Sex, love and persecution: William J Chidley (1860-1916)

NAA: A1861, 336

A little over a century ago Australian sex reformer William Chidley was repeatedley locked away in mental asylums for speaking openly to women about sex. Of particular moral concern to the authorities were his pamphlets ‘The Answer’, which he dedicated to “womankind”.

“I give Australians this mission in the world: – Shepherd my Book! Oh! Shepherd my Book! Remember, it is the One hope for Humanity. Let those read it who want to; its truth will become apparent in time. The human race must return to (1) natural coition, (2) to nudity, and (3) to a natural diet: fruit and nuts only; and each of these depend on the other two. Only thus can you obtain mutual Joy, Love, and Content.”

‘The Answer’ was seen to be so dangerous by the guardians of public morality in Australia that it was eventually suppressed by The Supreme Court in 1914 with Chidley put in compulsory detention in an asylum on the grounds that he was insane and a danger to public morals.

So what was so dangerous about Chidley that he had to be locked away by society, over and over again? Well, primarily it was his concept of “natural coition”. Although his promotion of vegetarianism, fresh air, sunlight, unrestrictive clothing and an anti tobacco, alcohol and opium stance didn’t make him too many friends either. Chidley believed that women should be the dominant sexual force in coitus, asserting that “false coition makes villains of us all”. Not surprisingly, women were fascinated with Chidley’s views. Rose Scott, a prominant feminist and social hostess of the time, was so taken with Chidley’s ideas that she organised ladies only public meetings so women could hear him speak about naturism, vegetarianism and most importantly, sex reform.

Chidley’s key idea “natural coition” was about taking the primacy of erection away from sex and instead focusing on the female’s body. He argued in a quaint C19th way that the snake in the Garden of Eden was in fact an erect penis. He felt that an erect penis was primarily due to “nervous irritation” and that the obsession with erections was inherently unhealthy (remember this was an era when Freud and Reich’s ideas were gaining influence and “nervous” complaints were often attributed to psycho-sexual forces). So without an erection, how did Chidley argue sex was possible? Rather than concentrating on the man’s body, Chidley argued that the woman’s body should be “erect” at the time of intercourse. Through foreplay, the woman’s vagina could suck a flaccid penis up through vacuum force, thus eliminating nervous irritation in sex for both parties. Women loved his ideas!

One of the possibly more kookier aspects of Chidley’s view on sex, was that as with animals in nature, sexual relations should only occur in Spring (and it was his notion that we are animals in that sense that led him to view the female as the dominant sexual player). So despite being an obsessive sexual reformer, Chidley advocated sexual restraint…and yet was condemned for sexual immorality.

Chidley hit the streets of Melbourne with copies of The Answer’ and kept on delivering his “immoral” public talks. He was continually harassed by police and left for Sydney. He was an arresting sight; tall and suntanned, wearing only a short, white cotton tunic with bare arms, legs, feet and quelle horreur, bare head! So arresting in fact, that he was charged twice with offensive behaviour and fined numerous times for breaking by-laws etc. In 1912 the self appointed moral guardians of Australian society had ensured he was deemed insane by The Lunacy Court (yes, there was such a thing) and he was sent packing to Callan Park mental Hospital. His case was debated in the Legislative Assembly with his defenders questioning the misuse of the power to certify.

Eventually he was released on the proviso that he wear a man’s “ordinary clothes”, stop selling his publications and desist from public speaking. He refused…and was certified insane again, then released 5 days later. In 1916 he was again deemed insane and took his appeal to The Supreme Court. He tried to commit suicide in gaol. He lost his appeal and was certified and locked away again. He died of heart failure in Callan Park Mental Hospital a few months later at the age of 56.

What was so terribly dangerous about William J Chidley? Essentially it was because he preached a doctrine of gentleness, mutual joy and love in male/female human relations. Dangerous ideas indeed in a patriarchal society on the verge of war.

Vale WJC.


About Mari McNifique

Astrologer, counsellor, kinesiologist and social worker View all posts by Mari McNifique

3 responses to “Sex, love and persecution: William J Chidley (1860-1916)

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