Theo Rothstein May 1899

The Ethics of Sex Relationships

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. III, No. 5, May, 1899, pp.142-146;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In venturing to approach the above subject I do not think I need offer any apology for adding one more name to the long roll of those who from the time of Plato down to our own have made attempts to grapple with it, and for hoping - as, in fact, every earnest writer is in conscience bound to hope  - to succeed where my predecessors have failed. The problem is one of profoundest interest and importance to mankind; indeed, throughout the entire range of human life and thought we can hardly find another which has stirred so deeply the passions of men and baffled so completely the work and wisdom of ages; but this, if at all taken as a measure of our attitude towards it, ought rather to serve as an incitement to our efforts and bid welcome to every endeavour, however small, humble, and obscure, than deter us from any further attempt in this direction. And especially is it so at this very moment. We are on the eve of a great social upheaval; on the rising waves of the transition tide our boat is being tossed to and fro, and sharp must be the eye and firm the hand of the steersman who wants to land in the quiet harbour. Our ethical consciousness is put under the severest strain; there is a wide discrepancy between it and the stern reality of fact, and unless we keep our heads clear and possess nerve enough, we may wreck our frail vessel of life on the cliffs and treacherous sands of moral wrong.

Gross ist die Zeit und gewaltig; doch wehe, wenn unsere Herzen
nicht rein sind.[1]

In no other domain, however, is this discrepancy greater, and conse­quently felt more acutely, than in that of the right and ought of sexual rela­tions. We have outgrown by now the old conception handed down to us by ascetic Christianity which regarded those relations as in themselves sinful and unholy, and come to recognise the truth that sex-love is an organic want and function, having the same right to satisfaction and exercise as any other in the physiological equipment of man. Even more; with the advent of a new morality which proclaimed the full and healthy development of our entire physical and spiritual nature to be the supreme good to be worked and striven for, the suppression of the sexual impulse has become in the eyes of men a thing as odious as it was before virtuous. No person, says our new conception of life, on reaching maturity can be held in duty bound to eliminate that important item of his nature; more than that, he has no right to do so if he ever wishes to live a life rich in all human experience - that is, to live an ethical life. But how is this to be achieved? How is this to be realised? Happy the man or woman who meets in his or her life-course some one to their liking But what of the rest? There are thousands upon thousands in every rank and class of society who for some reason or other are condemned to walk their life long in lonely paths, standing little or no chance of ever meeting one to love and be loved by, and of tasting to the full of the cup of human happiness. What about them? Are they destined to play the part of children disinherited by blind and cruel mother Nature, or may they fight for their birthright by some other means? What are they to do? Their right to sexual happiness is absolute; is their ought also absolute in the sense of furnishing a complete justification for every and any means they might use with a view of asserting that right? May they, for instance, have recourse to prostitution - apart from any humanitarian consideration attached to it - in case their physio­logical need cries for satisfaction? Or, if this be not allowed, can, say, mutual consent or mutual respect form the basis on which the sexual impulse may find its opportunity for realisation?

Such are the questions that beset the modern man standing on the threshold of the twentieth century. They are no more academical than life itself. Children of reality, creatures of the time, they have been called forth by the rise of a new ethical ideal to which the present state of things lends no hope of ever being attained. As such, they stand and wait and implore and press for an immediate answer. What, then, is that answer to be? How are we going to realise the physiological and moral requirement of an emancipated sexual life under conditions which give a favourable chance but to a selected few?

