Remembering Oneida, where everyone was married to everyone else

The early Mormons had nothing on this 30-year New York experiment in polyamorous marriage, says Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic

Back in the mid-19th century, the people in a small community in upstate New York were basically all married to each other.
(Image credit: C. Lyttle/Corbis)

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).

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Peter Weber, The Week US

Peter has worked as a news and culture writer and editor at The Week since the site's launch in 2008. He covers politics, world affairs, religion and cultural currents. His journalism career began as a copy editor at a financial newswire and has included editorial positions at The New York Times Magazine, Facts on File, and Oregon State University.