Free love is a social movement that rejects marriage, which is seen as a form of social and financial bondage. The Free Love movement’s initial goal was to separate the state from sexual matters such as marriage, birth control, and adultery. It claimed that such issues were the concern of the people involved, and no one else.
Much of the free-love tradition is an offshoot of anarchism, and reflects a libertarian philosophy that seeks freedom from state regulation and church interference in personal relationships. According to this concept, the free unions of adults are legitimate relations which should be respected by all third parties whether they are emotional or sexual relations. In addition, some free-love writing has argued that both men and women have the right to sexual pleasure without social or legal restraints. In the Victorian era, this was a radical notion. Later, a new theme developed, linking free love with radical social change, and depicting it as a harbinger of a new anti-authoritarian, anti-repressive sensibility.
According to today’s stereotype, earlier middle-class Americans wanted the home to be a place of stability in an uncertain world. To this mentality are attributed strongly defined gender roles, which led to a minority reaction in the form of the free love movement.
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 or short-term sexual relationships. Rather, it has argued that sexual relations that are freely entered into should not be regulated by law.
The term “sex radical” is also used interchangeably with the term “free lover”, and was the preferred term by advocates because of the negative connotations of “free love”. By whatever name, advocates had two strong beliefs: opposition to the idea of forceful sexual activity in a relationship and advocacy for a woman to use her body in any way that she pleases.
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 sometimes prostitution; although not all free love advocates agree on these issues. The abrogation of individual rights in marriage is also a concern—for example, some jurisdictions do not recognize 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.
At the turn of the 20th century, some free-love proponents extended the critique of marriage to argue that marriage as a social institution encourages emotional possessiveness and psychological enslavement.
Relationship to Feminism
The history of free love is entwined with the history of feminism. From the late 18th century, leading feminists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, have challenged the institution of marriage, and many have advocated its abolition.
According to feminist stereotype, and to some extent in actuality, a married woman was solely a wife and mother, denying her the opportunity to pursue other occupations; sometimes this was legislated, as with bans on married women and mothers in the teaching profession. In 1855, free love advocate Mary Gove Nichols (1810–1884) described marriage as the “annihilation of woman,” explaining that women were considered to be men’s property in law and public sentiment, making it possible for tyrannical men to deprive their wives of all freedom. For example, the law sometimes allowed a husband to physically discipline his wife. Free-love advocates argued that many children are born into unloving marriages out of compulsion, but should instead be the result of choice and affection—yet children born out of wedlock did not have the same rights as children with married parents.
Although the free love movement largely concerned women, the chief organizers have mostly been men. This helped foster a male ideology, and proved to women that some men[who?] were just as serious as they were about this issue. Although men were the main contributors to the organized and written part of the free love movement, the movement itself was still associated with loud and flashy women.
In 1857, Minerva Putnam complained that, “in the discussion of free love, no woman has attempted to give her views on the subject.” There were six books during this time that endorsed the concept of free love. Of the four major free love periodicals following the civil war, only two of them had female editors. Mary Gove Nichols was the leading female advocate, and the woman who most people looked up to, for the free love movement. She wrote her autobiography, which became the first case against marriage written from a woman’s point of view.
To proponents of free love, sex was not just about reproduction. Access to birth control was considered a means to women’s independence, and leading birth-control activists also embraced free love. Sex radicals remained focused on their attempts to uphold a woman’s right to control her body and to freely discuss issues such as contraception, marital sex abuse (emotional and physical), and sexual education. These people believed that by talking about female sexuality, they would help empower women. To help achieve this goal, sex radicals relied on the written word, books, pamphlets, and periodicals. This method helped these people sustain this movement for over 50 years, and helped spread their message all over the United States.
The famous feminist Gloria Steinem at one point stated, “you became a semi-nonperson when you got married.” She also famously coined the expression ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’ Steinem dismissed marriage in 1987 as not having a ‘good name.’ Steinem got married in 2000, stating that the symbols that feminists once “rebelled against” now are freely chosen, or society had changed.