Belief  /  Book Review

The Complex Marriage Complex

A descendant of the Oneida Community reflects on the famous 19th century experiment in managing sexual freedom.
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The great problem with monogamous marriage, as divorce statistics illustrate, is that it is difficult to sustain one. Some or even most of us are not naturally content with just one lifelong sexual partner—cue the disquisitions on evolutionary biology and the practices of exotic tribes in the Amazon or Micronesia—and that arrangement is unjustifiably patriarchal and sexually repressive in any case. But according to both stories, we can rescue the floundering American family and liberate ourselves from artificial social constraints in one stroke by making marriage a more flexible arrangement, one that is capacious enough to allow for a lot more sex with a lot more people. That way, fewer married people will be condemned to suffer unfulfilled desires or to break up their families in efforts to fulfill themselves. Open marriage is, as Mark Oppenheimer cleverly concluded in his 2011 New York Times Magazine essay on the subject, an essentially conservative proposition, just one that also happens to be enticingly new and radical.

Only it is not quite so new and perhaps not so radical as some of its proponents might hope. Experiments in free love and sexual communism, and indeed communism of all other kinds, have been occurring in America’s nooks and crannies since the early nineteenth century. Any impartial observer of American history must admit that eccentric, separatist communities devoted to violating nearly every social taboo are just as traditionally American as monogamous marriage itself. But just as often as they have cropped up, these open-marriage intentional communities have failed.

In her new book, Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table, University of Southern California professor Ellen Wayland-Smith delves into the history of one of the longest lived of these efforts, the Oneida Community in upstate New York. Founded in 1848 in the ferment of the Second Great Awakening by the self-appointed Perfectionist prophet John Humphrey Noyes, Oneida grew out of Noyes’s contention that the Second Coming had already come, unnoticed by all but him, so men were now capable of moral perfection and even immortality in this life. The requisite means to such perfection was Noyes’s theology of “Bible Communism”—total communalism in property as well as in sexual partners. Sustaining itself on the profits from the manufacture of animal traps and silk thread (the flatware for which it is famous was introduced only later), the Oneida Community flourished under Noyes’s rule for more than thirty years, working out the nuances of its institution of “Complex Marriage” as it grew in number to more than three hundred by the time of its dissolution in 1881.