Emma Goldman Writes About Birth Control

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

Continuing with the theme of sexuality, authority and revolution, Shawn Wilbur has edited a soon to be published collection of writings by Emma Goldman, ANARCHY AND THE SEX QUESTION: ESSAYS ON WOMEN AND EMANCIPATION 1896-1917. I used several of Shawn’s translations of anarchist material from the 19th century in my recently published book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. Here I reproduce an excerpt from Shawn’s Emma Goldman collection, part of a 1916 essay, “The Social Aspects of Birth Control,” written by Goldman shortly before her trial and imprisonment for speaking publicly about and in favour of birth control. While some of her Neo-Malthusian ideas raise concerns, the focus on women having control of their own bodies remains very  pertinent today, given the ongoing attempts in the United States to effectively outlaw abortion. I included several selections from Emma Goldman in Volumes One and Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Popular Goldman poster

Popular Goldman poster

The Social Aspects of Birth Control

From whatever angle, then, the question of Birth Control may be considered, it is the most dominant issue of modern times and as such it cannot be driven back by persecution, imprisonment or a conspiracy of silence.

Those who oppose the Birth Control Movement claim to do so in behalf of motherhood. All the political charlatans prate about this wonderful motherhood, yet on closer examination we find that this motherhood has gone on for centuries past blindly and stupidly dedicating its offspring to Moloch. Besides, so long as mothers are compelled to work many hard hours in order to help support the creatures which they unwillingly brought into the world, the talk of motherhood is nothing else but cant. Ten per cent, of married women in the city of New York have to help make a living. Most of them earn the very lucrative salary of $280 a year. How dare anyone speak of the beauties of Motherhood in the face of such a crime?

But even the better paid mothers, what of them? Not so long ago our old and hoary Board of Education declared that mother teachers may not continue to teach. Though these antiquated gentlemen were compelled by public opinion to reconsider their decision, it is absolutely certain that if the average teacher were to become a mother every year, she would soon lose her position. This is the lot of the married mother; what about the unmarried mother? Or is anyone in doubt that there are thousands of unmarried mothers? They crowd our shops and factories and industries everywhere, not by choice but by economic necessity. In their drab and monotonous existence the only color left is probably a sexual attraction which without methods of prevention invariably leads to abortions. Thousands of women are sacrificed as a result of abortions because they are undertaken by quack doctors, ignorant midwives in secrecy and in haste. Yet the poets and the politicians sing of motherhood. A greater crime was never perpetrated upon woman.

Our moralists know about it, yet they persist in behalf of an indiscriminate breeding of children. They tell us that to limit offspring is entirely a modern tendency because the modern woman is loose in her morals and wishes to shirk responsibility. In reply to this, it is necessary to point out that the tendency to limit offspring is as old as the race. We have as the authority for this contention an eminent German physician Dr. Theilhaber who has compiled historic data to prove that the tendency was prevalent among the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Persians and many tribes of American Indians. The fear of the child was so great that the women used the most hideous methods rather than to bring an unwanted child into the world. Dr. Theilhaber enumerates fifty-seven methods. This data is of great importance in as much as it dispels the superstition that woman wants to become a mother of a large family.

No, it is not because woman is lacking in responsibility, but because she has too much of the latter that she demands to know how to prevent conception. Never in the history of the world has woman been so race conscious as she is to-day. Never before has she been able to see in the child, not only in her child, but every child, the unit of society, the channel through which man and woman must pass; the strongest factor in the building of a new world. It is for this reason that Birth Control rests upon such solid ground.

We are told that so long as the law on the statute books makes the discussion of preventives a crime, these preventives must not be discussed. In reply I wish to say that it is not the Birth Control Movement, but the law, which will have to go. After all, that is what laws are for, to be made and unmade. How dare they demand that life shall submit to them? Just because some ignorant bigot in his own limitation of mind and heart succeeded in passing a law at the time when men and women were in the thralls of religious and moral superstition, must we be bound by it for the rest of our lives? I readily understand why judges and jailers shall be bound by it. It means their livelihood; their function in society. But even judges sometimes progress. I call your attention to the decision given in behalf of the issue of Birth Control by Judge Gatens of Portland, Oregon. “It seems to me that the trouble with our people to-day is, that there is too much prudery. Ignorance and prudery have always been the millstones around the neck of progress. We all know that things are wrong in society; that we are suffering from many evils but we have not the nerve to get up and admit it, and when some person brings to our attention something we already know, we feign modesty and feel outraged.” That certainly is the trouble with most of our law makers and with all those who are opposed to Birth Control.

