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The Oneida Community: Chaste and Happy in the 1860s June 11, 2011

Posted by Dev in Musings.
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I am listening to Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell which is very entertaining as well as funny, and came across an interesting tidbit about the Oneida Community which existed in upstate New York from 1849 to 1879. It was a religious community, with utopian ideals–not terribly unusual for that time. It was started by John Humphrey Noyes, a Vermonter who attended Dartmouth, Andover, and the Yale Divinity School.

The thing that caught my attention was the doctrine of “male continence,” or, having sexual intercourse without ejaculation. Noyes was no dummy–he was a college graduate, after all. He realized that if you had sex with a woman and ejaculated, she could very likely become pregnant. His wife had five difficult pregnancies and four of the children died in childbirth so he really didn’t want to put her through that again. But he also realized that sex was fun and he didn’t want to give it up completely. So what to do? How about, hold back the seed? Of course, he couched all this in religious terms but we chaste folks know what “no coming” really is.

They also believed in equality of the sexes and for the women this was very advantageous, especially in the sex department, because, guess what? Women were supposed to have as much fun as men! In Dev-speak, this would be the principle of “My pleasure is your pleasure.” In other words, when the man was busy not coming, he was also busy making sure the woman had an orgasm or two. Works for me!

John Humphrey Noyes

A third principle was that of Complex Marriage, which when translated into modern terms would be equivalent to “open marriage.” That is, sex with a person not your spouse was okay. They had an interesting way of operationalizing this, however. Remember that the men needed to learn “male continence” and for young men, this could take considerable time and effort to learn how to do it properly. If they were busy having sex with young, fertile women the risk of pregnancy was high. So, instead, they had them go and refine their technique with the older, post-menopausal women (the “Oneida cougars”? LOL) where the chance of pregnancy was nil. Likewise, the older guys who were continent-proficient had sex with the young women to teach them all about being multi-orgasmic.

We’ll just turn our heads on the fact that all this teaching and initiation stuff began when the young people were about 14…it was the old days, after all.

Not surprisingly, male continence was effective as a community-wide method of birth control. In a 20 year period, out of a community of 250 people, only 40 children were born.

Like all utopian societies, this one eventually fizzled, mostly because Noyes’ son, an agnostic, wasn’t interested in continuing his father’s religious beliefs. And somehow or another, for reasons that Vowell did not completely explain, they got into making dishes and flatware, an industry that continues to this day.

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I didn’t intend to take a five week sabbatical from posting here, but May turned into a month that was completely out of my control. Things are slowly getting back on track and I am looking forward to sharing my thoughts again, on a regular basis. Thanks to everyone who wrote me privately to ask if Ab and I were okay. Yes, we are and we appreciate your support and kindness. Thanks and hugs to all!

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