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Devil's Work: The Fascinating History of America's War on Masturbation and Porn

Here's a look at the absurd moral crusade to ban pornography in America.

The following is an excerpt fromSex and Punishment: 4 Thousand Years of Judging Desire,by Eric Berkowitz, published by Counterpoint Press. Click here for a copy of the book. 

The crusade against pornography in the United States was dominated by one outsized character: the Brooklyn dry-goods salesman and Olympian busybody Anthony Comstock. The United States’ most intrusive antiobscenity law was named after him, and for decades he held a powerful position with the government in order to enforce it. His strict and often bullying methods also earned him a place in the English lexicon with the word “Comstockery.”

During his forty-year career as an antismut crusader and protector of American youth, Comstock proudly claimed to have confiscated sixteen tons of “vampire literature,” organized more than four thousand arrests, and caused the conviction of enough people to fill sixty train coaches. He also caused the suicide of about fifteen people. As a young Union soldier during the Civil War, Comstock quickly earned the enmity of his peers for pouring his whiskey rations onto the ground and needling officers to sanitize soldier entertainments. “Seems to be a feeling of hatred by some of the boys,” he wrote in his diary, “constantly falsifying, persecuting, and trying to do me harm.” The hostility of his fellow soldiers only fanned Comstock’s desire to do God’s work.

When he returned from the war, he set himself up in the dry-goods business, but that never went very well. His true métier was prying into the lives of others and getting them put in jail. At this he excelled more than just about anyone. As soon as he moved to Brooklyn, he went to work on closing saloons that were doing business on Sunday. He also developed a lifelong obsession with pornography, and set it as his personal mission to end the trade by any means necessary.

Comstock did reasonably well and bagged several convictions, but two things were holding him back: money and the law. Bringing down an entire industry was not cheap. Purchases had to be made, raids organized, and lawsuits pursued. He needed an underwriter. He also needed to surmount the pesky civil rights of citizens. Federal obscenity law was already restrictive, but it excluded newspapers and, to Comstock and his fellow moralists’ horror, did not ban traffic in “rubber goods,” contraceptive information, or advertisements by abortionists. Even worse, federal law did not mention search and seizure. As described, British law had already been changed to allow authorities to nab and burn obscene materials almost at will. Comstock wanted the U.S. government to adopt similar laws.

In 1872, he found the perfect partner in the New York YMCA, which had money and was no less driven to purge society of immorality. The match could not have been better. The YMCA had long been in the smut-bashing business. While Comstock was irritating his fellow Union soldiers with his moralizing, the YMCA was pushing for a ban on the use of the U.S. mail to send “vulgar” or “indecent” materials to military camps. In 1868, it had also lobbied for a stiff New York state law against trading in pornography. Comstock went on the YMCA payroll, taking in twice what he had earned in his day job, plus expenses. They also worked together to charter the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873, with Comstock as its secretary and public face. Comstock was only twenty-eight years old when the society was formed, but he had already found his place in life. He would remain there for forty-three years and would soon become a nationally known—if often reviled—figure.

The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and Comstock put their efforts in terms of saving the nation’s youth from the devil. In his monumentally tedious manifesto, Traps for the Young, Comstock declares: "Satan is more interested in the child than many parents are. Parents do not stop to think or look for their children in these matters while the arch-enemy is thinking, watching, and plotting continually to effect their ruin. Thoughtless parents, heedless guardians, negligent teachers, you are each of you just the kind that old Satan delights to see placed over the child. He sets his base traps right in your very presence, captures and ruins your children, and you are all criminally responsible."

Comstock’s ideas did not come out of the clear blue sky. The fear of pornography was closely related to the ongoing mania against masturbation. Comstock himself had masturbated so furiously in his youth that he believed he might be driven to suicide. His own experiences seem to have strongly influenced his later work. In his book Frauds Exposed, he wrote that obscenity is like a cancer: It “fastens itself upon the imagination . . .defiling the mind, corrupting the thoughts, leading to secret practices of most foul and revolting character, until the victim tires of life and existence is scarcely endurable.” He warned: “Every new generation of youth is sent into the world as sheep in the midst of wolves. Traps are laid for them in every direction . . . [O]nce in the trap, the victim will love it and press greedily forward.” Few at the time disagreed that masturbation caused insanity, sickness, and death. Well-meaning parents everywhere were warned to look for signs of self-pollution in their children, including bashfulness, acne, and pencil-chewing. Among the profusion of “authorities” on the subject was Sylvester Graham, who advocated a sex-drive-diminishing diet of coarsely ground grain combined with molasses or sugar—the same ingredients that later went into his signature Graham cracker. John Harvey Kellogg promoted his Corn Flakes as antimasturbation fuel as well.

Comstock and the society were not interested in improving diets. They saw only one course of action, to “[h]unt [smut dealers] down as you hunt rats, without mercy.” They wrote a new bill, which they offered up to the government, to give them almost complete freedom to move against the pornography industry. The plan was to use federal control over the mail—through which most commerce passed at some point—to seize Satan’s handiwork and imprison smut dealers.

Comstock went to Washington, D.C., in 1873, where he lobbied hard for the new federal antipornography law. He brought with him fifteen thousand letters purportedly “written by our students of both sexes . . . ordering obscene literature” and set up an exhibition of pornographic materials students had received by mail. This popular “chamber of horrors,” set up in Vice President Schuyler Colfax’s office, included “lowbrow publications and their advertisements, gadgets purportedly designed to stimulate sexual potency, and ‘fancy books’ and . . . other abominations which were sold through the ads.” The bill’s official sponsor, Rep. Clinton Merriam of New York, argued that the fate of the country was at stake, and claimed that “low brutality” threatened to “destroy the future of the Republic by making merchandize of the morals of our youth.” The New York Times joined in, expressing its disgust at the sexual materials “sent by post to the girlsand boys in our schools” and lionizing Comstock for having already seized tons of “the most loathsome printed matter ever sent into the world to do the devil’s work.”

After months of effort, Comstock and the New York Society got exactly what they wanted. In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant signed an act for the “Suppression of, Trade in, and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” The law, commonly known as the Comstock Act and modeled on the United Kingdom’s 1857 Obscene Publications Act, empowered the U.S. Postal Service to seize just about anything its new special agent—Comstock himself—thought was indecent, and to arrest the senders. As worded, the law was unbelievably broad, prohibiting erotic, contraceptive, and sometimes purely medical materials: "That no obscene lewd or lascivious book, pamphlet, picture, print or other publication of an indecent character or any article or thing designed . . . for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion, nor any article or thing intended or adopted for any indecent immoral use or nature, nor any written or printed card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice of any kind giving information directly or indirectly, where, how, or of whom, or by what means, either of the things before mentioned may be obtained or made . . . shall be carried in the mail."

Comstock was off to the races. In the law’s first six months of operation, he claimed to have confiscated massive amounts of bad stuff, including fifty-five hundred sets of naughty playing cards and 31,151 boxes of pills and powders (mostly aphrodisiacs). However, as much as Comstock loved to quantify his achievements, numbers alone do not say enough about the effects of his crusade. It involved living, breathing individuals, many of whom did not fit the demonic image of the smut dealer preying on American youth.

The reach of the Comstock Act beyond the erotic became clear when Comstock put a physician on trial for disseminating birth-control information.

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