The (man) doth protest too much, methinks.

William Shakespeare

Few people embody the American tendency to condemn publicly that which they practice with great enthusiasm in private more fully than Anthony Comstock. He is also a rare example of an individual granted the power and authority to force the public to conform to his morality; a wish I'm sure we've all harbored at some point. Comstock's particular hang-ups, though, carry the additional weight of continuing to influence American society's attitudes and legislations regarding sex, pornography and obscenity.

Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut in the Year of Our (his, especially) Lord 1844. His seminal experience with pornography occurred as a child, when he was shown naughty pictures by some local farmhands. In his teens he, in the words of author Gay Talese, "masturbated so obsessively... that he felt it might drive him to suicide."1 As he would later write in his book Frauds Exposed: "Like a cancer it (obscenity) 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." One can easily envision the twin demons of guilt and mania dancing an orgiastic hula through young Tony's brain. Stoke that fire with some time spent in the Union Army during the Civil War and it's hardly surprising that the result was a monomaniacal crusader who knew he was doing the Lord's Good Work.

After the war, Comstock found a job in New York City as a merchant and a hobby as a police informant against prostitutes and other sex workers. He became active in the YMCA's anti-obscenity campaign, quickly developed into the campaign's primary agitator and ultimately transformed it into the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. In a letter to a Rev. H.C. Hovey, Comstock described how his Society was a revival of ministry and the burdens thereof. The Society's seal, tellingly, was an image of a publisher being jailed and a large pile of burning books. One of the Society's primary backers was J. Pierpont Morgan who also spent a good deal of money keeping his various mistresses happy and building his collection of rare and exotic erotica.

In 1873 Tony Goes to Washington. The Society had long been pressing the federal government to enact an anti-obscenity statute with little success. This time, Comstock got creative: he drew up a proposal by which the Feds could actually enforce such a law. The method? The U.S. Postal Service. The Comstock Law, as it came to be known colloquially, prohibited the sending of "obscene" (which translated to anything vaguely sexual, especially information about birth control... and ultimately came to mean, literally, anything Comstock wished it to mean) material through the mail and provided punishments for those who did so. The law passed, after less than an hour of debate. Twenty-four states would pass their own version of Comstock's Law by 1885.

Furthermore, Comstock himself was invested with the title of Special Agent of the U.S. Post Office Department, and the legislature of the state of New York granted him police powers and the right to carry a gun. He was now very much the law. And boy howdy did he jump in with both feet. After the first seven years of his forty-year-long reign of terror Comstock had destroyed (so he claims) "...202,679 obscene pictures and photographs; 12 tons of obscene books; 64,094 rubber articles 'for immoral use'; 6,072 indecent playing cards; and 26 obscene pictures that hung on the wall of saloons." He himself arrested vast numbers of dirty photographers, burlesque dancers, prostitutes, pimps and abortionists. Meanwhile, he fathered two children. One assumes all those years of furious masturbation taught him enough about the process of intercourse that he and his wife wouldn't require one of the now-banned "marriage manuals".

Anthony Comstock's morals are still enshrined as federal law to this day, and the legal definition of obscenity was not significantly altered until Jacobellis v. Ohio in 1964 which resulted in both the three-part test for obscenity and Justice Potter Stewart's infamous "I know it when I see it" remark. Leading advocate of women's reproductive rights Margaret Sanger was arrested for sending the first issue of her magazine The Woman Rebel through the mail in 1914 (one year before Comstock's death). The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (thankfully struck down as unconstitutional) was a spiritual descendant of Comstock's law, and it is unlikely that the passage of similar laws won't be attempted in the future.

The elevation of a repressive personal morality to the status of national law can result only in the destruction, mentally and physically, of vast amounts of people. Comstock was so tortured by the conflict between his carnal desires and his authoritarian principles that the only release was to inflict similar misery onto as many others as possible under the guise of righteousness. How many of us are also guilty of expecting the masses to suffer for our sins?


1. This quotation was pulled from Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness, and he lists several sources for it. These are: Thy Neighbor's Wife by Gay Talese (New York: Ivy Books, 1993) p. 43, Not In Front of the Children by Marjorie Heins (New York: Hill & Wang, 2001) p. 30 and Censorship by U. Schwartz (New York: MacMillan, 1964) p. 21

Sources:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/peopleevents/e_comstock.html
http://www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/sc088.htm
http://www.cd.sc.ehu.es/FileRoom/documents/Cases/68comstockLaw.html
http://womhist.binghamton.edu/birth/intro.htm
Reefer Madness by Eric Schlosser

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