Comstockery is censorship of perceived "obscenity
," so called after crusader Anthony Comstock
and his Comstock Act
Also an article by John R. Corvell published in Mother Earth, Vol. 1, No. 1, March, 1906:
Be it understood that the shocking thing which we know as Comstockery, goes back into the centuries for
its origin; being, indeed, the perfect flower of that asceticism, which was engrafted on the degraded
Christianity which took its name from Christ without in the least comprehending the spirit of his lofty
The man Comstock, who has the shameful distinction of having lent his name to the idea of which he is
the willing and probably the fit exponent, may be dismissed without further consideration, since he is,
after all, only the inevitable as he is the deplorable result of that for which he stands; seemingly without
any sense of the shame and the awfulness of it.
It may be said, too, in dismissing him, that it is of no consequence whether the very unpleasant stories
current concerning him are true or not. It is altogether probable that a man who stands for what he does
and who glories in proclaiming the things he does, will also do things for which he does not stand and
which he does not proclaim. That is a characteristic of most of us and only proves that, after all, he is not
less than human.
The only point that need be made in regard to the man who is proud of representing Comstockery is, that
if he had not done so, some other lost soul would. In that sad stage of our social growth when death was
the penalty for most infractions of the law, an executioner could always be found who took pride in his
work and who seemed to be beyond the reach of the scorn, the abhorrence and the contempt of his
Comstockery, as we know it, is apparently an organized effort to regulate the morals of the people. If it
were nothing more than this, it would be absurd and negligible, because futile; for what we call morals are
only the observances which the conditions of life impose upon a people; and an act depends, for its moral
status, upon its relation to those conditions. As, for example, horse-stealing in a closely settled
community, which has its railroads and other means of communication, is a crime to be punished by a
brief period of imprisonment; while in the sparsely settled sections of a country, where the horse is an
imperative necessity of life, its theft becomes a hanging matter, whatever the written law for that section
of the country may be as to the punishment of the crime. And men, brought up in law-abiding
communities in the deepest respect for the law, will, under the changed conditions of life, not merely
condone the infliction of a penalty in excess of that provided by law, but will themselves assist, virtuously
satisfied with their conduct because the society of which they form a part has decided that horse-stealing
shall be so punished. On the other hand, there are numerous laws on the statute books, still unrepealed
and unenforceable because the acts treated of are no longer held to be offences against morality. In other
words, the morals of a people can be regulated only by themselves.
What Comstockery does is bad enough, but its real awfulness lies in the fact that it seems to fairly enough
represent us in our attitude toward a certain class of ideas and things. It is the expression of our essential
immorality -using that word in its conventional sense -having its roots deep down in pruriency, hypocrisy
and ignorance. Like the blush on the cheek of the courtesan, it deceives no one, but is none the less a
truthful expression, not of the thing it simulates, but of the character of the simulator.
Comstockery was probably brought to this country by the first Anglo-Saxon whether pirate or minister of
the gospel, who set foot on this soil; certainly it was a finely blooming plant on the Mayflower, and was
soon blossoming here as never elsewhere in the world, giving out such a fragrance that the peculiar odor
of it has become a characteristic of this land of liberty.
When the so-called Comstock laws were passed there was a real disease to be treated: The symptoms of
the disease were obscene books and pictures which were being freely circulated among the children of the
land, boarding-schools, whether for girls or boys, being fairly flooded with the pernicious literature. The
work of confiscation, suppression and of imprisonment was done thoroughly and conscientiously, so that
in the course of a comparatively short time it was difficult to find books or pictures of the kind in
question. It is said that the effectiveness of the work done is best shown by the one or more libraries of
obscene books which the society, or some of its officers, have collected.
