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The Comstock Laws: The puritan past influencing modern regulation

The Comstock Laws: The puritan past influencing modern regulation

Anthony Comstock dedicated his life to supervising the morality of American society. Looking back on his story sheds light on the challenges faced by modern anti-obscenity groups.

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Anthony Comstock

In the United States, ongoing efforts are being made to limit access to or censor pornography. These are just the most recent in a long line of anti-obscenity campaigns in the United States, which build on the social and legal foundation laid over a hundred years ago by Anthony Comstock. Recently, politicians in more than a dozen states have proposed or passed resolutions which declare that pornography is a public health crisis, and a law in Utah was recently passed which puts mandatory health warnings on pornography (Kernes, 2020; Whitehurst, 2020). Advocates of these measures argue that pornography has a detrimental effect on the physical and emotional well-being of individuals, relationships, and society (Hamblin, 2016). There are also various interest groups (e.g. Fight the New Drug or The National Center on Sexual Exploitation) which promote similar standpoints. Looking back on Comstock’s story sheds light on the origin and development of modern anti-obscenity campaigns, the current challenges they face and the problems created by technologies which evolve faster than regulation.

In the mid to late 1800s, the trade in sexually-explicit material was regulated at the local and state level, and various forms of media were widely available (Dennis, 2009). Comstock, a moral crusader with a strict religious upbringing who believed that those who viewed erotic materials were sinners condemned to hell, was largely responsible for the development of obscenity laws in the United States. His work was also influenced by his strong racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic views (Werbel, 2018). Werbel (2018) argues that ‘his story is important because his life affected not only so many individuals during his own time, but also in the course of American intellectual, cultural, sexual and legal history’. His goal was the eradication of sexually-explicit material from American society and he gained the power to enforce his beliefs at both the local and federal level. His work made him a well-known public figure throughout the country (Werbel, 2018).

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A still from the 21- second 1894 film Carmencita’s Dance. Carmencita is believed to be one of the first films to be banned for obscenity due to her suggestive dancing and risqué clothing (Waxman, 2016).

In 1865, Comstock moved to New York City where he took it upon himself to eradicate immorality by working with authorities to arrest producers and sellers of erotic books (Horowitz, 2002). Through this work, he came to the attention of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and worked with its members to create the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) in 1873, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public (Horowitz, 2002). During this time, he also urged Congress to pass legislation entitled ‘An Act for the Suppression of Trade In, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use’, or more commonly known as the Comstock Act of 1873 (Webel, 2018). This law made it illegal to send ‘”obscene, lewd, or lascivious”, “immoral”, or “indecent” publications’ through the mail). The law also banned information on or dissemination of abortifacients and contraceptives. Comstock was also appointed special agent of the US Post Office. This gave him the power of both the local and federal government, and the power to search and seize to enforce sexual censorship (Werbel, 2018). ‘This ascension from the local to the national forum represented a striking regulatory move during a century in which crimes of all kinds, but especially crimes involving morals, were prosecuted at the local level’ (Dennis, 2009). Violating the Comstock Act was punishable with up to 5 years’ imprisonment with hard labour and a fine of up to $2000. Comstock gained support from the public by declaring that sexually-explicit material would have a demoralising effect on children, and would corrupt the sanctity of marriage (Horowitz, 2002). By 1877, he had shut down the majority of the obscenity trade in New York (Leonard, 2016). In order to justify his position, he began harassing publishers of other forms of ‘obscenity’, such as producers of medical or art books, and he went after progressive women, freethinkers, artists and promoters of free love (Horowitz, 2002).

Comstock’s work co-occurred with a period of rapid technological innovation and social change, which made it increasingly difficult to enforce censorship. Men and women from all classes of society were enraptured by new forms of technology, such as photography or moving pictures, which often displayed erotic or nude images (Geltzer, 2015). Creators and distributors of erotic material devised ways to bypass censorship, and production sites spread throughout the country. According to Dennis (2009), ‘Municipal restrictions on obscenity had the unintended effect of dramatically abetting the proliferation of obscene literature throughout the United States … prohibitions against obscenity inspired bold new genres of erotic print.’ Additionally, artists confronted with Comstock’s ban on art nudes fought back by creating even more explicit works, and lawyers began to represent people tried for obscenity, which laid the foundation for changes to the US Constitution in the 20th century (Werbel, 2018).

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A still from the 1896 film May Irwin Kiss. It was a sensation because it broke the Victorian and Christian cultural codes of the time on appropriate public behavior and was the first on-screen kiss. It was also notable technologically because it was filmed close-up (Geltzer, 2016).

Comstock continued his moral crusade for forty-two years until his death in 1915. He arrested thousands of people, confiscated literally tonnes of obscene material, destroyed businesses and more than a dozen defendants committed suicide (Werbel, 2018). Comstock was never completely ‘successful’; people continued engaging in ‘sinful’ actives such as viewing pornography, using contraceptives and having illicit sex. However, he did have a lasting impact on society. As articulated by a journalist at the time: ‘It is not lustful thoughts which mar human personality, but only the sense of shame… Comstock spread shame about very widely and it was a force much more debilitating than any exotic notions of which might have come from the books he seized’ (Broun & Leech, 2004).

Since his death, technology has continued to evolve and an unprecedented amount of erotica has become available across the United States. Aspects of the Comstock Laws have been repealed or reshaped (Gertzman, 1999; Pornhub, 2019). In the 1970s, contraceptives and abortions were legalised, and the definition of obscenity changed from one based on the corrupting effects of the material to one based on the community standard (Eisenstadt v. Baird, 1972; Miller v. California, 1973; Roe v. Wade, 1973). However, various actors continue to advocate censorship despite the challenges posed by social, technological and legal change. In light of these challenges and changing social values, what does the future hold for the regulation of pornography? I think that rapidly evolving technologies will continue to challenge lawmakers, and I hope that in the future there will be less shame and stigma associated with sexuality which will be reflected in the law.

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