I am to be tried at Special Sessions April 5th. I do not know what the outcome will be, and furthermore, I do not care. This dread of going to prison for one’s ideas so prevalent among American radicals, is what makes the movement so pale and weak. I have no such dread. My revolutionary tradition is that those who are not willing to go to prison for their ideas have never been considered of much value to their ideas. Besides, there are worse places than prison. But whether I have to pay for my Birth Control activities or come out free, one thing is certain, the Birth Control movement cannot be stopped nor will I be stopped from carrying on Birth Control agitation. If I refrain from discussing methods, it is not because I am afraid of a second arrest, but because for the first time in the history of America, the issue of Birth Control through oral information is clear-cut and as I want it fought out on its merits, I do not wish to give the authorities an opportunity to obscure it by something else. However, I do want to point out the utter stupidity of the law. I have at hand the testimony given by the detectives, which, according to their statement, is an exact transcription of what I spelled for them from the platform. Yet so ignorant are these men that they have not a single contracept spelled correctly now. It is perfectly within the law for the detectives to give testimony, but it is not within the law for me to read the testimony which resulted in my indictment. Can you blame me if I am an anarchist and have no use for laws ? Also, I wish to point out the utter stupidity of the American court. Supposedly justice is to be meted out there. Supposedly there are to be no star chamber proceedings under democracy, yet the other day when the detectives gave their testimony, it had to be done in a whisper, close to the judge as at the confessional in a Catholic Church and under no circumstances were the ladies present permitted to hear anything that was going on. The farce of it all! And yet we are expected to respect it, to obey it, to submit to it.

I do not know how many of you are willing to do it, but I am not. I stand as one of the sponsors of a world-wide movement, a movement which aims to set woman free from the terrible yoke and bondage of enforced pregnancy; a movement which demands the right for every child to be well born; a movement which shall help free labor from its eternal dependence; a movement which shall usher into the world a new kind of motherhood. I consider this movement important and vital enough to defy all the laws upon the statute-books. I believe it will clear the way not merely for the free discussion of contracepts but for the freedom of expression in Life, Art and Labor, for the right of medical science to experiment with contracepts as it has in the treatment of tuberculosis or any other disease.

I may be arrested, I may be tried and thrown into jail, but I never will be silent; I never will acquiesce or submit to authority, nor will I make peace with a system which degrades woman to a mere incubator and which fattens on her innocent victims. I now and here declare war upon this system and shall not rest until the path has been cleared for a free motherhood and a healthy, joyous and happy childhood.

Mother Earth, v.11 (April 1916), pp. 468-75

mother earth cover

Authority and Sexuality


Getting back to the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss anarchist ideas connecting sexual repression with authoritarianism.

Authority and Sexuality

Anarchists who sought to understand the popular appeal of fascism turned to the work of the dissident Marxist psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). Reich was unpopular in Marxist circles, having described Soviet Communism as “red fascism,” which resulted in his expulsion from the Communist Party. In his book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich discussed the role of the patriarchal nuclear family, legal marriage, enforced monogamy, religion and sexual repression in creating an authoritarian character structure (Volume One, Selection 119).

Reich’s work was similar to the earlier psychoanalytic anarchist critique of Otto Gross (1877-1920), who argued on the eve of the First World War, echoing Max Stirner, that previous revolutions “collapsed because the revolutionary of yesterday carried authority within himself.” Gross believed that “the root of all authority lies in the family,” and that “the combination of sexuality and authority, as it shows itself in the patriarchal family still prevailing today, claps every individuality in chains” (Volume One, Selection 78). Although he put greater emphasis than Reich on the “inner conflict” between “that which belongs to oneself” and the “authority that has penetrated into our own innermost self,” Gross also called for the sexual liberation of women and for a struggle “against the father and patriarchy” (Volume One, Selection 78).

