls”, Vox, August 8, 2019