1920s Judge Rules Men are “Cave Men in the Pleasures of the Bed”

In 1920, a New Jersey chancery judge was faced with a wife’s suit for marriage annulment on the ground of the husband’s alleged impotency during their five years together. The husband “vigorously protested his virility, but admitted the nonconsummation of the marriage.” The husband asserted he refrained from intercourse with his wife because he did not want to hurt her.

Interestingly, given the date, the judge thoughtfully considered whether the husband’s condition was psychological, especially since he had “submitted to an examination by one of his wife’s physicians, who testified that he was structurally a male, normal in the parts, and to all appearances capable of coition.”

The judge forged new legal ground in the U.S. by adopting from the English common law a rebuttable presumption of impotency after three years of marriage without sexual intercourse. In finding that the husband failed to overcome the presumption, the judge explained:

[T]he question comes to one of belief in his story of forbearance for five years, under most trying circumstances, simply because sexual intercourse was painful and distressing to her. I have misgivings. Such solicitude of a groom is noble, of a husband, heroic. Few have the fortitude to resist the temptations of the honeymoon. But human endurance has its limitations. When nature demands its due, youth is prodigal in the payment. Men are still cave men in the pleasures of the bed. The sex may be more temperate, but none the less passionate, and heedless of the penalty. They do not shirk the initiation nor shrink from the consequences. The husband’s plea does not inspire confidence. Common experience discredits it.

Tompkins v. Tompkins, 111 A. 599, 601 (N.J. Ch. 1920). Thanks to Senior Judge Jim Barlow.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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