Marriage and Morals

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Marriage and Morals (1929) is a book by the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell that questions the Victorian notions of morality regarding sex and marriage.


  • Love as a relation between men and women was ruined by the desire to make sure of the legitimacy of children.
    • Ch. 3: 'Patriarchal System', p. 27
I believe marriage to be the best and most important relation that can exist between two human beings.
Those who have never known the deep intimacy and the intense companionship of happy mutual love have missed the best thing that life has to give...
  • The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.
    • Ch. 5: 'Christian Ethics', p. 58
  • I believe myself that romantic love is the source of the most intense delights that life has to offer. In the relation of a man and woman who love each other with passion and imagination and tenderness, there is something of inestimable value, to be ignorant of which is a great misfortune to any human being.
    • Ch. 6: 'Romantic Love', p. 74
  • It seems to be the fate of idealists to obtain what they have struggled for in a form which destroys their ideals.
    • Ch. 7: 'The Liberation of Women', p. 81
  • If the old morality is to be re-established, certain things are essential; some of them are already done, but experience shows that these alone are not effective. The first essential is that the education of girls should be such as to make them stupid and superstitious and ignorant; this requisite is already fulfilled in schools over which the churches have any control. The next requisite is a very severe censorship upon all books giving information on sex subjects [...] These conditions, however, since they exist already, are clearly insufficient. The only thing that will suffice is to remove from young women all opportunity of being alone with men: girls must be forbidden to earn their living by work outside the home; they must never be allowed an outing unless accompanied by their mother or an aunt; the regrettable practice of going to dances without a chaperon must be sternly stamped out. [...] [P]erhaps it would be wise to subject all unmarried women once a month to medical examination by police doctors, and to send to a penitentiary all such as were found to be not virgins. The use of contraceptives must, of course, be eradicated, and it must be illegal in conversation with unmarried women to throw doubt upon the dogma of eternal damnation. These measures, if carried out vigorously for a hundred years or more, may perhaps do something to stem the rising tide of immorality. I think, however, that in order to avoid the risk of certain abuses, it would be necessary that all policemen and all medical men should be castrated. Perhaps it would be wise to carry this policy a step further, in view of the inherent depravity of the male character. I am inclined to think that moralists would be well advised to advocate that all men should be castrated, with the exception of ministers of religion. Since reading Elmer Gantry, I have begun to feel that even this exception is perhaps not quite wise.
    • Ch. 7, p. 91
  • In the attempt to build up a new sexual morality, the first question we have to ask ourselves is not, How should the relations of the sexes be regulated? but, Is it good that men, women and children should be kept in artificial ignorance of facts relating to sexual affairs? My reason for putting this question first is that, as I shall try to persuade the reader in this chapter, ignorance on such matters is extraordinarily harmful to the individual, and therefore no system whose perpetuation demands such ignorance can be desirable. Sexual morality, I should say, must be such as to commend itself to well-informed persons and not to depend upon ignorance for its appeal.
    • Ch. 8: 'The Taboo on Sex Knowledge,' p. 93
  • It was at first only females who were to be kept ignorant, and their ignorance was desired as help towards masculine domination. Gradually, however, women acquiesced in the view that ignorance is essential to virtue, and partly through their influence it came to be thought that children and young people, whether male or female, should be as ignorant as possible on sexual subjects. At this stage the motive ceased to be one of domination and passed into the region of irrational taboo.
    • Ch. 8: 'The Taboo on Sex Knowledge,' p. 94
  • The traditional course with children was to keep them in as great a degree of ignorance as parents and teachers could achieve....They were told never to touch their sexual organs or speak about them...all questions concerning sex were met by the words "Hush, hush" in a shocked tone. They were informed that children were brought by the stork or dug up under a gooseberry bush. Sooner or later they learnt the facts, usually in a more or less garbled form, from other children, who related them secretly, and, as a result of parental teaching, regarded them as "dirty." The children inferred that their father and mother behaved to each other in a way which was nasty and of which they themselves were ashamed, since they took so much trouble to conceal it. They learnt also that they had been systematically deceived by those to whom they had looked for guidance and instruction. Their attitude towards their parents, toward marriage and towards the opposite sex was thus irrevocably poisoned. Very few men or women who have had a conventional upbringing have learnt to feel decently about sex and marriage. Their education has taught them that deceitfulness and lying are considered virtues by parents and teachers; that sexual relations, even within marriage, are more or less disgusting, and that in propagating the species men are yielding to their animal nature while women are submitting to a painful duty. This attitude has made marriage unsatisfying both to men and to women, and the lack of instinctive satisfaction has turned to cruelty masquerading as morality.
