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Jan 14, 1897

The Free Love Ideal

“To my mind the law is not our worst enemy. … Religious bigotry, marital jealousy, social prejudice, will operate in ostracism, contempt…and actual violence.”

Editor’s Note

Moses Harman’s radical individualist, feminist newspaper Lucifer, the Light-Bearer was and remains one of the most significant repositories of liberal thought related to the subjects of love and sex.  In the following essay on “Ideals in Love,” columnist J. William Lloyd reviewed a recent book, Emil Ruedebusch’ The Old and the New Ideal.  Lloyd largely sympathized with the author’s arguments and used the opportunity to expostulate on Lucifer’s individualist-feminist alternative vision for social and moral order.  Lloyd articulates the “Free Love ideal,” in opposition to the prevailing ‘marriage ideal.’  Under the system of legal marriage, government rendered women the property of their husbands (who are free to mock their unions in brothels or with mistresses).  The life-long marriage contract was, in all essential respects, a species of monopoly—a grant of legal powers and privileges over women to their husbands.  Lloyd’s Free Lovers proposed instead to transform popular ideas about sex, gender, power, and liberty to fully respect the rights of all individuals.  Free Lovers could only openly identify themselves as such without facing stigma and isolation when a more tolerant, sex-positive, feminist cultural “ideal” supplanted the patriarchal marital order.  

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

“Ideals in Love,” Lucifer the Light-Bearer Third Series, Vol. 1, No. 2, 13 January 1897

By J. Wm. Lloyd

From Emil F. Ruedebusch, Mayville, Wis., I have received a copy of his new book, “The Old and the New Ideal,” with a generous invitation to criticize it as I please.  I am happy to be able to assure the author that I have seldom read a work on Free Love with such pleasure.  While not agreeing with it in every detail, as will appear hereafter, there is hardly a page on which I have not found something to strongly approve.  The spirit of the author is admirable.  He has evidently taken the greatest pains to be fair and kind; to enter into the motives of the monogamists and do them full justice.  There is no sarcasm, rancor or bitterness in the book.  I feel under personal obligations to the author.  I think that he has clarified my mind on some points, has helped me to round out my philosophy, and I am grateful.  The chapter on the “Sense of Shame” is the best essay on the subject I have ever read, and has given me a new idea.  I earnestly urge all who are interested in sexual ethics to get this book.

Most writers on Free Love content themselves with cold logic, which, however invincible and valuable for a scientific basis, hardly meets the needs of the case.  Love is essentially a matter of feeling, sentiment and emotion, and must be treated as that plane for success.  Mr. Ruedebusch has not failed here, but has given more attention than any other writer to the “spiritual” aspects of the question.

Probably he might have gone still further in that direction with profit.  We must all remember that the objections to Free Love are more felt than expressed.  We must change the feeling about it, and make it recognize certain feelings toward which at present it is indifferent or opposed, if it is to win.  We only subdue nature by agreeing with it, and so far as the present ideal is based on human nature and its needs it is invincible.  The present ideal would hardly have captured and held so large a part of the human race, for so long a time, had it not been fitted to survive.  It meets certain real or supposed needs, and we must do as much and more or we shall not supplant it.

Let us give a hasty glance at some of these needs.  Human nature needs sexual gratification; it needs procreation; security for the child and security that the care of the child shall not be shirked by its parents; it likes system and order in love as in other things.  Where there is intense love there is a natural desire that it shall be eternal and eternally gratified by its chosen object.  Where property in the married partner is recognized, there is a natural desire that that property shall be secure; there is a natural desire for security, permanency and success felt in domestic as in all other ventures.  There is the desire to refine, idealize, spiritualize love and ennoble character by it.  There is the desire for comradeship with the other sex in everything.

Now it will be observed that the marriage system promises to legally secure every one of these desires, and its ideal promises to spiritually secure them.  Here is its strength.

What have we to put up against it?

Many Free Lovers will answer, “Variety.”  That seems a rather coarse answer, but it is a legitimate one, for, however the fact is blinked, the fact remains that there certainly is a demand in the nature of every one for variety in love and no education can subdue it.  But against this answer it may be said, first, that a great many Free Lovers to not recognize variety as legitimate, second, that marriage indirectly provides it.  This is startling but, if we look, we shall see that marriage is everywhere accompanied by a recognized and permitted, if abused and shamed, variety.  Sometimes it is polygamy, sometimes concubinage, sometimes the kept mistress or the prostitute—always it is there in some form.  To be sure it is usually only for the man, but that is all right so long as the man holds the law; and the legally justified wife is always allowed to revenge herself by casting shame and legal penalties on her rivals.  Besides in some countries a certain latitude is allowed the wife also.  And most marriage systems admit the perfect propriety of Platonic love.

The chief things that Free Love has to offer against marriage are greater liberty for both sexes and greater justice for woman.  But until the demand for liberty grows greater than the demand for security, until women care more for justice and selfhood than for devotion and support these will not avail.