The Japanese anarchist feminist, Takamure Itsue (1894-1964), argued that the ruling class viewed sexual fulfillment “as a mere extravagance for everyone except themselves” and “babies as eggs for their industrial machines… to be chained up within the confinement of the marriage system,” with the burdens of pregnancy, child birth and child rearing being imposed on women. She acknowledged the changes in sexual relations arising from the development of birth control, which potentially gave women more control over their lives, but as with Carmen Lareva and He Zhen before her, warned against mere “promiscuity.” For her, “genuine anarchist love” was based on mutual respect, such that those who seek it can “never be satisfied with recreational sex” (Volume One, Selection 109). The liberalization of marriage laws and the legalization of birth control were not enough, for men would continue to view women as sex objects and deny responsibility for child care.

In Spain, Félix Martí Ibáñez argued that sexual revolution, because it involves the transformation of individual attitudes and relationships, can neither be imposed from above nor completely suppressed by the ruling authorities. The sexual revolution must begin now, “by means of the book, the word, the conference and personal example.” Only then will people be able to “create and forge that sexual culture which is the key to liberation” (Volume One, Selection 121). That this would be no easy task was highlighted by Lucía Sánchez Saornil, one of the founders of the Mujeres Libres anarchist women’s group in Spain. She criticized those anarchist men who used notions of sexual liberation as a pretext for looking “upon every woman who passes their way as a target for their appetites” (Volume One, Selection 123). Such conduct either results in the reduction of women to “a plaything of masculine whims,” or alienates them from participation in the anarchist movement.

Some anarchists felt that Reich’s analysis overemphasized the role of sexual repression in the rise of fascism. A Spanish article suggested that a “completely healthy and well-balanced individual in terms of his sexual life may be a long way off from being a perfect socialist and a convinced revolutionary fighter,” for “an individual free of bourgeois sexual prejudice may lack all sense of human solidarity” (Volume One, Selection 119).

Others were more enthusiastic. Marie Louise Berneri (1918-1949) endorsed Reich’s argument that the “fear of pleasurable excitation” caused by conventional morality and the legally mandated patriarchal family “is the soil on which the individual re-creates the life-negating ideologies which are the basis of dictatorship.” She also drew on the work of the anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, whose studies indicated that in those societies where people’s sex lives are “allowed to develop naturally, freely and unhampered through every stage of life, with full satisfaction” there are “no sexual perversions, no functional psychoses, no psychoneuroses, no sex murder,” in marked contrast to societies based on the “patriarchal authoritarian family organization.” Berneri accepted Reich’s claim that when his patients “were restored to a healthy sex-life, their whole character altered, their submissiveness disappeared, they revolted against an absurd moral code, against the teachings of the Church, against the monotony and uselessness of their work” (Volume Two, Selection 75). In other words, they became social revolutionaries.

Paul Goodman drew the connection between the repression of homosexual impulses among adolescent males and the war machine. These “boys” are made to feel “ashamed of their acts; their pleasures are suppressed and in their stead appear fistfights and violence.” In the army, “this violent homosexuality, so near the surface but always repressed and thereby gathering tension, turns into a violent sadism against the enemy: it is all knives and guns and bayonets, and raining bombs on towns, and driving one’s lust in the guise of anger to fuck the Japs” (Volume Two, Selection 11).

The libertarian communist, Daniel Guérin (1904-1988), wrote that “patriarchal society, resting on the dual authority of the man over the woman and of the father over the children, accords primacy to the attributes and modes of behaviour associated with virility. Homosexuality is persecuted to the extent that it undermines this construction. The disdain of which woman is the object in patriarchal societies is not without correlation with the shame attached to the homosexual act.” While Guérin urged people “to pursue simultaneously both the social revolution and the sexual revolution, until human beings are liberated completely from the two crushing burdens of capitalism and puritanism,” he agreed with Emma Goldman, Martí Ibáñez, and Paul Goodman that the process of sexual liberation must begin now, not after the revolution. Yet, as with Goodman, he also recognized that the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s “created a whole generation of ‘gay’ young men, profoundly apolitical… a million miles from any conception of class struggle,” casting doubt on the Reichian view that sexual liberation leads to social revolution (Volume Two, Selection 76).

