"To Bring about a True Union of the Sexes"
The second half of the 1800's saw the rise and fall of a surprisingly successful - and once notorious - social experiment. In 1848 the Oneida community commenced operations in upstate New York. It grew to 250 men and women before its conversion, in 1881, to a joint stock company that still operates today. For a video glimpse of the community's mansion house click here.
Its founder, John Humphrey Noyes, was a nonconformist graduate of Yale Divinity School. According to him, The Oneida community, in an important sense, owed its existence to the discovery of Male Continence. Noyes stumbled upon Male Continence as a consequence of his marriage. During its first six years his wife went through the agonies of five births. Only one child survived; four were premature. He pledged never again to expose her to such fruitless suffering. While struggling with his self-imposed celibacy, he
conceived the idea that the sexual organs have a social function which is distinct from the propagative function….I experimented on this idea, and found that the self control which it requires is not difficult; also that my enjoyment was increased; also that my wife's experience was very satisfactory, as it had never been before; also that we had escaped the horrors and the fear of involuntary propagation. This was a great deliverance. It made a happy household. I communicated my discovery to a friend. His experience and that of his household were the same.
When the Oneida Community began two years later, intercourse without ejaculation became a tenet. Lads who had not yet learned self-control made love with post-menopausal women. Noyes' approach served as an effective birth control measure; there were only a couple of accidental births per year during the Oneida community's early lean, but quite sexually-active, years. Near the end of its life, the community also experimented with eugenics, that is, deliberate mating strategies to produce ideal human specimens. Noyes "superior" genes were heavily represented in this effort....
Noyes was an interesting mix of theologian and scientist. He saw important spiritual implications for Male Continence. Second only to bringing about reconciliation with God, man must "bring about a true union of the sexes" in order to create the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Notice below how clearly he makes the connection between lovers' post-orgasmic let down and feelings of self-reproach, even recognizing that it may lie at the heart of the Judeo-Christian association between sex and guilt. He also acknowledges how this natural uneasiness from ordinary intercourse can destroy the spiritual or loving feelings between partners as they project their uneasiness onto each other and grow cold or disgusted. [Click on image to read his original pamphlet]
Ordinary sexual intercourse…is a momentary affair, terminating in exhaustion and disgust. If it begins in the spirit, it soon ends in the flesh; i.e., the amative, which is spiritual, is drowned in the propagative, which is sensual. The exhaustion which follows naturally breeds self-reproach and shame, and this leads to dislike and concealment of the sexual organs, which contract disagreeable associations from the fact that they are the instruments of pernicious excess. This undoubtedly is the philosophy of the origin of shame after the fall. Adam and Eve first sunk the spiritual in the sensual….by pushing prematurely beyond the amative to the propagative, and so became ashamed, and began to look with an evil eye on the instruments of their folly. On the same principle we may account for the process of "cooling off" which takes place between lovers after marriage and often ends in indifference and disgust. Exhaustion and self-reproach make the eye evil not only toward the instruments of excess, but toward the person who tempts to it. In contrast with all this, lovers who use their sexual organs simply as the servants of their spiritual natures, abstaining from the propagative act except when procreation is intended, may enjoy the highest bliss of sexual fellowship for any length of time, without satiety or exhaustion; and thus marriage life may become permanently sweeter than courtship or even the honey-moon.
Yet, Noyes was also a scientist seeking to share insights gleaned after Oneida's twenty-five year experiment with Male Continence:
The objection urged to this method is, that it is unnatural, and unauthorized by the example of other animals. I may answer that cooking, wearing clothes, living in houses, and almost everything else done by civilized man, is unnatural in the same sense, and that a close adherence to the example of the brutes would require us to forego speech and go on all fours! …If it is noble and beautiful for a betrothed lover to respect the law of marriage in the midst of the glories of courtship, it may be even more noble and beautiful for the wedded lover to respect the laws of health and propagation in the midst of the ecstasies of sexual union.
