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 is an offshoot of anarchism, and reflects a civil 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. In the Victorian era, this was a radical notion.
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 love relations that 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 wives and 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.
Sex, to proponents of free love, was not only about reproduction. Access to birth control was considered a means to women's independence, and leading birth-control activists like Margaret Sanger also embraced free love.
However, many of the leaders of first-wave feminism attacked free love. To them, women's suffering could be traced to the moral degradation of men, and by contrast, women were portrayed as virtuous and in control of their passions, and they should serve as a model for men's behaviour. Some feminists of the late 20th century would interpret the free-love ethic of the 1960s and 1970s as a manipulative strategy against a woman's ability to say no to sex.
A number of utopian social movements throughout history have shared a vision of free love. The Essenes, who lived in the Middle East from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD apparently shunned both 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 were brutally 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 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 her 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 (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.
Christian socialist writer John Humphrey Noyes has been credited with coining the term 'free love' in the mid-nineteenth century, although he preferred to use the term 'complex marriage'. Noyes founded the Oneida Society in 1848, a utopian community that "[rejected] conventional marriage both as a form of legalism from which Christians should be free and as a selfish institution in which men exerted rights of ownership over women". He found scriptural justification: "In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven" (Matt. 22:30). Noyes also supported eugenics; and only certain people were allowed to become parents.
A number of individualist anarchists and feminists in the U.S. embraced free love from the late 19th century, such as Josiah Warren, Lois Waisbrooker, Lillian Harman, Moses Harman, Angela Heywood, Ezra Heywood, and Benjamin Tucker. They viewed sexual freedom as a clear, direct expression of an individual's self-ownership, stressing women's rights since most sexual laws discriminated against women. A number of communities from a range of class backgrounds adopted free-love ideas, which sought to separate the state from sexual matters, such as marriage, adultery, divorce, age of consent, and birth control.
Elements of the free-love movement also had links to abolitionist movements, drawing parallels between slavery and "sexual slavery" (marriage), and forming alliances with black activists. They also had many opponents, and Moses Harman spent two years in jail after a court determined that a journal he published was "obscene" under the notorious Comstock Law. In particular, the court objected to three letters to the editor, one of which described the plight of a woman who had been raped by her husband, tearing stitches from a recent operation after a difficult childbirth and causing severe hemorrhaging. The letter lamented the woman's lack of legal recourse. Ezra Heywood, who had already been prosecuted under the Comstock Law for a pamphlet attacking marriage, reprinted the letter in solidarity with Harman and was also arrested and sentenced to two years in prison.
Victorian feminist Victoria Woodhull (1838–1927), the first woman to run for presidency in the U.S. in 1872, was also called "the high priestess of free love". In 1871, Woodhall wrote:
"Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere. And I have the further right to demand a free and unrestricted exercise of that right, and it is your duty not only to accord it, but, as a community, to see that I am protected in it. I trust that I am fully understood, for I mean just that, and nothing less!" And the Truth Shall Make You Free (November 20, 1871)
The women's movement, free love and Spiritualism were three strongly linked movements at the time, and Woodhull was also a spiritualist leader. Like Noyes, she also supported eugenics. Fellow social reformer and educator Mary Gove Nichols (1810–1884) was happily married (to her second husband), and together they published a newspaper and wrote medical books and articles, a novel, and a treatise on marriage, in which they argued the case for free love. Both Woodhull and Nichols eventually repudiated free love.
Publications of the movement in the second half of the nineteenth century included Nichols' Monthly, The Social Revolutionist, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly (ed. Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Clafin), The Word (ed. Ezra Heywood), Lucifer, the Light-Bearer (ed. Moses Harman) and the German-language Detroit newspaper Der Arme Teufel (ed. Robert Reitzel). Organisations included the New England Free Love League, founded with the assistance of Benjamin Tucker as a spin off from the New England Labor Reform League (NELRL). A minority of freethinkers also supported free love.
Despite the traditional marital lives of Lenin and most Bolsheviks, they believed that sexual relations were outside the jurisdiction of the state. The Soviet government abolished centuries-old Czarist regulations on personal life, which had prohibited homosexuality and made it difficult for women to obtain divorce permits or to live singly. There is evidence that this caused a small-scale renaissance in non-traditional love, not only among intellectuals but also the working class. However, by the end of the 1920s, Stalin's centrist faction had taken over the Communist Party and begun to implement socially conservative policies. Homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder, and free love was further demonized.
In the bohemian districts of Montmartre and Montparnasse, many were determined to shock the "bourgeois" sensibilities of the society they grew up in; many, such as the anarchist Benoît Broutchoux, favored free love. At the same time, the cross-dressing radical activist Madeleine Pelletier practised celibacy, distributed birth-control devices and information, and performed abortions.
In the 1980s, concerns over AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases tempered the promiscuity of the 1970s, but many of the sexual reforms advocated by earlier free-love movements had become mainstream: legalisation of adultery, birth control, and homosexuality; freedom in choosing love, sex, or both; and women's rights in general. Chastity, virginity, and subservience in marriage had much less power as social ideals for women.
Modern descendants of free love could be seen to include the polyamory and queer movements of the 1990s and contemporary sex radicals like Susie Bright, Patrick Califia, and Annie Sprinkle. Though they don't often identify as free lovers, modern movements around the world against arranged marriage and forced marriage in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe share many of the same goals as the free-love movement.