Alice Bunker Stockham's "Karezza: Ethics of Marriage"

Marnia's picture
Submitted by Marnia on
Printer-friendly version

"Finding the Kingdom of Heaven in Your Own Hearts"

Rodin's Kiss

With Karezza, satiety is never known, and the married are never less than lovers; each day reveals new delights….The common daily sarcasms of married people are at an end, the unseemly quarrels have no beginnings and the divorce courts are cheated of their records.

More than a century ago, a remarkable woman coined the term "Karezza" (Italian for "caress") in her book, Karezza: Ethics of Marriage. [1] Alice Bunker Stockham, MD counsels avoiding orgasm during sex for the same reasons as does Cupid's Poisoned Arrow, namely: better health, and greater harmony and spiritual attainment.

Stockham was a Quaker born in 1833 on the American frontier, which, at that time, included her native Ohio. She grew up in a log cabin in close proximity to Native Americans, whom she regarded with respect. She became one of the first five US women doctors when she graduated from the only institute of higher learning in the West to admit women. She married a doctor and they had two children.

Although she was a general practitioner, she specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. Fifteen years before she wrote Karezza, she authored a popular text entitled, Tokology (Greek for "Obstetrics"). Written for lay readers, it covered all aspects of women's and children's health and was far ahead of its time.1 Alice Bunker Stockham For example, she recommended natural childbirth, eating a high-fiber diet, exercising during pregnancy to promote a pain-free childbirth, using the mind to heal illness, and, above all, doing away with corsets! She boldly advocated sexual continence during pregnancy and to prevent pregnancy, which brought her into conflict with the authorities as it was illegal to promote birth control.

She argued that the widespread belief that women should be legally forced to participate in ejaculatory sex - lest they go to any length to avoid the travails of childbirth - was nonsense. She also traveled extensively, and Tokology was translated into French, Finnish, German and Russian (with a forward by Leo Tolstoy).

Ultimately she founded her own publishing company to publish forward-thinking works. Stockham was a multi-faceted reformer. Inspired by the Swedes, she is credited with introducing workshop classes into American schools. In addition, she provided copies of Tokology to penniless women and former prostitutes to sell door-to-door to earn their livings (including with each volume a certificate for a free gynecological exam at her clinic). She was very active in studying spirituality and the power of the mind, practiced homeopathy, believed in both the fatherhood and motherhood of God, was in favor of temperance, served as a trance medium, and was an active suffragette.

A passion for sacred sex

Tantra However, her zeal for sacred sexuality is surely her most intriguing facet. Around the time the first tantra books were translated into English, Stockham traveled to India where she visited a matrilinial caste of hereditary warriors, allegedly of Brahmin descent, on the Malabar Coast. Known as "the free women of India," Nayar women were intelligent, well-educated, and all property descended through them. They controlled the business interests and chose their own husbands. There she may have learned about tantra.

While Tibetan and Indian tantra often cast women in the role of vehicle for men to use to raise their spiritual energy, Stockham insists that both men and women benefit from conserving and exchanging their sexual essence.

Karezza is strengthening and sustaining both to husband and wife, because it is virtually a union of the higher selves…. She writes that there are deeper purposes to our reproductive faculties than are generally understood. In the physical union of male and female there may be a soul communion giving not only supreme happiness, but in turn [leading] to soul growth and development. Creative energy may be directed into building bodily tissue and permeating every cell with health and vigor, while also fueling the birth of non-physical offspring such as great inventions, humanitarian pursuits, and works of art.

Stockham advised that the sexual urge emanates from spirit, and that, far from being tainted, it is always a signal that a greater power is ready to be channeled into some noble endeavor.

One has only to listen to one's intuition or Higher Self in the silence of the soul in order to discover one's calling. When so consecrated, sexual expression leads to the peace of increased internal strength and power.

Because she believed that the sexual impulse, far from being evil or guilt-ridden, is the call of Spirit, she is sometimes cited as approving masturbation. In Karezza, however, she recommends to a woman addicted to masturbation that she treat her urge as a call to do Spirit's work in the world, and pour her energy into some beneficial undertaking. Spiritual union

In Stockham's view, creative (or sexual) energy has important implications for the world. Through love, training and self-control, partners can, by the union of the spiritual forces of their two souls, accomplish results greater than can be accomplished separately.