Alex Comfort (1920-2000), who was also a pioneer of sexual liberation, suggested that part of the appeal of fascism lay in people’s consciousness of their own mortality and fear of death. Since “to admit that I am an individual I must also admit that I shall cease to exist,” people take refuge in the belief in “an immortal, invisible and only wise society, which can exact responsibilities and demand allegiances… Each sincere citizen feels responsibility to society in the abstract, and none to the people he kills… Fascism is a refuge from Death in death.” (Volume Two, Selection 20).

Robert Graham


From Fourier to Proudhon

Charles Fourier

Charles Fourier

This is the next installment from the Anarchist Current, my survey of the origins and development of anarchist ideas from ancient China to the present day, which appears as the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Charles Fourier and the Liberation of Desire

A younger contemporary of William Godwin was to have a noticeable influence on the development of anarchist ideas, the French writer, Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Fourier had lived through the French Revolution. Imprisoned for a time, he almost became another victim of the Terror. He witnessed the hoarding and profiteering that occurred during the Revolution and sought to develop a libertarian alternative by which everyone would not only be guaranteed their means of subsistence but would be able to engage in productive work which they themselves found fulfilling. “Morality teaches us to love work,” Fourier wrote, “let it know, then, how to render work lovable” (Volume One, Selection 7).

Fourier recognized that in order to survive in the emerging capitalist economy, workers were compelled to take whatever work they could find, regardless of their personal talents, aptitudes and preferences. They had to work long hours under deplorable conditions, only to see their employers reap the fruits of their labours while they continued to live in poverty. The new economy was “nothing but… a league of the minority which possesses, against the majority which does not possess the necessaries of life.”

Fourier, however, did not advocate revolution. He hoped to attract financial benefactors to fund the creation of communes or “phalanxes” where each person would rotate through a variety of jobs each day, free to choose each task, doing what they found to be enjoyable, giving expression to their talents and passions. Each member of the phalanx would be guaranteed a minimum of material support and remunerated by dividends from the phalanx’s operations. While later anarchists agreed that work should be freely undertaken, enjoyable and fulfilling, rather than an onerous burden, they found Fourier’s more detailed plans regarding the organization of society to be too constrictive and his idea that wealthy benefactors would bankroll the abolition of their own privileged status naïve.

Fourier was an early advocate of sexual liberation. Foreshadowing the work of Wilhelm Reich (Volume One, Selection 119; Volume Two, Selection 75), Fourier argued that people should be free to satisfy their sexual needs and desires, and that the repression of such desires is not only harmful to the individual but one of the foundations of a repressive society (Guérin, Volume Two, Selection 76).

A Phalanstery

A Phalanstery

Proudhon: The Self-Proclaimed Anarchist

In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) declared himself an anarchist in his groundbreaking book, What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government. Karl Marx (1818-1883), later Proudhon’s scornful opponent, at the time praised Proudhon’s book as “the first resolute, pitiless and at the same time scientific” critique of private property (Marx, 1845: 132). To the question posed by the title of the book, Proudhon responded that “property is theft” (Volume One, Selection 8). According to Proudhon, the workers should be entitled to the full value of their labour, not the mere pittance the capitalists doled out to them while keeping the lion’s share for themselves. By arguing that, in this sense, “property is theft,” Proudhon was not giving expression to bourgeois notions of justice, as Marx later claimed (Marx, 1867: 178-179, fn. 2), but was expressing a view of justice held by many workers, that people should enjoy the fruits of their own labours.

That the capitalists were parasites exploiting the workers by depriving them of what was rightfully theirs was to become a common theme in 19th century socialist and anarchist propaganda. In the 1883 Pittsburgh Proclamation of the International Working People’s Association (the so-called “Black International”), the then anarchist collectivist Johann Most (1846-1906) put it this way: “the propertied (capitalists) buy the working force body and soul of the propertyless, for the mere cost of existence (wages) and take for themselves, i.e. steal, the amount of new values (products) which exceeds the price” (Volume One, Selection 55).

