The Ethics of Sex

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The Ethics of Sex.

By J. William Lloyd.

Questions of ethics are questions of human benefit in the largest and most complete sense. For a drunkard to show that his dram benefitted him by making him feel good, and for a thief to show that his robbing benefitted him by putting cash in his pocket, would not be admitted as evidence of the ethical quality of intemperance and theft, because limited to the one. That which is truly ethical must prove benefit in the wide curve and in the full circle.

Free thought on the subject of sex is, to-day, under the ban. We have won free thought in the realm of religion, and men are no longer punished by the state for heresy in religious creed, but the lurking bigotry in human nature is reappearing in the form of moral intolerance and a moral inquisition, and he who differs from the majority on the ethics of sex, no matter how honestly, runs great risk of legal and illegal violence to reputation, property and person. Nevertheless, the man who would really get at the truth of this, as of any other matter, must clear his mind of all predeliction fear, cost what it may, and calmly decide on the actual evidence. Let us go back: Scientific men, exploring the dim past, find that man in emerging from the animal stage, in which instinct guided his conduct, as among all animals in becoming human, became an experimenter. He felt his way, inch by inch, and by painful experience, and thru innumerable mistakes, arrived at the knowledge of what was beneficial. His sexual life was always the foundation and symbol of his social life.

The first step in social life seems to have been the maternal family—a mother and her children. The father roamed free and had no necessary connection after the initial act of parenthood. But primitive life was full of terror, and the family clung together for mutual co-operation and its members inbred. The beginnings of social life were consanguine and the first family life incestuous. But tho Nature does not object to incest as an occasional relation among the healthy she does condemn it as a system of parenthood because her law is to create variety and then balance opposites. Polarity developed repels those too much alike, and the struggle for existence weeds out those who by inbreeding intensify weaknesses and lopsidedness. In physical creation natural selection favors the mating of opposites. The earliest of all recognition in sexual morality appears to have been the respect of the female by the male and leaving to her the exclusive right to invite and refuse. But this was prehuman, and inherited from the animal, and the first human recognition in sex morals seems to have been a discrimination against incest. First incest between parent and child appears to have been prohibited, and then between brother and sister. This went on thru the ages, till in some cases it reached the extreme that not only blood kin but legal relatives were prohibited.

As the earliest social relations were communistical, so the earliest forms of marriage were communistic, or "group" marriages. Not polygamy nor monogamy, but mutual wives and mutual husbands in one group.

In the earliest stage men lived upon the wild fruits, upon game and fish, and in this stage lived in tribes of kinsmen, and their first great ethical recognition was that of brother- hood—communism, with all its correlative virtues of liberty, sympathy, honesty, helpfulness, of all to all within the commune. In brief the first social ethical concept was that of the benefit and beauty of unselfishness, and tho they recognized it as applying only to kinsmen, they applied it with- in these limits with a thoroughness that has never been ex- celled. The evidence here is overwhelming. Those who would know more of this should study Morgan, Lubbock, Engels, Marx, Kropotkin, et al. And this ethical concept applied to sex also so that one of the very first sexual ethical concept applied to sex so that one of the very first sexual ethical concepts to be accepted and lived up to was that of the sin of jealousy, or selfishness in sex. This alone made group marriage possible. In brief, because monopoly was unbrotherly, monopoly in sex was as much condemned as monopoly in property.

And all this was the time of the matriarchate—womanhood in sex and social life was supreme. Supreme in match- making and divorcing, in the possession of children, in the arrangement of home, in social and moral influence. Descent was in the female line and the children bore the mother's name. The prohibition of mating between males and females of the same blood created genites (for full description of the gens see Morgan, Eingels, Lubbock et al) and in each gens the maternal council practically ruled.

This was the true "Golden Age," to which the memory of man has ever since lovingly reverted. Under the mild reign of motherhood woman was reverenced and sacred brotherhood was the inclusive virtue, individuals were free, helpful and kind, violence in sex was undreamed of, and the vices of excess and asceticism were equally unknown. So clearly does it appear that, after all, the essentials of morality, like those of religion, lie practically on the surface, and very simple and ignorant people may easily find them if sincere. Thus in the very beginning of human life among the most primitive people, humanity was able to attain a sexual virtue superior to our own.

It may seem a startling statement but it will be hard to disprove its truth, that all crime results from interference with liberty, is interference with liberty, and all vice results from the attempt of nature to express itself under artificial, that is unfree conditions.

Probably the beginning of sexual evil began in the matriarchate-—in the mother's assuming control of their daughters' love-life, in the matter of selecting mates, and in a custom growing up, which acquired the pressure of a law, that every wife in the group marriage must submit to the passion of every husband. Here were the roots.

Rut resistance to evil causes evolution in virtue too, and out of the resistence to unwilling submission grew the selective love-tree in which all the loveliest fruits of our present love-life hang.

And the root of social evil in that stage too, was the limitation of brotherliness to the kinship of the tribe, and the justification of violence toward strangers. War is the negation of liberty and sympathy and cultivates all the passions of selfishness.