He also addresses directly the medical challenges to the practice:
In regard to the injurious effects of Male Continence, which have been anticipated and often predicted….they have not been realized. For example: It is seriously believed by many that nature requires a periodical and somewhat frequent discharge of the seed, and that the retention of it is liable to be injurious. Even if this were true, it would be no argument against Male Continence, but rather an argument in favor of masturbation; for it is obvious that before marriage men have no lawful method of discharge but masturbation; and after marriage it is as foolish and cruel to expend one's seed on a wife merely for the sake of getting rid of it, as it would be to fire a gun at one's best friend merely for the sake of unloading it…. But it is not true that the seed is an excrement like the urine, that requires periodical and frequent discharge. Nature has provided other ways of disposing of it. In fact it…is in its best function while retained….The community has had no trouble from retention of seed; but on the other hand, has nearly exterminated masturbation by the reflex influence of Male Continence. Masturbation is a disreputable branch of the same seed-wasting business that is carried on more decently in ordinary matrimonial intercourse, and is evidently destined to pass away with it. Closely connected with this popular fallacy respecting the seed, is the suggestion of certain medical men that the practice of Male Continence would lead to seminal degeneracy and impotence. The experience of the community has signally refuted this suggestion in the only effectual way, viz., by a great number of intentional impregnations, which have occurred, within a few years, between persons who have been longest in the practice of Male Continence. Another apprehension suggested by medical men has been, that the avoidance of the crisis in sexual intercourse would so increase and prolong the excitement as to induce excesses, which would lead to various nervous diseases….[T]he general experience of the community has not confirmed it….[and] it was shown by careful comparison of our statistics with those of the U.S. census and other public documents, that the rate of nervous disorders in the community is considerably below the average in ordinary society.
Noyes then admits that there had been a couple of cases of nervous disorder in the Community, which he attributed to misuse of Male Continence. As he points out, over-excitement can be as much a problem for women as for men. Significantly, perhaps, the women of the Oneida Community were not enjoined to avoid orgasm. By the time he wrote Male Continence, it is possible he was rethinking this very issue:
To cultivate self-control in respect to the seminal crisis, but neglect it in other sexual indulgences, is evidently Male Continence in a spurious and dangerous form.
Or possibly, just as we have, he discovered that even with perfect control, excess passion (from the search for selfish gratification) sets off a degree of the same unwelcome shifts in perception and emotional state as ordinary intercourse. In any case, he accurately alludes to the effects of excess dopamine, without knowing anything about modern neurochemistry.
The Oneida Community experiment had another feature, which made it scandalous in its day. Noyes ultimately concluded that monogamy was idolatrous. Many in the community therefore practiced complex marriage, which was really quite simple: all the adults were married to each other, and could schedule sexual encounters at will. Ultimately, outrage from the general public (also directed against the Mormons), combined with Noyes' retirement, brought the Oneida experiment to an end.
Yet even detractors who visited Oneida before its termination acknowledged the apparent wellbeing of its residents. Women enjoyed absolute equality and wore a special type of garb, which, in the days of corsets, was considered hideous: shifts over baggy pants, or "bloomers." Children were healthy, well-educated, accomplished, and sent to the top universities. Said one observer:
I came away from the Community with increased respect for the religious sentiment which, in however distorted a form, can keep men and women from the degradation which one could expect to result from a life which seems to me so wrong. I brought away, also, increased respect for the principle of association [community], which will yet secure to the human race, in the good time coming, better things than competition has to give. I saw men and women there whom I felt ready to respect and love. I admire the fidelity with which they maintain the equality of the sexes.
It is tempting to view the Oneida experiment as irrelevant, given the widespread availability of artificial birth control. Yet for those who are tired of the increasing disharmony between the sexes, Oneida's experiment with Male Continence furnishes a bright ray of hope. In Noyes' words,
it seems incredible that so large a body of sober persons as the Oneida community should be entirely mistaken in thinking, as they certainly do, that Male Continence, in an experience of twenty-five years, has more than fulfilled its early promises.
Still, Noyes only partially cracked the code of controlled sexuality. Just as the community owed its success to the discovery of male continence, it owed its downfall to sexual indulgence. Noyes lifted the ban on procreation in 1868, and he and his son sired twelve of the sixty-two children born within the next few years. However, biology evidently triumphed over Noyes' best judgment. Noyes laid first claim to the pubescent girls - no doubt on the theory that he had the most experience and control - while younger men were expected to have sex with older women. In 1879 the men revolted and accused Noyes of raping several young women. He fled, and within months the community disbanded.