In Roger Streitmatter’s Voices of Revolution, his fourth chapter focuses on the “free love” publications of the Victorian era; periodicals against traditional institutions of marriage and committed to providing sex education, endorsing sex for pleasure, information about abortion and more.
The three publications Streitmatter focused on were Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, The Word, and Lucifer, the Lightbearer. These publications shared many of the same characteristics: they were created and distributed with the intent to bring down the institution of marriage and educate their audience about healthy sexual activities, in addition to pushing against the government censorship on such publications that used graphic language (“penis,” “sexual intercourse,” “abortion,” “genitals,” etc.).
I think this chapter is very consistent with many movements and publications today that are still striving for the same types of messages. It’s a reminder that history is constantly repeating itself: a century and a half later, we still discuss many of these things.
The institution of marriage is still well and good (thought granted, divorce is legal, at least in America). Many of the Victorian publications fought against marital abuse and rape, something which is still alive and well, and marital rape can still be construed as legal in 8 states.
Sex education is something that isn’t consistent in all public or private schools, and despite studies proving its helpfulness, many schools still do not include it in their curriculum, leading many students to be confused and misled about safe ways to engage in sexual activity.
A recent group of voices that echoes the sentiments of the Victorian “free love” movement has sprung up advocating for a redefinition of not only marriage, but the way we look at relationships – monogamy, some say, is not a realistic option, and engage in more open or non-traditional styles of relationships, arguing that these should also be recognized. Many feminist advocates also believe sex work should be legalized and supported as empowering and fiscally conscious career choices.
These voices are supported in many independent outlets in today’s media world. Vice consistently publishes articles on sexual freedom and non-traditional views on relationships, including multiple pieces by popular pornography star Stoya on subjects such as how feminism affects her and the porn industry as well as the pitfalls of monogamy. Oh Joy, Sex Toy is a weekly webcomic run by a couple in Seattle that offers reviews of sex toys and important information for safe sex with authors, strippers, artists and more as guests. Even more mainstream publications like Huffington Post publish articles on important issues regarding relationships, sexual activity and spousal abuse.
While these types of issues often get more attention in our immediate world, the fight the Victorian free love publications started has far from ended. Even though their initial attempts were largely regarded as failures as they did not spur widespread action, their ideas carry on years later and they were the first to get them into print.