Besides declaring property theft, Proudhon boldly proclaimed himself an anarchist, denouncing “the government of man by man” as “oppression.” It is government, through its laws and coercive mechanisms, that protects the property of the capitalists, condemning the workers to lives of servitude and misery. The only just form of society is one in which workers are free to associate, to combine their labour, and to exchange what they produce for products and services of equivalent value, instead of receiving wages “scarcely sufficient to support them from one day to another.” In a society based on equivalent exchange there would no longer be any need for government because those things which make government necessary, such as “pauperism, luxury, oppression, vice, crime and hunger,” would “disappear from our midst” (Volume One, Selection 8). Proudhon described this form of socialism as “mutualism.”

Proudhon was not the first to have drawn the connection between economic exploitation and political servitude. Bao Jingyan, Winstanley, Maréchal, Godwin and Fourier all made similar arguments. But Proudhon was the first to describe himself as an anarchist. Others were soon to follow.

Robert Graham


Additional References

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 (1867). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976; and The Holy Family (1845). In Selected Writings. Ed. D. McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.


Alex Comfort: Barbarism and Sexual Freedom

In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, subtitled The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), I included selections by the English author, anarchist and anti-militarist, Alex Comfort (1920-2000), including material from Peace and Disobedience (1946), Art and Social Responsibility (1946) and his classic critique of the criminology of power, Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950). Comfort became famous in the 1970s for his gourmet sex guide, The Joy of Sex. Few of his readers realized that he was an anarchist who argued that sexual health and liberation could only be fully achieved through the creation of an anarchist society by individual and mass disobedience  and resistance to existing power structures. Comfort more explicitly draws out these connections in the following excerpts from his 1948 Freedom Press pamphlet, Barbarism and Sexual Freedom: Lectures on the sociology of sex from the standpoint of anarchism.

Alex Comfort

The importance of sexual normality in psychical and social health has been increasingly recognised by psychologists, both as cause and as effect, but like most other workers in medical fields they are inclined to regard sociology which speaks in terms of politics with suspicion—there is a tendency for psychological studies to induce a kind of medical fatalism which equates the revolutionary and the malcontent with the psychical invalid, and regards “adaptation” and “morale” as gods to be bowed down before. But to the sociologist at least “adaptation” is to be regarded in the light of the specific value of the environment to which the subject is adapted—“adaptation” to war, fascism or sterility, for example, is a form of acquiescence which cannot be regarded as a sign of health.

Nobody in medical practice who uses his faculties can fail to be aware that it is largely the social organisation and environment which today is “psychopathic,” rather than its individual components, and if the idea that institutions can be regarded psychically as if they were individuals, or can behave like deranged individuals, is odd or heterodox to those who treat individuals, it is not new in sociology. The public conduct of individuals, from which social mechanisms are composed, is a world increasingly fenced-off from, though governed by the same processes as, personal psychology, and far as conceptions of the group unconscious have gone, they must go further still, assisted by theories derived not only from psychology but from history and zoology, and formulated by such social-biologists as Kropotkin.

I write as an anarchist, that is, as one who rejects the conception of power in society as a force which is both anti-social and unsound in terms of general biological principle. If I have any metaphysical and ethical rule on which to base my ideas, it is that of human solidarity and mutual aid against a hostile environment, the psychical and moral counterpart of the biological forces of adaptation which lead to phylogenetic change. It is in terms of these forces that human individuals, and human societies, exist or succumb, and the sexual impulse, whether we regard it as the Eros of Freud or as a force of purely biochemical status (they are not mutually exclusive), is in itself so essential a manifestation of this species-solidarity, and of the attempt and will to survive, that its submergence or diversion is a danger-signal in any society. A society which orientates itself toward life and human solidarity is a civilisation—one which orientates itself exclusively towards death and allies itself with the purely anti-human status of non-existence, non-living, asociality, is barbarism. Every indication points to the steady movement of Western cultures away from the first, and towards the second.