Probably in the nearest to the animal stage the males among humans were jealous and had duels for the favor of the female. But when the tribal system arrived, with group marriage and the matriarchate, jealousy disappeared. It had to go because unsocial, and in this close communism the one standard of the ethical was that which conduced to social peace and fraternal harmony. Monopoly of every kind was condemned by the all powerful women. Those who assume therefore that jealousy is a constant and inevitable human and especially feminine passion are clearly wrong- Jealousy is an animal and especially a male passion; and the experience and example of the long dim ages of savage life in which it was practically eliminated show that under proper conditions humanity can easily rise above it. Since the beginning of the historic period we have lived mainly under the regime of war, monopoly of property and monopoly of sex, and under this jealousy has flourished. Both as a vice and as a crime it has grown out of monogamy, or the subjection of the woman to the man.

Under the matriarchate then, there was peace, harmony, brotherhood in the tribe, absence of incest as that was then understood, absence of jealousy, absence of rape or insult to womanhood. Except where custom overruled, the woman was mistress of her own person and controlled all times and seasons of approach and the choice of the father of her children and their number.

The fossil remains, so to speak of that system are to be found among almost all primitive people to-day. Even the matriarchate may be found in actual existence among certain tribes.

All travelers who have found savages living in even an approximation to this state have been amazed at the kindness, liberty, harmony and peace of the inter-tribal life. Engels finds the origin of the patriarchate in the evolution from the hunting to the herding stage. When men tamed animals and grew rich in herds and flocks, and took to the culture of the soil, they began to accumulate wealth and to quarrel over it, and wars grew frequent and fierce, and the strong took the spoil and habits of selfishness and violence subverted the old gentle life.

The desire of the great warrior grown rich in gen, to hand the property down to his fighting son, strong enough to hold it, caused a subversion of the old law of the gens and descent was changed to count in the male line with the man at the head of the house and family. Whether this explanation of origin be sound or no, at any rate about at this stage, the change took place, and all the old ways were reversed. The man took control, violence not peace, individual monopoly not communism, mastership and serfdom or slavery not equality, became the characteristics of human life. Mono- gamy or its variant forms polygamy, took the place of the group marriages and free pairings of the matriarchate. Wo- man now was owned by man, was his chattel and slave. Bought, sold, given awav, stolen, held in monopolistic owner- ship and defended by the sword like other property. Selfish- ness and competition becoming the law of social life, of course became the law of the sexual life, its mirror and sym- bol. The home, the property, the woman and her children all belonged to the man. Lust supplanted reverence, rape compelled consent and womanhood was either brutally snubbed into shameful humiliation or mocked by a hollow and hypocritical homage. All real respect, influence, inde- pendence and initiative was carefully and jealously stripped from her. She who had been pure and proud, free to love or refuse, the owner of her children, the queen of the home, the mother of the community, the center of influence, referee, comrade, councellor and equal of man, and indeed morally his superior was now his slave, his toy, his appendage and his utensil.

What wonder that practically everything non-ethical in sex-life bepan then; nor that they continue to this day, because to a great extent the same conditions continue to this day. Relations between human beings can only be ethical where they are free and equal. This is fundamental law, the natural condition of social harmony, which is the only true ethics. To this day all sexual and love relations between human beings that are mutually free, equal and natural are absolutely under the ban both of law and custom, and are spoken of with horror and bated breath, and the very study of human sex and the study of such knowledge is a legal and heavilv punished crime. The whole matter now is a plexus of artificial virtues and artificial crimes, with vices hideous and unmentionable sprouting from every oozing crevice. It is no exaggeration to say that a sexually healthy human being of either sex and anv are is a rarity and the "social evil" is the despair of moralists and courts.

And yet simple savages in the dawn of human life, were able to find the true ethical laws concerned here and live as innocently and healthily as the flowers. Will we never learn? The remedy is merit before our eves. It has been there for thousands of years and will be there till we use it if it be tens of thousands more.

We must acknowledge our sins and repent; we must restore to sex the old honor and reverence. We must restore to womanhood the old influence and respect, the old liberty to accept or refuse in even greater absoluteness and sincerity with even greater public approval and support, than even before. We must restore descent in the female line, and so restore to motherhood the ownership of the child, and so legitimatize all children. We must make the study and teaching of sexual truth the most honored and universal of all the sciences.

That is all and it is ample:

Free womanhood, free motherhood, will control the whole situation and dissipate the "social evil" as easily, as swiftly, and as certainty as sunshine and fresh air purify a foul room. For every woman, deep down in her soul, reverences her sex and considers it her most holy possession; no woman left free would either give or receive a caress her heart did not at the moment ratify; no woman free of necessity, would sell her favors for the price of shame, no woman fails to regard motherhood as the ideal joy; no woman would willingly wrong a child, no council of women would under free conditions bastardize the children of love. Or if there be any exceptions they are few enough to be disregarded. Therefore put woman in control of herself here and we should have what we never have had since man usurped her place, clean sex and sincere love.

But all this requires an economic revolution to correspond and to some extent precede. Woman never has been free under a system of legal privilege and forced competition and never can be. Life must be liberated before love can be free and true.



  • J. William Lloyd, “The Ethics of Sex,” To-Morrow 2, no. 6 (June 1906): 32-36.