I have full confidence that the demands for liberty, selfhood, justice, self-support will increase, and thus that Free Love will have a steady growth and ultimate triumph; and in the meantime we shall be wise if we so prune and purify and perfect our Free Love ideals that the objections to them, spiritual and practical, shall be as few as possible.  It is on this line that our author is working and he is doing good work.  His purpose is to show how Free Love may be practicalized today without conflict with the law, and still more fundamentally, to break down certain “superstitions” about love and sex.  He claims that the trouble in love relations heretofore has been that the fact that they are of many different kinds has not been recognized and one contract has been made to cover all.  He claims that sex-love and sex-relations should always be regarded apart and with no reference to other contracts between sexes.  With regard to sex he would have all human beings at all times perfectly free and irresponsible, except to their own ideals, and would have no standing contracts whatever, claiming that the natural desire, which alone justified the act, naturally terminates the contract by its own termination.  But he claims that men and women could be friends and comrades, co-operators in business ventures, in studies, and in household expenses, in raising families, and in any or all of these could make contracts of a purely business character with no reference to love or sex (which might be as it would) and with the invariable proviso of perfectly private and separate sleeping room, or rather apartments, for each.

The law, he says, takes no heed of aught but sex relations and interferes only with contracts having relation to these.  Therefore always keep your sex relations private, and out of your contracts, and you are safe.  He furthermore thinks that some of these contracts might be and some of them should be for life.  If I understand him aright he considers that comradeship contracts, procreative contracts, and joint-purse contracts, should be for life; says that some of them “necessarily” are such.

There is much practical good sense in the above, but, for my part, I can see no need of any contract being for life.  All contracts, I hold, should be dissolvable at the desire of either party, with due regard to responsibility for material losses that might result from such dissolution.  Of course, in the matter of parentage, there is a natural and inherent responsibility of the parent to the child outside of and superior to all contracts, which they cannot affect.

Again I am at loss to see how, where there is a family, the evasion of the law is to be accomplished.  Sex relations are necessarily “given away” where children are born, and a contract to beget and raise children is a sex contract.  If the law in that place takes cognizance of sex relations the parties are at its mercy.  I feel pretty sure that in many sections the raising of a family under contract, or without it even, would be construed as common-law marriage and “living together as man and wife.”

But to my mind the law is not our worst enemy.  It is the “superstition” to which Mr. Ruedebusch alludes but which he does not take into account sufficiently here.  In great cities Free Lovers can be pretty secure as to privacy, though even there more or less badgered, but from progressively smaller communities progressively worse treatment will be received.  Religious bigotry, marital jealousy, social prejudice, will operate in ostracism, contempt, boycotts, open insult and actual violence, for which redress can seldom be obtained.  Those who wish social privileges, respect and pleasures; who depend upon the good will of their neighbors for a living; who wish their children respected and themselves at peace, cannot afford to be Free Lovers even if the law says nothing.  I mean open and acknowledged and practical Free Lovers.  If you practice Free Love, but by mouth deny it, or, if you avow it as a theory but act as the world does, society will forgive you, but it will not forgive the combination.

As a matter of fact, only those can be Free Lovers today who are exceptionally favorably placed in life, or who are willing to endure whatever martyrdom may be inflicted upon them.  And Mr. Ruedebusch had done little, I fear, although I admit he has done something to aid the martyrs.  The public, I fear, will be very nearly as hard on “comrades,” “friends,” “business partners,” etc., of opposite sexes, who inhabit the same house, as upon any other “immoral” couples, even if they maintain separate rooms and refuse to affirm or deny sex relations.  Of course, those contractors who inhabit different houses and are prudent in outward conduct are all right, and Mr. Rudebusch’s greatest service will consist, I believe, in convincing Free Lovers that love does not always include sex relations, and that separate homes are best, and in forming a public sentiment to that effect.  But while Platonic loves are possible, practically very few people are “built that way” and judgment can only be expected by the average standard and precedents.  I am sorry I cannot agree with my author that he has made a brilliant discovery here.  It seems to me that there are only two courses open to Free Lovers:  First, to do as they please, openly, and take the consequences, whatever they may be; or, second, if they wish to be close comrades, or sex-partners, and enjoy average respect and comfort, to go through the outward form of marriage with a private contract of entire liberty; maintaining separate homes and complete individuality in fact under the same roof and under cover of the law; but, at the same time, protesting against marriage as a tyrannical invasion and doing all they prudently can for the cause of Free Love.  Of course those who love battle, consistency and devotion will keep in the middle of the road till run over, but Mr. Ruedebusch and I are both trying to find comfortable passage for those who take to the side walk.  His plan is the more consistent and mine has the further disadvantage that it needs two partners who can thoroughly trust each other, but, waiving these, I think my plan has all the practical advantages.  There is really nothing to be said against the courage or the consistency of a combatant who yields a point under pressure of overwhelming compulsion.  And a married Free Lover has actually the advantage of position.  He is a protected spy in the enemy’s camp, having their car and able to spread disaffection everywhere in their ranks.  He can always plausibly say—“I am no fanatic.  I am married because the law compels me to, but really this is not the ideal way,” etc., and nobody refuses to listen to his ideal if it is nicely put.

Here then to my mind is the important point just now.  We need the highest and most attractive ideals of Free Love that can be made, put forward with eloquence and profound conviction—ideals that meet all the real needs that the marriage ideal promises to meet, and something more.  There is much in Mr. Ruedebusch’s ideal worth study and his book best explains that.  I have an ideal of my own, to which I have given much thought, which while more elaborate than his and perhaps more intended for ideal society I contend is founded on and truly adapted to human need.

With the editor’s permission I will give this in another article.