A brief examination of the nature and working of the sexual impulse will go far toward the elucidation of the problem. That at its base it is nothing but a physically organic phenomenon will hardly be disputed nowadays. Whatever the construction, true or false, put upon it by the idealising philosopher, it is in its essence the reproductive instinct pure and simple found throughout the entire series of organisms from the simplest amoeba up to the highest embodiment of life, the human being. It is present everywhere - in the weird movements of the infusoria at the pairing season, no less than in the embraces and kisses of human lovers. It constitutes the motive power as well as the end of all activities that mark the relations of man and woman in their sexual capacity. Sappho plaintively musing on her cliff, Tibullus singing the sweet rustic virtues of his Delia, Wolfram von Eschenbach addressing Elizabeth as his lofty guiding star (in "Tannhauser"), the Bushman who stuns the female of a neighbouring tribe with a blow of his club, the victorious knight who kneels before the queen of the tournament to receive his wreath, the modern youth who dreams of making his female friend the comrade of his labours and struggles and triumphs - all of them are actuated in the last instance in nothing else but - to put it bluntly  - by the desire to get an outlet to their reproductive impulse. It is of no use denying it; so much has been established by modern science, by psychology and physiology, and all the talk to the contrary, sentimental and quasi-idealistic, in which poets, metaphysicians, parsons, and hypocrites are wont to indulge, is of no avail.

But if this is the truth it is not the entire truth. In the actual working of the sexual impulse there is something else to be seen than the bare physical instinct such as we have depicted. There is over and above it a sort of mental superstructure of different complexity, having been built up in the course of the organic evolution of the world. Leaving aside the first asexual stage in the history of the reproductive function - a stage of which we know too little to speak with any confidence - we see how with every step in the scale of organic beings, from the protozoa right up to homo sapiens, a set of psychical reactions, growing in their number, type, and interdependence, is being formed round the primary physical nucleus. Of course, at the beginning these reactions are but few and elementary, largely of a motor kind; but with the progress of the series they grow more and more complex till they reach their culminating point in man, whose sexual instinct has become completely wrapped up in them. And what is more, being at the start but mere accompaniments, poor and undeterminate, of the physiological function at the pairing moment, they gradually acquire an ever larger importance, extending at the same time ever further and further beyond the limits of the pairing moment, till in man they form in their aggregate a highly-wrought state, mental and moral, which seems entirely to hide the physical element beneath its richly and delicately-carved ornamentation, and which actually covers an incomparably larger ground both on this and the other side than that taken up by the sexual moment. And what is true of the organic series as a whole is also true, to a great extent, of the human species in its history and co-existence. One needs only compare the few and scanty and fleeting emotions manifested by the savage with the high emotional and intellectual state which characterises the cultured member of a civilised community, to see that the further up we go in the scale of develop­ment - racial no less than organic, and shall we say individual no less than racial? - the more intricate and delicate and durable becomes the psychical superstructure that has been built upon the physical substratum of the sexual impulse. In short, whilst the reproductive want and function forms everywhere the basis of sexual relations, it has become, in the course of evolution - organic and human - intimately bound up with a complexity of states of the psychological order which in the case of man is covered by the term Love.

Now, not entering into the particularisation of those states, we can per­ceive at once how very distinctly our conclusions point to the right rule of conduct in the matter of sexual relations. For if in the light of our ethical consciousness it is not only our right, but even our duty, not to suppress our natural wants, our physical requirements, how much more is it so with regard to those equally natural wants - the mental requirements! In other words, if in the capacity of living organic beings we consider it an ethical postulate to insist upon the complete emancipation of our physio­logical needs - of our sexual impulse, to wit - how much more ought we, in the capacity of living human beings, to insist upon the free development of the psychical accompaniments of those needs - i.e., of Love! Love, as an idealistic phenomenon has, in the course of our organic and human history, become ingrained in the sexual impulse, the materialistic phenomenon; are we, acting on our ethical principles, going to violently separate the two and assert one, the materialistic phenomenon, to the suppression of the other - the idealistic The answer is plain: we are not going to do it, because we cannot and must not do it. In the name of that which is best in us, which we think to be best for us, we have revolted against the injunctions of the old morality which required us to eliminate one of the most important elements of our physical nature; and surely we are not going in the face of that to submit to the precepts of a fin-de-siècle morality which in the intoxication of that revolt falls into the opposite, yet exactly identical, extremity, and bids us to divest ourselves of a most important element of our spiritual nature. Both elements must go side by side and hand in hand, to loosen the bonds that unite them, and to ignore one for the sake of the other would mean nothing short of a violation of the principle from the platform of which we have raised our first protest.

