Free love or sexual liberation is the belief in, or practice of, having sex a lot. It is generally associated with the idea that sexual repression (and possibly related practices like Christian morality, social conformity, the nuclear family, etc) stifle human creativity, development, and expression, and therefore that free love is not merely fun but an important political action. And if you don't sleep with me you're a reactionary prude and all the cool kids will laugh at you.
The concept of libertinism has an ancient history, since people have always enjoyed sex. But perhaps the first time sex, freedom, and self-expression were yoked together was with european Romanticism. The likes of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley had unconventional sex lives and rather than marrying for life frequently changed partners. At the same time, they promoted themselves and each other as what rapidly became a stereotype of the Byronic rebel who does what he likes and has all the women (and possibly men) swooning at his feet. Their work ranged from Byron's comic poem Don Juan, in which the protagonist wanders around Europe having sex with a lot of women in a semi-accidental way like the star of a 70s sex comedy; to Shelley's anti-theistic retellings of the Prometheus myth.
Slightly earlier, the Marquis de Sade had taken the expression of sexual fantasies to incredible lengths, though in contrast to Byron's immediate fame, Sade's work only gradually became available and well-known.
Fin de siecle and modernism
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a growth in artistic avant gardes, who deliberately sought to defy and shock society. In the late 19th century, Decadents such as Oscar Wilde were notorious for sexual freedom: in Wilde's case, he was openly homosexual despite being married, while others such as Aubrey Beardsley published lots of sexy pictures. Painters, who were in the habit of painting nude models, were in a particularly good position to enjoy themselves. Writers such as Comte de Lautréamont (not a real count) and Oscar Wilde promoted the idea that literature and art had no social function and could strive to be evil and corrupting.
In Berlin at the turn of the century, an artistic circle including Edvard Munch and August Strindberg had similar ideas, involving Rousseau's theories about the superiority of the natural as well as a belief in communism and the abolition of private property. Munch's sexually explicit pictures of teenage girls were scandalous but expressed his fear of sex and depression as much as advocating for sex. The idea of free love was often linked with feminism and women's liberation, as women campaigned for rights such as the vote, education, divorce, and property ownership.
All this was greatly helped by the rise in popularity of Sigmund Freud and disciples such as Wilhelm Reich, who suggested human beings were largely driven by a sex drive, and attempts to repress this could only lead to troubles, heartbreak, neurosis, and the desire to invade Poland.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a new counterculture. This coincided with the development of the contraceptive pill and in the UK the availability of free contraception on the National Health Service. In the USA the MC5 advocated revolutionary politics, racial equality, "dope, rock'n'roll, and fucking in the streets".
Arguments in favor
- Sex is natural, beautiful, and fun.
- Property is theft, and having an exclusive romantic partner is like having property.
While there is much to be said for doing what you like as long as it doesn't harm other people, there are real problems with the practice of free love.
- Basically a way for men to pressure women into giving them more sex, especially where women have more to lose (whether pregnancy, or in societies which condemn illegitimate children or view promiscuity differently in men and women).
- Sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, which can be prevented by condoms, but aren't always.
- Many people (including Kant) have argued that using others for sex dehumanises or instrumentalises them and is therefore immoral.
- Prophets of Dissent: Essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche and Tolstoy, Otto Heller
- Edvard Munch, Britannica
- State of Emergency, Dominic Sandbrook
- MC5: five great moments from the Detroit rock'n'roll heroes, The Guardian, 20 Feb 2012
- Philosophy of Sexuality, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy