Many Men and Many Women: How a Sect Redefined Marriage 165 Years Ago

As Jillian Keenan reiterated last week at Slate, gay marriage opponents often assert that allowing same-sex marriages will lead us to polygamy and other perversions. It's an odd rhetorical move, inasmuch as, in terms of chronology, the slippery slope from gay marriage to polygamy appears to run in the wrong direction. The major American experiment with multiple wives in one marriage, occurred, after all, in the 19th century with the early Mormon Church. To talk about polygamy, then, doesn't raise the specter of a dystopic future. It points instead to the past. And it also underlines the extent to which marriage experimentation in the U.S. goes back a long, long way.

As far as the history of that experimentation goes, the Mormons were not even the most radical. That distinction goes to the Oneida community, several hundred strong, founded in upstate New York in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes. Noyes was a graduate of Yale Theological Seminary and a preacher—though his license had been revoked after he began to develop his own shocking social and theological doctrines.

Those doctrines are still shocking today. Reading through the account of Oneida in Louis J. Kern's 1981 monograph An Ordered Love is an exercise in feeling your jaw drop. Among his followers, Noyes devised a system called complex marriage, which meant that everyone was married to everyone else. Thus, every man could have sex with every woman—in private, by appointment, and with length of encounter regulated by community norms (at first, all night—but that was eventually decided to be too exhausting).

There were other restrictions as well, which mainly had to do with the Oneida's unusual method of birth control. Before they could sleep with fertile women, men had to train themselves not to orgasm. They achieved "male continence" by practicing on menopausal members of the community. Later, these practical considerations were supplemented by a eugenic breeding program, in which Noyes would match sexual partners in order to obtain superior children. All together, Kern says, 58 children were born from the eugenics program to 40 fathers and 41 mothers. To preserve and magnify his own desirable bloodline, Noyes, Kern says, may well have fathered children with his own niece.

In some ways, the Oneida experiment and gay marriage provoked similar backlashes. Noyes' changes to marriage provoked both anger and moral panic, according to Jason Vickers, a PhD. Candidate at the University of South Florida who has done research on Oneida. "Complex marriage was widely perceived as immoral and unnatural," Vickers told me, and Oneida was scurrilously portrayed as a den of free love and rampant licentiousness, much as gay people today are sometimes scurrilously portrayed as sexually irresponsible. Similarly, Vickers said, "language supporting marriage as only appropriate between one man and one woman was common in the middle and late 19th C." The main difference, he added, was that, with the Mormons, Oneida, and the celibate Shakers, there were more challenges to that conception of marriage in the past than there are today.

There were other distinctions between Oneida and gay marriage as well. Perhaps the main one is that, while gay marriage has largely been a secular movement, Oneida, on the other hand, was determinedly based in a heterodox Christian theology. Noyes' believed that Christ had already returned, which meant men and women, and especially Noyes himself, were already free from sin, and radically perfect. One result of this theology of Perfectionism, as it was called, was a blurring of the line between spiritual love and physical love. Sex itself became sacred. Humans were, like God, to love equally, without preference or selfishness.

The egalitarian aspects of Oneida could be very rewarding. Communal property freed people from worries of economic ruin. Noyes adamantly opposed women's subordination in marriage, and was particularly aghast at the toll of repeated pregnancies (before the establishment of the Oneida community, Noyes' own wife had experienced multiple miscarriages). Thanks to male continence (and, Kern says, the regular practice of cunnilingus), women at Oneida were able and encouraged to experience sexual pleasure without the danger of bearing children. Many of them seem to have found this intensely liberating.

Oneida's egalitarian demands could also be cruel, though. Women who refused sexual partners, for example, faced painful group community criticism; erotic freedom, as Kern notes, could blur into sexual objectification. In addition, falling in love was seen as sin; men and women were not allowed to form exclusive relationships. Even what the community named philoprogentiveness—special love between parent and child—was anathema. Children were brought up communally; and mothers who showed too much partiality for their children could be forbidden to see them. Participation in the community was voluntary, of course—but people caught between their faith and their hearts could still suffer greatly. In the end, dissatisfaction with the restrictions of complex marriage led to the dissolution of the community.

Noyes eventually had to flee to Canada to avoid charges of statutory rape, and the community disbanded soon after. The experiment did last, though for more than 30 years. Lawrence Foster, Professor of History at Georgia Tech, told me that in his study of the Shakers, the Mormons, and Oneida, he found that Oneida was both the group that "most radically revised sexual relations" and the one that "had the least trouble with its neighbors." This was, he said, because Noyes and his followers kept a low profile, focusing on their own community rather than on changing the institution of marriage more broadly.

Gay marriage, then, is both less and more radical than the Oneida experiment. On the one hand, the gay marriage movement does not challenge basic cultural ideas about romantic love and individuality. It doesn't create a new model of society, nor make sex a semi-public, communally regulated act. Noyes, as Vickers told me, "openly defined his endeavors in opposition to the mainstream social order of his times." Gay marriage doesn't do that.

What gay marriage does do, though, and what Noyes did not, is to try to speak to, and change, society as a whole, rather than just a small subsection of it. The transformation that's required for gay marriage—including a greater number of people in a traditional institution—isn't as radical as it was for complex marriage. But, precisely because it seeks to expand rather than to reinvent, it's likely to be more lasting. Oneida is a measure of both how limited and how sweeping gay marriage is—as well as a reminder that "traditional marriage," and the tradition of marriage encompass a good bit more variation than its proponents like to remember.