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"Science and Sympathy" or "Sexual Subversion on a Human Basis"? Anarchists in Spain and the World League for Sexual Reform
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Journal of the History of Sexuality 12.1 (2003) 110-121



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"Science and Sympathy" or "Sexual Subversion on a Human Basis"?
Anarchists in Spain and the World League for Sexual Reform

Richard Cleminson
University of Bradford


The problem of dealing with Prostitution and Venereal Disease should be approached with science and sympathy and not with moral disapproval.

—Resolution of the Third Congress of the WLSR, 1929 1

Prostitution is above all the daughter of poverty and cannot be cured with a cup of tea, a piece of cake, and some moral statements.

—Federica Montseny, 1927 2

TO MANY CONTEMPORARIES, the resolutions on prostitution and other matters associated with sexuality adopted by the World League for Sexual Reform (WLSR) seemed bold, but some political radicals—Marxists and anarchists alike—criticized the WLSR for what they saw as a timorous approach and an inability to effect real change in the sphere of sexual relations. These radicals, including some who were actually involved in the WLSR, believed that sexual change could occur only as part of a broader endeavor to alter the social and political conditions in which the general population lived. The involvement of the revolutionary Left in the various national chapters of the WLSR is an ongoing subject for research. Some work has been done on the Communist Party's possible connections to [End Page 110] the German chapter but almost none on the involvement of the radical Left in the WLSR in Spain; indeed, all research on the Spanish chapter of the WLSR is very much in its early stages. 3 In this essay I explore the extent to which Spanish anarchists were engaged with both the international body and the Spanish chapter of the WLSR. My chief sources are anarchist periodicals published in eastern Spain, in Catalonia and Valencia, where the "cultural" expression of anarchism was most advanced. Such engagement with the WLSR, which straight away should be qualified as minimal, must be considered in the context of a much broader sexual reform movement, which had been promoted by some sectors of Spanish anarchism since the late nineteenth century and reached its height in the 1920s and 1930s.

The WLSR was essentially a progressive liberal organization devoted to implementing a number of proposals, some far-reaching for the time, to alter the contours of lived sexual experience and morality. Composed of many national chapters or sections and open to different political viewpoints, the WLSR was ill at ease with itself. A constant tension existed among its members between a desire for scientific respectability (something that sexology had sought since its mid- to late-nineteenth-century inception) and a commitment to the radical reform of sexual morality. The WLSR was caught between a respect for institutionalized scientific process and a more demanding radical agenda; some adherents within and many others without (e.g., Wilhelm Reich) sought nothing less than the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism as a necessary pre- or cocondition for lasting and profound sex reform. This much can be seen from the diverse contributors to the WLSR congresses and the tone of their interventions. According to one participant in the WLSR from 1928 onward, "Valuable material was presented in the papers and discussions at its four congresses . . . but at the same time strong currents of divergent opinion became manifest in its membership." 4

Despite these divergences, the WLSR was able to assemble an international group of people to pursue a number of common projects, such as ending sexual hypocrisy, securing equal rights for women and men, providing sex education, and liberalizing the treatment of homosexuals. In some countries, such as Spain, the WLSR became the principal institutional forum for the relatively new sciences of sexology and "eugenics." [End Page 111]

The small but vociferous groups that criticized the WLSR's activities were often allied to Marxist or anarchist political ideologies, were sometimes informed by radical neo-Malthusianism, and may have been part of trade union organizations. One could easily exaggerate the interconnectivity between the...