Since I am concerned… mainly to discuss sexual ethics in a non-medical context, I have said less than I would wish about the reverse aspect of sexuality and psychology, the effect of individual maladaptations on the social pattern. Societies cannot manufacture new evils, though they can aggravate existing ones. After a certain point the process of social imbalance and private neurosis becomes a vicious circle—each generation reinforces the errors of the last, until new factors enter to alter the pattern. It is not easy for the physiologist to mould the Freudian Eros and Thanatos to his own rather different conception of instincts, but they exist at the physiological level, if only as facilitation-patterns, which higher cortical processes can take over and employ in the more complex patterns of social conduct—thus sadism is unquestionably in part an exaggeration of a component in normal mating-behaviour, but it is also a process which can be taken over and assimilated by aggressiveness, conditioned as a source of sexual pleasure by experience, and substituted for normal, sexuality by deprivation—the mind is somewhat like an instrument which can play innumerable tunes on a limited number of chords, and in which any note once struck evokes overtones at both higher and lower levels of cerebral activity. The importance of the physiological conception is that this impulse, together with aggression and masochism, is both a component of the desire to govern and a means consciously employed by government—one can deliberately manufacture sadists by conditioning and it is a feature of barbarism that it does so—one can also make them by the destruction of creative freedom:

“The individual must be vouchsafed the opportunity to gratify the life-instinct of providing food, shelter, and the release of the sexual urge in socially accepted ways—otherwise frustration with its train of neurotic manifestations may fortify the death instinct… Suicide and all manifestations of masochism derive from the death-instinct. So do homicide, war, and that complex of aggressions known as the sadistic impulse. Love in all its sexual connotations springs from the life-instinct… The ascendancy of either one spells life or death for the individual” (A.J. Levine).

One might add that it spells life or death for the society of which the individual forms a part. Apart from sociology there can be no coherent psychology, any more than one can comprehend the biology and behaviour of ants by reference to one individual. And apart from individual realisation and action history is only too often a catalogue of futility and folly which would turn the stomach of any masochist. The factual history of power in society bears the same relationship to communal health as the works of de Sade bear to individual normality, save that it is real, not fantastic.

Either it is true that humanity by intelligence and by the practice of mutual aid and direct action can reverse processes which appear socially inevitable, or humanity will become extinct by simple maladaptation… I believe it to be the duty of psychology and medicine, for which they are particularly suited, to initiate the process of sociological change by prescribing conscientious, intelligent and responsible disobedience and resistance by individuals towards irresponsible power-institutions such as war, military service, and other forms of coercion—not as a sub-intelligent revolt of psychopaths but as a fully conscious and deliberate re-adoption of human responsibility. That a man should recognise and fight against his traditional enemies, Death, Power, and Fear, is the first step towards normality and freedom; and with this cause the psychologist must be prepared to ally himself if he is not willing to become a traitor to his vocation and to his species…

Physicians, more than any others, are apt to accept reformist methods because they are obliged in conscience to palliate, when they cannot cure. The “cause” of gonorrhoea is not the gonococcus; it is at present just, as much “caused” by Hitler, his opponents, London, Berlin, Glasgow, unemployment. We can kill or segregate the organisms, but it is not always possible to deal with the other causes by similarly immediate measures. Reformist activity, in sexual, matters, as in other branches of medicine, has achieved a certain amount, within its somewhat narrow limitations. It has at least brought matters into a state where they can be openly discussed. But for the investigator faced with the social problem of venereal infection, reform has reached its limits. Without the removal of war, no further progress is possible, and the roots of war lie in the structure of power—regulated societies.

The impact of political and sociological theory and action on medicine are nowhere so marked as in the field of sexual hygiene—the physician to whom public health is something more than the passive acceptance of public disease has reached the limit of his resources, and behind the psychical illnesses and the syphilis lie tuberculosis, malnutrition, occupational trauma, premature senility, and a host of conditions, all manifestly and grossly conditioned by social forces, which legions of social-workers, millions of pounds and excellent intentions are wholly impotent to tackle. There is the problem, and there are its causes—the logic of medicine is, or ought to be, capable of the decision involved. And yet the natural recalcitrance of the individual shows signs of outpacing the scientific observer—it does not need [Lewis] Mumford and [Patrick] Geddes to tell the city-dweller that his life is unhealthy, uneconomic and directed towards death and nullity, or [Carl] Jung to tell him that his family relationships are distorted out of all recognition, or Boyd Orr and McCance to tell the peasants and workers of huge areas of the world that they are starving. The social conditioning of venereal disease and prostitution, like that of war and power, is increasingly obvious, and the remedy lies jointly in the hands of the scientific worker and the public—it is with the individual that the ultimate power of action, if only by an unconstructive but effective recalcitrance to bad institutions, rests. Without this, the enormous resources of experimental science are bound to be in a great measure nullified and wasted.


