For some, the gay marriage debate has raised the specter of an America sliding toward all sorts of sexual-marital experimentation, including bestiality, incest, and — least outrageously — polygamy. But "in terms of chronology, the slippery slope from gay marriage to polygamy appears to run in the wrong direction," says Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic. "The major American experiment with multiple wives in one marriage, occurred, after all, in the 19th century with the early Mormon Church," he points out. A discussion of polygamy, then, doesn't really concern the future, but rather the past, he says. And while the Mormons are the most famous American polygamists, they're "not even the most radical." That distinction goes to the hundreds-strong Oneida community, founded in upstate New York in 1848 by a Yale Theological Seminary graduate, John Humphrey Noyes. It makes today's college hook-up culture look tame in comparison. Here's an excerpt:
Reading through the account of Oneida in Louis J. Kern's 1981 monograph An Ordered Love is an exercise in feeling your jaw drop. Among his followers, Noyes devised a system called complex marriage, which meant that everyone was married to everyone else. Thus, every man could have sex with every woman — in private, by appointment, and with length of encounter regulated by community norms (at first, all night — but that was eventually decided to be too exhausting).
There were other restrictions as well, which mainly had to do with the Oneida's unusual method of birth control. Before they could sleep with fertile women, men had to train themselves not to orgasm. They achieved "male continence" by practicing on menopausal members of the community.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- Hey, bosses: Stop giving bonuses to your employees
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- You should be furious about Hollywood's gutless retreat on The Interview
- Why torture doesn't work: A definitive guide
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Why the Sony hack changes everything
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- Capitalism isn't a cure-all for Cuba
- One girl's extraordinarily wild world
Subscribe to the Week