Here, then, we have the line of conduct clearly defined before us. All sexual relations not based upon, not accompanied by, or, rather, sanctioned by love, are impure and immoral. Just as we have summoned the Christian ascetics and the so-called or miscalled platonic love before the bar of our new morality and found them wanting, so we judge now the opposite doctrine of purely physical sex-love and find it also wanting, more wanting, in fact, than the former in proportion as we place the ideal element of our nature on a higher plane than the material one. Consequently, neither prostitution, because of - again apart from any humanitarian consideration  - its brutal lack of the ideal element, nor mutual consent, because of its total inadequacy as a substitution for the entire set of emotions and ideas which characterises Love and of which it forms but one, and that not the most important, item, nor, lastly, mutual respect, because of its utter, so to speak, incommensurability with the sexual impulse, can form the basis or justification for sexual relations: it is Love, and only Love, in its manifold., forms of manifestation, that can supply the necessary ethical sanction to the men and women who decide to yield to their natural desire.

If, now, from these broad avenues of theory we descend to the narrow paths of everyday life and ask what then is it to do with the present genera­tion of men and women who want to live an ethical life - that is, a life both sexually and physically emancipated in the sense just pointed out - but are not fortunate enough to love and be loved, we shall be driven to give an answer which may mean nothing, but really means much. That answer, is: nothing, nothing can they do. It is the case of the proletarian, or let unsay, rather of the capitalist, to whom the iniquity of his position in life is pointed out and who in anguish and despair exclaims: "What, then, can I do?" Nothing can he do - nothing so long as the present state of things exists. If he has courage enough to throw up that position and to turn from the exploiter that he is to be an exploited, well and good - he is our hero and all honour to him. If not, if he be an ordinary man, or prefers out of some consideration to go on as he did before, then he must be ready to -submit to the pollution of his ethical self and be immoral. To be moral and not to be exploited is at the present moment impossible, and the solu­tion of the dilemma lies beyond the charmed circle of morality-cum-capitalism.

Just the same stands the case with sexual ethics. If under the present conditions, which give a chance of selecting and being selected to very few, a person possesses self-control enough to keep chaste and to wait till his turn of love comes, well and good; he is our hero because he is "able to receive and receives it." But if he is not that person, or if he waits and waits and his turn never arrives and he succumbs under the weight of his physiological need, well, he may perhaps be excused, but he is all the same immoral. A stain, an indelible, burning stain, which will make him hateful to his mother, sister, and every pure-minded man and woman in the community - has been formed on his ethical character, and he may smart under it, he may weep and despair, but he cannot help it.

And yet he can help, if not in his own case, then in that of his children and children's children. Just as to the capitalist there is no way out of the dilemma which confronts him in his economical and moral life except by overstepping it, that is, by doing away altogether with the state of society which calls that dilemma out, so the individual to whom the problem of sexual relations presents a charmed circle can only solve it from outside, that is, by applying the social lever. He must work for a state of society in which there will be no classes to act as barriers between man and man, no differences in education, manners and habits of thought all consequent upon class-divisions, to serve as hard and fast lines drawn round small circles of individuals, and no private property to bring into the play of the sexual instinct an element, always foreign and only too often antagonistic to our moral feelings. We must move for a state of society in which every person will have the opportunity of coming into contact and of forming friendship with all his fellow citizens, where equality of education and free interchange of ideas will level down any artificial obstacles in the mental and moral sphere, and where the collective ownership of wealth will do away with the pecuniary considerations of the present day which too often either forbid Love or suppress it, or compel to live a sexual life when Love is no more. Then he will have brought about such conditions of existence as will allow the sexual instinct an ample field of operation, together with a free and unfettered mode of self-assertion, and every man and woman in the community will have their chance of meeting one they can love and be loved by, and to lead a sexual life that will be at the same time an ethical life.

Need I add what that society will be? It will be a Socialist society, as foretold by the loftiest thinker of antiquity; a perfect morality in a perfect society.



[1] Great is the time and awful; but woe, if our hearts are not pure. – R.. HAMMERLING, "The King of Zion."