Coercive morality, like coercive society, is breaking down. It cannot be reformed, only replaced by freedom or by a repetition of past errors. And while to a certain extent the individual can reform his own sexual life, and practice the freedom which I have described, we have to face the fact that until coercive societies are destroyed we cannot attain any general measure of biological normality. So long as it has megalopolitanism and war to contend with, sexuality cannot be in any sense normal. He who wants to eat must work— he who wants to attain a normal and satisfying sexual relationship, based on love, freedom, and responsibility for himself and his children must be prepared to fight for it by disobedience. Sexual freedom and political tyranny cannot co-exist, and it is to be hoped and expected that humanity, driven and inspired by the urgency with which its nature demands the first, will destroy the second.

It is because the whole emphasis of anarchist thought is upon the removal of power and the refusal to employ power-institutions as a vehicle for reformist measures that it seems to me to embody the most comprehensive and scientifically legitimate approach to sexual ethics. I think I have made it clear that the closeness of the relation between this branch of human conduct and social institutions in general makes it impossible to modify either except by way of the other. A general outbreak of public resistance to militarism would contribute more to the removal of sexual imbalance than any action through the channels which we have come to regard as political. The problem is that of human freedom, and human freedom has little to do with institutions or the reform of institutions. Yet there is a stronger case for reformist action as a stop-gap treatment in this field than in any other. While we cannot excise the problem radically until megalopolitanism destroys itself or is superseded through the direct action of peoples, that does not mean that we can afford to withhold first-aid measures.

Scientific research to devise a genuinely reliable contraceptive is of much importance. The continuance of public pressure through the machinery of power, as well as against it, seems to me well worthwhile. There are certain limited objectives, the end of conscription, the abolition of literary censorship, the destruction of the mediaeval elements in sexual law, and a wide dissemination of erotic knowledge and technique, all of them reasonably accessible to direct public pressure within the existing framework of society, in which many people who do not accept the ideological implications of much that I have said would be able to co-operate. Constructive experiments in communal health such as the Peckham Experiment [see Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action] contribute more to mental and physical hygiene than oceans of welfare services and good intentions. Reform of the penal treatment of sexual offenders, repeal of laws such as those relating to nudity and to indecent literature, and other measures such as the extension of child, adolescent, and adult sex education have impressive support. While they are in no sense a substitute for a free society they are a means toward it, and insofar as any victory for reasonable and biologically-founded principle over fear and irrationalism is a victory for man, such advances, however obtained, are in fact the means of a wider and more fundamental revolution in the structure of living.

The initial milieu of all such education is the family, and it is to the extension of knowledge through parental teaching and example that I feel science must attempt to direct itself. The influence of health instruction through guidance and child welfare clinics is already apparent in an increased rationality in parental attitudes towards masturbation and adult attitudes towards taboo manifestations of sexuality. A wider and more courageous encouragement and toleration of pre-adult sexual play among adolescents and an extension of the teaching of erotics to adults are both desirable on the evidence at our disposal. By such means the extension of the rational attitude, of the motto of Rabelais’ Abbey of Thelema, “Do what you will,” with the added clause, “provided it harms no-one,” may be brought about. If there is a single phrase to write over the door of the marriage guidance clinic, it is “There is nothing to fear.”

But advances in this field join hands at every point with the need for advances in education, in social living, and in the forgotten art of being human. At present there is evidence that the most educated groups, by long study and struggle, are regaining the kind of normality which is general in the behaviour of lower animals. Like all forms of sociological investigation, sexual knowledge finds that it can make little effective progress without the total reorientation of society toward the concepts of freedom and individual responsibility which recur throughout modern work, but time is short, and the tendency of events is running strongly in the direction of increased coercion. In such circumstances, while study and investigation are essential, it is with the active resistance of the individual to these trends, by the power of disobedience, of non-adaptation to death, that the future of social progress rests. The struggle against power is the concern of psychology and medicine, as of every other science, because it is the concern of man.

Alex Comfort (1920-2000)