The value of the work done and the efficiency of the workers were recognized in the passage from time
to time of laws giving extraordinary powers not alone to the popularly so-called "Comstock Society," but
to officers of the government. A perfect fury of purity took possession of our legislators; they were
determined to stamp out impurity. And perhaps they were establishing reputations for themselves. It is
recorded that in the days of the Inquisition men established their orthodoxy by the loudness of their cries
against heresy; that in the times of the French Revolution, men proved their patriotism by making charges
of treason against their neighbors; that practicing polygamists have purified themselves by hounding a
theoretical polygamist out of their legislative body. Anyhow, the laws were passed, the thing was done.
And what was the thing that was done? A moral Inquisition had been established. Arguing from a wrong
premise a hideous conclusion had been reached. It was voiced only a few weeks ago by an official of the
postoffice in Chicago, when confiscating a publication. He said in substance, if not literally: "Any
discussion of sex is obscene."
There it is in a few words -a complete and perfect treatise on Comstockery! In the early days in some
parts of New England, a man might not kiss his wife on a Sunday. On common days, the filthy act was
permissible, but the Sabbath must not be so defiled. And now, any discussion of sex is obscenity!
Pause a while and consider what this means and whither it will lead, where it has already lead. Discussion
of sex is obscene; then sex, itself, must be obscene; life and all that pertains to it must be filthy. That is,
providing it be the life of Man. The sex of flowers may be discussed frankly and freely either for the
pleasure of knowledge, or in order to use knowledge for the purpose of improving the flower. The sex of
animals may be discussed; it is discussed in government publications and in the many farm journals
published throughout the country, because it is necessary to improve the breed of our domestic animals,
because these animals are valuable. But discussion of the sex of man is obscene!
There have been some changes in public sentiment, some changes, perhaps, in the grey matter on the
judicial bench, since the early days in New York when Comstockery was most rampant; for what was
tolerated then is not tolerated now; some things that were judicially wrong then are judicially right now.
And in this change there is hope and the promise of greater change.
In those early days a confectioner on Fulton street sought to attract customers by exhibiting in his window
a painting by a great artist. If memory serves, it was "The Triumph of Charles V," by Hans Makart.
Figures of nude females were in the picture, and Comstockery established in its censorship of art and
solemnly unconscious of its appalling ignorance, but true to its fundamental pruriency, ordered the picture
removed from the window. And it was removed. Just as Boston, finding its bronze bacchante immodest,
rejected the brazen hussey. And now she stands on her pedestal in the Metropolitan Museum in New
York, giving joy to the beholder, and -not ordered down by Comstockery. Why? And why is not the
whole museum purged of its nude figures? It is a puzzle not even to be solved by the theory of change in
public sentiment; for it is only a few months ago that the art censor in chief of Comstockery saw in the
window of an art dealer on Fifth Avenue a landscape in which figured several nude children discreetly
wandering away from the beholder. The picture was ordered out of the window forthwith. And went. A
few blocks below, on Broadway, there were then and are now exhibited in a window, numerous
photographs of nude children, not all of them discreet as to way of their going. Why? Has the art censor
decided that the photographs are innocuous, or that they are art?
But these instances and the amazing expeditions made by the censor into the realm of literature are hardly
more than ludicrous; and they can and will correct themselves. But the frightful results of Comstockery,
as applied to life and to real purity, cannot be so lightly passed over. And let it not be forgotten that an
indictment of Comstockery is an indictment or ourselves, for the prurient, hypocritical, degrading thing
can exist not one instant after we have declared that it shall perish.
It is no exaggeration to say that Comstockery is the arch enemy of society. It seeks to make hypocrisy
respectable; it would convert impurity into a basic virtue; it labels ignorance, innocence; it has legislated
knowledge into a crime, and it seeks its perpetuation in the degradation of an enfeebled human race. And
that these are not over-statements can easily be established to the satisfaction of any reasonable mind.
