anarchists debating polyamory in 1896

An earlier post about polyamory described what it looked like in the 1920s. It’s been a terrible idea that’s plagued the American left as long as there’s been an American left.

I recently learned who Lucy Parsons was, and that she was in favor of monogamy. Someone was cool enough to put issues of The Firebrand online. It was an anarchist newspaper from Portland. In it, she wrote in to complain about the paper giving a platform to a polyamory guy. Back then, it was called “varietism,” and her letter was called “Objections to Variety”. It begins:

As a constant reader of The Firebrand I venture to assert, that none were more surprised to see almost a page of that paper given up to an article advocating “variety in sex relations.” This Mr. Rotter’s article (in the name, by some strange coincidence, well demonstrates what society would come to if his system of variety was adopted) goes on to speak of “sex life.” What is this “sex life” anyway?

I know the meaning of what is to me the sweetest of all words under the sun: family life, child life. These Mr. Rotter has not deigned to mention. In his system of variety, family life is scorned, child life is ignored. Mr. Rotter goes on to explain what he means by “sex freedom,” in the following language: “The principle of equal recognition on the part of society of any and every kind of conduct of the individual man and woman in their love relations.”

There could be no particular objection to these “love relations,” if those engaging in them were of the samples I have usually met who advocate this kind of nonsense, because they have nine times in ten been away passed middle age and the reproductive period.

Hence, I think society need bother but little about “love relations” or “sex life!”

But to the young, to those who are going to people the world, society has a right to ask these “varietists:” Who is going to be responsible for the children? These unconsulted results of your “love relation?” About the only thing there could be any certainty of would be the mother. Nautre has so arranged it that she could not deny her child. Under the variety arrangement she could not know the father of her offspring.

And then came birth control and paternity tests. She continues:

I wish to put a question to these varietists; I have a son attending high school, who is seventeen years of age, consequently he is coming in contact constantly with youths and maidens of about his own age. These young people dwell in ideal lands, filled with youth’s dreams and fancies; it is the spring time of their lives. I now teach my son to at all times treat these young ladies with deference and respect; but suppose the impulses of nature are strong, am I to teach my son that, “The attitude in sex life, which, strictly speaking, alone is entitled to the proud name of love liberty is the principle of eventual contemporaneous variety in the objects of love?”

Might my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, and my brains become as jelly, before my son should hea such language fall from my lips. The mother, who could teach her son such a damnable doctrine, is to me unthinkable.

No true man or woman considers they have an ownership in the “person” of the other, because they agree to live an exclusive life in sexual relations. Variety is not going to make a true man of a brute.

I do not believe the time can ever come when my sex will make a “variety” business, from choice, of the precious dowry of womanhood. It is against our nature. We love the names of father, home, and children too well for that.

Mr. Rotter attempts to dig up the hideous “Variety” grub and bind it to the beautiful unfolding blossom of labor’s emancipation from wage-slavery, and call them one and the same. Variety in sex relations and economic freedom have nothing in common.

Nor has it anything in common with Anarchism, as I understand Anarchism; if it has, then I am not an Anarchist.

Let variety stand or fall upon its own merits.

Mr. Rotter wrote a lengthy response in the next issue. First off, women are so emotional! Somebody call the tone police.

Want of time has prevented me from occupying myself sooner with the extremely emotional philippica published by Mrs. Parsons in the Firebrand of September 27th against love-varietism as advocated by me in an essay entitled: “The sexes and love in freedom.”

Before proceeding to a refutation of Mrs. Parsons’ attitude toward my ideas on the sex-relations, I wish to say a few words in general on the tone and spirit in which she gave expression to her adverse position. I was simply surprised at the rude style of her writing and her indulgence in unsolicited personal abuses.

As regards the latter they are to me a lamentable sign of extreme lack of natural and social tact. It is always bad policy for a speaker or writer to try to make up by personal denunciations for the want of facts and logical arguments.

I think ad hominem is a perfectly valid response to disingenuous arguments.

He laments her “sexual exclusivism” and wishes she were more like famous Greek prostitutes:

Being myself an Anarchist I admit, as a matter of course, and from principle of a variety of personal opinions and consequently of conduct in all the many spheres of social life including the arrangement the relation of the sexes.

For this reason I find no fault whatever with the innate preference of Mrs. Parsons for sexual exclusivism. I know very well myself that not every woman is willing or able to be a disciple of Aspasia or Leontion, but I know equally well that women do exist who are of the type of these two immortal representatives of free and enlightened womanhood in ancient Greece.

Next, he argues that we should just give up and abolish standards because people aren’t meeting them. Also, we should emulate Mormons for their progressive sex relations.

In reference to the first assumption I would like to call Mrs. Parsons’ attention to the innumerable instances of actual variety in love occurring daily in all classes of society, in spite of our repressive statute laws regulating the relation of the sexes, in spite of traditional social customs and moral notions, and the danger of social ostracism. The daily papers are full of records of offenses against law-established monogamy. The evidence for the secret practice of polygamy and polyandry among all monogamic races and nations, so-called, are so overwhelming for the unprejudiced student of society, that for instance the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer referred to them when he boldly declared himself in favor of polygamy as the more natural arrangement of the sex-relations. He also attributed the seemingly anomalous success of the Mormons in the midst of a Christian population to their abolition of the artificial institution of monogamic marriage. The cases of spontaneous varietism, which come to public notice, are of course only a very small percentage of the many secret violations of our official code of sex-morality, that escape detection and molestation. This fact of almost universal secret practice of variety in love out of mere desire and opportunity, alone ought to convince any unprejudiced mind, that the desire for variety is not an exceptional and morbid propensity or confined to the age “past middle life,” as Mrs. Parsons strangely believes, but that it is pre-eminently natural and normal.

This is silly, because murder happens all the time due to “desire and opportunity.”

He describes the poly lifestyle in language that’s absurd to anybody that’s witnessed the poly lifestyle.

The characteristic of the varietist home is harmony and happiness through absolute mutual personal liberty, unreserved, naturalness and perfect truthfulness. It has consequently the best foundation possible for permanency, because satisfying all emotional, intellectual, and physical needs of the human nature. Can the same be said–exception admitted–about the average monogamic home? He who does not know, that the latter, is in too many cases the source of discord, of never ending and estranging petty quarrels and tyrannies, mutual hypocrisy and openly avowed or concealed dissatisfaction, has studied the inside of conventional conjugal life very little indeed.