    • Ch. 8: 'The Taboo on Sex Knowledge,' p. 97
  • It is held to be illegal in England to state in a cheap publication that a wife can and should derive sexual pleasure from intercourse. I have myself heard a pamphlet condemned as obscene in a court of law on this among other grounds. It is on the above outlook in regard to sex that the attitude of the law, the Church, and the old-fashioned educators of the young is based.
    • Ch. 8: 'The Taboo on Sex Knowledge', p. 100
  • Before considering the effect of this attitude in the realm of sex, I should like to say a few words about its consequences in other directions. The first and gravest consequence, in my opinion, is the hampering of scientific curiosity in the young. Intelligent children wish to know about everything in the world...In addition to this intellectual damage, there is in most cases a very grave moral damage. As Freud first showed, and as every one intimate with children soon discovers, the fable about the stork and the gooseberry bush are usually disbelieved. The child thus comes to the conclusion that parents are apt to lie to him. If they lie in one matter, they may lie in another, so that their moral and intellectual authority is destroyed.
    • Ch. 8: 'The Taboo on Sex Knowledge', pp. 101–102
  • The fact that a mystery is made about sex enormously increases the natural curiosity of the young on the subject. If adults treat sex exactly as they treat any other topic, giving the child answers to all his questions and just as much information as he desires or can understand, the child never arrives at the notion of obscenity, for this notion depends upon the belief that certain topics should not be mentioned. Sexual curiosity, like every other kind, dies down when it is satisfied. Therefore far the best way to prevent young people from being obsessed with sex is to tell them just as much about it as they care to know.
    • Ch.8: 'The Taboo on Sex Knowledge', pp. 104–105
  • Homosexuality between men, though not between women, is illegal in England, and it would be very difficult to present any argument for change of the law in this respect which would not itself be illegal on the ground of obscenity. And yet every person who has taken the trouble to study the subject knows that this law is the effect of a barbarous and ignorant superstition, in favour of which no rational argument of any sort or kind can be advanced.
    • Ch. 8, p. 110
  • [E]ven frank pornography would do less harm if it were open and unashamed than it does when it is rendered interesting by secrecy and stealth.
    • Ch. 8, p. 114
  • The frequency with which a man experiences lust depends upon his own physical condition, whereas the occasions which rouse such feelings in him depend upon the social conventions to which he is accustomed. To an early Victorian man a woman's ankles were sufficient stimulus, whereas a modern man remains unmoved by anything up to the thigh. This is merely a question of fashion in clothing. If nakedness were the fashion, it would cease to excite us, and women would be forced, as they are in certain savage tribes, to adopt clothing as a means of making themselves sexually attractive. Exactly similar considerations apply to literature and pictures; what was exciting in the Victorian age would leave the men of a franker epoch quite unmoved. The more prudes restrict the permissible degree of sexual appeal, the less is required to make such an appeal effective. Nine-tenths of the appeal of pornography is due to the indecent feelings concerning sex which moralists inculcate in the young; the other tenth is physiological, and will occur in one way or another whatever the state of the law may be. On these grounds, although I fear that few will agree with me, I am firmly persuaded that there ought to be no law whatsoever on the subject of obscene publications.
    • Ch. 8, pp. 115–116
There is only one way to avoid indecency, and that is to avoid mystery.
  • The taboo against nakedness is an obstacle to a decent attitude on the subject of sex... It is good for children to see each other and their parents naked whenever it so happens naturally. There will be a short period, probably at about three years old, when the child is interested in the differences between his father and his mother, and compares them with the differences between himself and his sister, but this period is soon over, and after this he takes no more interest in nudity than in clothes. So long as parents are unwilling to be seen naked by their children, the children will necessarily have a sense that there is a mystery, and having that sense they will become prurient and indecent. There is only one way to avoid indecency, and that is to avoid mystery.
    • Ch. 8, p. 116
  • There are also many important grounds of health in favour of nudity in suitable circumstances, such as out-of-doors in sunny weather. Sunshine on the bare skin has an exceedingly health-giving effect. Moreover anyone who has watched children running about in the open-air without their clothes must have been struck by the fact that they hold themselves much better and move more freely and more gracefully than when they are dressed. The same thing is true of grown-up people. The proper place for nudity is out-of-doors in the sunshine and in the water. If our conventions allowed of this, it would soon cease to make any sexual appeal; we should all hold ourselves better, we should be healthier from the contact of air and sun with the skin, and our standards of beauty would more nearly coincide with standards of health, since they would concern themselves with the body and its carriage, not only with the face. In this respect the practice of the Greeks was to be commended.
    • Ch. 8, pp. 116–117
  • Love is something far more than desire for sexual intercourse; it is the principal means of escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater part of their lives.
