Cult Study: Oneida Utopia 2/4

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Oneida commune, circa 1870

Life in the commune was a mix of communally shared chores, spiritual and religious practices, meetings, and of course sex. Sexual partners sometimes chose for themselves, and at other times were paired up by a committee that oversaw, and kept careful record of, sexual encounters. They wanted to ensure no two people grew closer to each other than everyone else.

The Perfectionists of Oneida practiced a form of group criticism to correct errant behavior among members. Offenses included having an “overly” close bond with a sexual partner, or with one’s own child. One person would sit or stand quietly in the center of the room as others criticized them, for half an hour or more. It must have been extremely unpleasant. Life without sin proved difficult when loving “too much” was sinful.

Still, life in Oneida had many appealing characteristics. Each member worked for the good of the community, and for the women members many new doors were opened. While the majority of domestic chores fell unduly to them, they were also able to pursue careers as artisans, sales women, and business women. Oneida also had a large number of committees responsible for various business ventures and community concerns and women could and did serve on those. They were also free to wear bloomers with calf length skirts.

One of the biggest draws for women was the group’s practice of male birth control. In their first six years of marriage, Noyes’ wife Henrietta had become pregnant five times. Only one son, Theodore, survived. Not wanting her to endure the anguish of miscarriage again, Noyes began the practice known either as “coitus reservatus” or “male continence”. He stopped ejaculating during intercourse or at all, holding the common contemporary belief that ejaculation weakened men.

All Noyesian communes practiced male continence. With around 200 sexually active members at Oneida, only twelve unplanned pregnancies occurred over the twenty year period between 1848 and 1868. Men who failed to practice male continence faced serious reproach. Men who did not yet have the practice perfected were paired with postmenopausal women to get the hang of it. Likewise young women of the group were introduced to male continence by older male members.

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