There is no limit to the power of true soul union. It specifically increases the gift of healing….As the creative potency of man becomes understood, and this knowledge is applied, men and women will grow in virtue, in love, in power, and will gladly and naturally devote this power to the world's interests and development.

These powers are given through the act of copulation when it is the outgrowth of the expressions of love, and is at the same time completely under the control of the will. By contrast, the ordinary hasty spasmodic method of cohabitation…is deleterious both physically and spiritually, and is frequently a cause of estrangement and separation.

How to experience Karezza

Karezza so consummates marriage that through the power of will, and loving thoughts, the crisis is not reached, but a complete control by both husband and wife is maintained throughout the entire relations, a conscious conservation of creative energy….One writer called it Male Continence, but it is no more male than female….

According to Stockham, Karezza is a form of spiritual companionship. Partners seek union and mutual soul development rather than fleeting passionate gratification. Yet it is apparent from her writing that the emphasis is on loving closeness, rather than denial of pleasure. Stockham suggests thoughtful preparation by means of reading and meditation. The reading Spiritual unionshould exalt the spirit, reminding one of the power and source of life. The meditation should be an act of giving up one's will and concepts to allow cosmic intelligence to flow through one with new inspiration. And before or during union, she recommends that lovers consecrate their union with the following: We are living spiritual beings; our bodies symbolize soul union, and in closest contact each receives strength to be more to the other and more to all the world. In Stockham's words, at the appointed time, the couple calmly engages in physical contact and expressions of endearment and affection, followed by the complete, quiet union of the sexual organs.

During a lengthy period of perfect control, the whole being of each is merged into the other, and an exquisite exaltation experienced. This may be accompanied by a quiet motion, entirely under subordination of the will, so that the thrill of passion for either may not go beyond a pleasurable exchange. Unless procreation is desired, let the final propagative orgasm be entirely avoided. With abundant time and mutual reciprocity the interchange becomes satisfactory and complete without emission or crisis. In the course of an hour the physical tension subsides, the spiritual exaltation increases, and not uncommonly visions of a transcendent life are seen and consciousness of new powers experienced.

How often? The time and frequency of Karezza can be governed by no certain law. Experience, however, has proven that it is far more satisfactory to have at least an interval of two to four weeks [or even longer]. Stockham says that, the demand for physical expression is less frequent, for there is a deep soul union that is replete with satisfaction and is lasting….Both growth and satisfaction are attained through altruistic desires, and through the interrelations between the partners' higher selves. She adds, be patient and determined; the reward will come in happy, united lives, in the finding of the kingdom of heaven in your own hearts. She assures the reader that those seeking the highest development will soon establish conditions appropriate for them.


Stockham admits that for those to whom the Karezza idea is new, the first thought will be that it is impossible. As a doctor, she patiently explains that the flow of semen is not essential to life or health, but that like tears, semen can remain "on tap" until summoned. According to her, scores of married men and women attest that such self-control is perfectly and easily possible. And, indeed, some of the most inspiring parts of her book are the letters from satisfied practitioners, which she reproduces at the end. Here is an excerpt from one written by a young husband, married for 4 years:

Happy husbandI am a young man, 24 years of age, enjoying the most vigorous health. For two years after becoming engaged I delayed marriage, simply because I did not think my income sufficient to support a wife and the children which I regarded as an inevitable consequence. Happily for me a friend, who knew my circumstances, wrote me about Zugassent's Discovery [i.e., Karezza, or making love without orgasm]. The ideas contained in this discovery were so different from all my preconceived ideas of what constituted marital happiness, that I was inclined to reject them as utterly impracticable and absurd. But the more I thought of the matter the more clearly I saw that if there was a possibility of these new ideas being true, they were exactly adapted to a man in my circumstances, and that they made my marriage immediately practicable.

The wholly new thought that retaining the vital force within himself would naturally make a man stronger, clearer and better also seemed to me not irrational. With some misgivings, therefore, I determined to venture upon marriage, and it has been completely successful. I have had a continuous honeymoon for four years. I have never been conscious of any irksome restraint or asceticism in my sexual experience; and my self-control and strength, mental and physical, have greatly increased since my marriage. In the light of my own experience I regard the idea that the seminal fluid is a secretion that must be got rid of as being the most pernicious and fatal one that can possibly be taught to young people. J.G.

