What People Believe: The Oneida Communityby Hannah Embleton-Smith
at Cardiff University 28th August 2012 12:40:00
The Oneidans: guilt-free sex with everyone, male responsibility for birth control, and generally making a success of yourself. Sounds pretty decent. So where did it all go wrong?
The newspaper ad would be enticing: “Join the Oneidan community and get your free pass to shag the contents of a mansion, 100% guilt-free! Live here, use our library with enough information to make you a prodigy, and even play a round of golf!”
Small print: “We are also conveniently located near the Canadian border for when reality strikes and we get arrested.”
Founder John Humphrey Noyes was taken by the idea of spiritual fulfilment through “perfectionism” during his time at Yale, having recently converted to Christianity following a near-death illness (a really bad cold).
From 1848-1881 he led the Oneida community, bringing together a “family” which unsurprisingly grew from 37 to over 300 members (with some leaving their existing families to partake). He and his followers held the core belief of achieving personal and social perfection, with religion at the centre.
Noyes believed that the key to bonding with God and maintaining successful relationships free from jealousy was openness and “complex marriage”, or loving each other “en masse”. Its label suggests that keeping multiple partners is a sign of higher intelligence. All other slaves to society, meanwhile, are only able keep track of one partner at a time. In practise, however, the concept seems to fit pretty concisely into five words: sex for (and with) all.
In order to support this endeavour, the community built an Eden-inspired Mansion House in 1861, with 14 acres of ground and an “Upper Sitting Room”, home to tiny bedrooms reserved for sexy time.
All was not as simple as it seems, though. According to Noyes’ vision, men should be responsible for birth control. This was not achieved through earlier versions of the condom, as you might imagine. Instead, men were required to practise “male continence” or coitus reservatus. That’s right; men were not allowed to come.
The idea was that the fleshly orgasm overshadowed the spirituality of love-making, which Noyes related to the “shame of the Fall”. This could lead to intimacy problems where blame was projected onto the partner for feelings of sin. Younger men, who were still unable to control themselves, were allowed to practise on post-menopausal women. This conveniently left ripe young ladies to the likes of Noyes and his more experienced male peers.
Women, presumably because they show less concrete signs of orgasm, were not required to hold back. This naturally led to new problems arising from an inequality in bedroom pleasures.
What’s more, in 1869 Noyes began to pair couples much as you would breed dogs. Reproductive partners were chosen with a view to creating a more refined gene pool, rather than allowing children to be the product of intimate love.
The offspring were to be raised, or cultivated, in the “Children’s House” away from their parents. This separation led to parental intuition taking over, and desires for conventional, monogamous family units resurfaced.
Noyes’ personal problems
All of these bedroom-centric rules and artificial conditions err worryingly on the side of totalitarianism for a man who championed social and intimate liberation. Why the contradiction?
They say you should never mix work with your personal life, and Noyes could be used as a shining example.
Before his vision took off, Noyes’ wife had given birth five times in six years, with only one child surviving. “Male continence” was a direct result of this episode: Noyes could not bear to cause his wife such suffering again, so placed birth control in the hands of the male demographic.
Noyes’ experience similarly explains the no-orgasm method and the selective breeding experiment. Negative associations of male orgasm with failed births made sperm the culprit. Carefully choosing partners might reduce the risk of further distress.
Had Noyes’ community become a warped grand-scale attempt to relieve the guilt for his wife’s pain, by cultivating a new society that would free them of the cause of her grief?
The breakdown of the Oneida Community
Following these initial cracks, Noyes finally pushed his authority too far.
As the most “experienced” member of the community, the leader argued that it was only logical for him to gain first access to pubescent girls. Noyes lifted the ban against controlled reproduction in 1868, and over the next year he and his son fathered 12 of the 68 births that resulted.
Understandably, this behaviour caused a revolt among his male followers. Noyes was accused of raping the young women, driving him to the aforementioned Plan B: Escape To Canada And Allow Community To Crumble.