    • Ch. 9: 'The Place of Love in Human Life', p. 122
Nature did not construct human beings to stand alone...
  • Passionate mutual love while it lasts... breaks down the hard walls of the ego, producing a new being composed of two in one. Nature did not construct human beings to stand alone, since they cannot fulfil her biological purpose except with the help of another; and civilized people cannot fully satisfy their sexual instinct without love ... Those who have never known the deep intimacy and the intense companionship of happy mutual love have missed the best thing that life has to give; unconsciously, if not consciously, they feel this, and the resulting disappointment inclines them towards envy, oppression and cruelty. To give due place to passionate love should be therefore a matter which concerns the sociologist, since, if they miss this experience, men and women cannot attain their full stature, and cannot feel towards the rest of the world that kind of generous warmth without which their social activities are pretty sure to be harmful.
    • Ch. 9, p. 123
  • Even in civilised mankind faint traces of a monogamic instinct can sometimes be perceived.
    • Ch. 10: 'Marriage', p. 131
  • I hold, of course, as every humane person must, that divorce should be granted on more grounds than are admitted in the English law, but I do not recognise in easy divorce a solution of the troubles of marriage. Where a marriage is childless, divorce may be often the right solution, even when both parties are doing their best to behave decently; but where there are children the stability of marriage is to my mind a matter of considerable importance... I think that, where a marriage is fruitful and both parties to it are reasonable and decent, the expectation ought to be that it will be lifelong, but not that it will exclude other sex relations.
    • Ch. 10, p. 142
  • I believe marriage to be the best and most important relation that can exist between two human beings.
    • Ch. 10, p. 143
I should not hold it desirable that either a man or a woman should enter upon the serious business of a marriage intended to lead to children without having had previous sexual experience.
To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead.
  • Marriage is for women the commonest mode of livelihood, and the total amount of undesired sex endured by women is probably greater in marriage than in prostitution.
    • Ch. 11: 'Prostitution', p. 153
  • I should not hold it desirable that either a man or a woman should enter upon the serious business of a marriage intended to lead to children without having had previous sexual experience.
    • Ch. 12: 'Trial Marriage', p. 166
  • The psychology of adultery has been falsified by conventional morals, which assume, in monogamous countries, that attraction to one person cannot coexist with a serious affection for another. Everybody knows that this is untrue.
    • Ch. 16: 'Divorce', p. 231
  • Eugenics is of two sorts, positive and negative. The former is concerned with the encouragement of good stocks, the latter with the discouragement of bad ones. The latter is at present more practicable. It has, indeed, made great strides in certain States in America, and the sterilisation of the unfit is within the scope of immediate practical politics in England. The objections to such a measure which one naturally feels are, I believe, not justified.
    • Ch. 18: 'Eugenics', pp. 258–259
  • Science enables us to realise our purposes, and if our purposes are evil, the result is disaster.
    • Ch. 18: 'Eugenics', p. 268
  • To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead.
    • Ch. 19: 'Sex and Individual Well-Being', p. 287
  • Gluttony is regarded by the Catholic Church as one of the seven deadly sins, and those who practise it are placed by Dante in one of the deeper circles of hell; but it is a somewhat vague sin, since it is hard to say where a legitimate interest in food ceases and guilt begins to be incurred. Is it wicked to eat anything that is not nourishing? If so, with every salted almond we risk damnation.
    • Ch. 20: 'The Place of Sex Among Human Values', p. 290
  • I am not suggesting that there should be no morality and no self-restraint in regard to sex, any more than in regard to food. In regard to food we have restraints of three kinds, those of law, those of manners, and those of health. We regard it as wrong to steal food, to take more than our share at a common meal, and to eat in ways that are likely to make us ill. Restraints of a similar kind are essential where sex is concerned, but in this case they are much more complex and involve much more self-control. Moreover, since one human being ought not to have property in another, the analogue of stealing is not adultery, but rape, which obviously must be forbidden by law. The questions that arise in regard to health are concerned almost entirely with venereal disease.
    • Ch. 20, p. 294
  • Joy of life... depends upon a certain spontaneity in regard to sex. Where sex is repressed, only work remains, and a gospel of work for work's sake never produced any work worth doing.
    • Ch. 20, p. 297
  • The desire to understand the world and the desire to reform it are the two great engines of progress without which human society would stand still or retrogress.
    • Ch. 20, p. 301
  • So long as there is death there will be sorrow, and so long as there is sorrow it can be no part of the duty of human beings to increase its amount, in spite of the fact that a few rare spirits know how to transmute it.
    • Ch. 20, p. 302

Quotes about Marriage and Morals[edit]

  • An audacious and provocative book, in which truths are spiced with half-truths, and Mr Russell's scepticism and his dogmatism wage their familiar conflict.
    • New Statesman, as quoted in Let the people think: a selection of essays by Bertrand Russell (1941), p. 119

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