Stockham reminds us that we are not mere machines, to be buffeted by circumstance and environment, but rather machinists with control of our creative forces. Through knowledge we can recognize our unlimited resources and the ability to remove our self-made limitations. And at no time does this learned control serve [mankind] with more satisfaction than in the marital relation and in making possible the attainment of Karezza. Stockham may not have had access to recent neurochemical research about the unfortunate aftereffects of over-stimulating the brain's reward circuit, but she did note that,

Men who are borne down with sorrow because their wives are nervous, feeble and irritable, have it in their power, through Karezza, to restore the radiant hue of health to the faces of their loved ones, strength and elasticity to their steps and harmonious action to every part of their bodies. By manifestation of tenderness and endearment, the husband may develop a response in the wife through her love nature, which thrills every fiber into action and radiates tonic to every nerve.

She sees Karezza as the antidote to the many hearts broken and hopes blasted mainly because the sexual relationship in marriage is instigated by selfish motives, and for personal gratification. In her view, marital unhappiness is caused chiefly by ignorance of the psycho-physiological laws governing sexual union. Love of SoulsOnly when souls flowing together, acting as one, distinct in individuality, but united in their action are thus mated, are the psycho-physiological laws met and satisfied….There can be no true marriage unless attraction, affinity and harmony first exist in the soul. With the practice of Karezza, the selfish element is ruled out, and every consummation of passion becomes a true marriage sacrament. Desire, directed wisely, enables one to experience an at-one-ment with universal principle itself.

Dimming of the light

Later observers assumed that Stockham's views on sexual continence were heavily influenced by John Humphrey Noyes (whom she quotes, among others, at the end of her book). Yet Karezza diverged significantly from his ideas. For example, Noyes, who was gravely concerned with regulating pregnancy, recommended that men avoid orgasm but did not object to female orgasm. Moreover, the Oneida community practiced "complex marriage," in which exclusive relationships were discouraged as "idolatrous." In contrast, Stockham believed that her patients and their offspring would generally enjoy better health if spouses mastered this natural form of birth control so they wouldn't become pregnant too often for their health. Unlike Noyes, however, Stockham was a fan of monogamy.

Despite the many benefits of Stockham's approach, including granting couples the ability to choose Pius XIIopportunities for parenthood without contraceptives, the Vatican didn't like Karezza or its relatives. (In fact, the Church once burned or otherwise murdered half a million Christian Cathars in Southern France for suggesting that celibacy was a good idea in relationships.)

KarezzaForty years after Stockham's death in 1912, the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office issued a Monitum, or "solemn warning," published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, which noted that several contemporary writers, in discussing married life, had described, praised, and even ventured to recommend something they termed "a reserved embrace."

Citing an express mandate of Pope Pius XII, the Sacred Congregation seriously admonished all such writers to refrain from these suggestions and forbade priests and spiritual directors ever to suggest that there was, in the light of Christ's law, nothing objectionable about "a reserved embrace." The pope condemned karezza because of its potential “hedonism outside of a true marriage act." Catholics in France and Belgium had extolled the practice of amplexus reservatus (karezza) as a legitimate means of avoiding conception, and also as a means of achieving a more perfect, more spiritual kind of conjugal love. For a clear indication that "Christ's law" may well have favored of "a reserved embrace," have a look at "The Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber: What Was It?"


Related book excerpt from Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure. By Peter Gardella (Oxford University Press, 1985). p.16

Amplexus has appeared among Albigensian heretics in twelfth-century France, among illicit lovers in French court circles of the same century, among married couples in Ligouri’s Italy, and among members of the Oneida Community in nineteenth-century New York. For some it was merely a method of birth control; for others it expressed spiritual love through control of the flesh.

[The book also contains an account of how the Catholic Church became increasingly pro-orgasm - with some authorities even insisting it was a mortal sin even for women to decline to orgasm during sex on the theory that it would weaken any offspring if both partners failed to climax.]


  1. Karezza: Ethics of Marriage, by Alice Bunker Stockham, MD (1896). NOTE: Karezza: Ethics of Marriage is long out of print, but you can read it online at this site. Or you may download a free reproduction.