From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The term free love has been used since at least the nineteenth century to describe a social movement that rejects marriage, which is seen as a form of social bondage, especially for women. Much of the free love tradition has a civil libertarian philosophy that seeks freedom from State regulation and Church interference in personal relationships. In addition, some free love writing has argued that both men and women have the right to sexual pleasure.
While the phrase free love is often associated with promiscuity in the popular imagination, especially in reference to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, historically the free love movement has not advocated multiple sexual partners. Rather, it has argued that love relations which are freely entered into should not be regulated by law. Thus, free love practice may include long-term monogamous relationships or even celibacy, but would not include institutional forms of polygamy such as a king and his concubines. Laws of particular concern to free love movements have included those that prevent an unmarried couple from living together, and those that regulate adultery and divorce, as well as age of consent, birth control, homosexuality, abortion and prostitution, although not all free lovers agree on these issues. The abrogation of individual rights in marriage is also a concern — for example, some jurisdictions do not recognise spousal rape, or treat it less seriously than non-spousal rape. Free love movements since the 19th century have also defended the right to publicly discuss sexuality, and have battled obscenity laws.
In the twentieth century, some free love proponents extended the critique of marriage to argue that marriage as a social institution encourages emotional possessiveness and psychological enslavement.
History of free love movements
A number of utopian social movements throughout history have shared a vision of free love. The all-male Essenes, who lived in the Middle East from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD apparently shunned sex, marriage, and slavery. They also renounced wealth, lived communally, and were pacifist vegetarians. An early Christian sect known as the Adamites—which flourished in North Africa in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries—also rejected marriage. They practised nudism while engaging in worship and considered themselves free of original sin.
In the 6th century AD, adherents of Mazdakism in pre-Muslim Persia apparently supported a kind of free love in the place of marriage, and like many other free-love movements, also favored vegetarianism, pacificism, and communalism. Some writers have posited a conceptual link between the rejection of private property and the rejection of marriage as a form of ownership. One folk story from the period that contains a mention of a free-love (and nudist) community under the sea is "The Tale of Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman" from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (c. 8th century).
Karl Kautsky, writing in 1895, noted that a number of "communistic" movements throughout the Middle Ages also rejected marriage. Typical of such movements, the Cathars of 10th to 14th century Western Europe freed followers from all moral prohibition and religious obligation, but respected those who lived simply, avoided the taking of human or animal life, and were celibate. Women had an uncommon equality and autonomy, even as religious leaders. The Cathars and similar groups (the Waldenses, Apostle brothers, Beghards and Beguines, Lollards, and Hussites) were branded as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church and suppressed. Other movements shared their critique of marriage but advocated free sexual relations rather than celibacy, such as the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, Taborites, and Picards.
In 18th and 19th century Europe
In 1789, radical Swedenborgians August Nordenskjöld and C.B. Wadström published the Plan for a Free Community, in which they proposed the establishment of a society of sexual liberty, where slavery was abolished and the "European" and the "Negro" lived together in harmony. In the treatise, marriage is criticised as a form of political repression. The challenges to traditional morality and religion brought by the Age of Enlightenment and the emancipatory politics of the French Revolution created an environment where such ideas could flourish. A group of radical intellectuals in England (sometimes known as the English Jacobins) supported the French Revolution, abolitionism, feminism, and free love. Among them was William Blake, who explicitly compares the sexual oppression of marriage to slavery in works such as Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793).
Another member of the circle was pioneering English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft felt that women should not give up freedom and control of their sexuality, and thus didn't marry partner Gilbert Imlay, despite the two having a child together. Though the relationship ended badly, due in part to the discovery of Imlay's infidelity, Wollstonecraft's belief in free love survived. She developed a relationship with early English anarchist William Godwin, who shared her free love ideals, and published on the subject throughout his life. However, the two did decide to marry. Their child, Mary took up with the English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at a young age. Percy also wrote in defence of free love (and vegetarianism) in the prose notes of Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem (1813), in his essay On Love (c1815) and in the poem Epipsychidion (1821):
I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion...
Free love has this, different from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Sharing the free love ideals of the earlier social movements, as well as their feminism, pacifism and simple communal life, were the utopian socialist communities of early 19th century France and Britain, associated with writers and thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier in France and Robert Owen in England. Fourier, who coined the term feminism, argued that true freedom could only occur without masters, without the ethos of work, and without suppressing passions; the suppression of passions is not only destructive to the individual, but to society as a whole. He argued that all sexual expressions should be enjoyed as long as people are not abused, and that "affirming one's difference" can actually enhance social integration. The Saint-Simonian feminist Pauline Roland took a free love stance against marriage, having four children in the 1830s, all of whom bore her name.