The most creditable work ever done by Comstockery was the practical suppression and elimination of the
obscene book; but when that is said, all is said. How worse than fatuous, how absolutely fiendish that
physician would be deemed who hid the signs of small-pox with paint and powder and permitted his
patient to roam at will among his fellows, unwarned even of the nature of the fell disease that was
devouring his life. Nay, worse! What if the physician should have himself clothed with plenary powers
and should compel the poor wretch to refrain from making his case known after he had discovered is
nature? But this is precisely what Comstockery does.
The obscene book was removed from circulation. In other words, the symptom of the disease was
hidden. But was anything done to eliminate the disease, or to remove its cause? On the contrary,
everything possible was done to perpetuate the disease; everything possible was done to prevent anyone
who had suffered from the disease or who knew anything about it, from imparting his knowledge. For the
disease was ignorance; ignorance of self, of life, of sex. And not only does Comstockery strive to
perpetuate ignorance, not only does it glorify ignorance and miscall it innocence, not only does it elevate it
into a virtue, but it has legislated knowledge into a crime. The offence of the book it had eliminated was
not its vicious misinformation, but its use of sex as a subject. The postoffice has said that any discussion
of sex is obscene and the courts have put one noble old man of over seventy years into prison at hard
labor, and have punished an aged woman physician in some other way because they sought, in all purity
and right-mindedness, to help their brothers and sisters to a knowledge of themselves.
It is true that, at last, there is a rift within the lute; or would it better be called a leak in the sewer?
Comstockery has not quite the standing that it once had. When it was made generally known that a
postoffice official had said that any discussion of sex was obscene, there followed such a rattling fire of
reprobation and condemnation even from many startled conventionalists, who could support the thing but
could not look it in the face, that themaker of the now historic phrase was moved to deny that he had said
it officially. In fact, there are many signs, most of them still small, on the distant horizon, it is true, which
indicate that we are becoming alive to the fact that it is imperative that sex should be discussed.
This is an age of radical ideas. Radicalism in politics, in religion, in ethics, is ripe; which is only another
way of saying that we are beginning to dare to think. Probably the most apparent, if not the most
significant, sign of the general radicalism, is the tendency to exalt the science of life to an even higher
plane than that which it occupied in the days of Hellenic supremecy. We are beginning to understand that
right living is a purely physical matter, and that morals are only laws of health; and if there are yet but few
who dare take so radical a view of morals as that, still there are quite as few who will not admit freely that
nothing can be immoral which is beneficial to the human body.
Of course, it is unthinkable, even from the point of view of the most conventional of orthodox Christians,
that there can be any immorality in sex, for sex in itself is absolutely a work of the deity, hence of the
highest morality, if it can have any such attribute at all. As well might one give digestion a moral quality.
Morality is surely a matter or personal conduct. One may say that it is immoral to eat so much as to injure
one's health, but it is not a matter of record that any considerable body of persons declares the stomach to
be an immoral organ, or the digestive function to be an immoral one, or any discussion of digestion
immoral. Then why sex or sex functions?
It is true that Comstockery has us to designate our legs, limbs, though not at the present time with any
legal penalty for not doing so; it prescribes the word stomach for polite usage in describing that part of the
body which lies subjacent to the actual stomach, anterior to the spinal column and posterior to the
abdominal wall; it forbids a visible bifurcated garment for the "limbs" of a female; and it does a variety of
other absurd things, all going to show that in some singular fashion it has confounded acts with things; as
one might call all knives immoral because a few knives had been used to do murder with.
By what extraordinary process does Comstockery conjure decency into the stomach and indecency into
the bowels? But how rejoiced we should be that it is no worse than indecent to speak of the receptacle of
the intestines by its common name. By some hocus pocus of which Comstockery is easily capable it
might have been obscene to speak of the digestive process or of any of the digestive organs. We might
easily have been taught that digestion was a moral matter, not to be talked of, not to be studied; ignorance
of which was a virtue, knowledge of which a crime. And then, under those conditions, if a person,
possessed of a little knowledge such as might have crept stealthily down the ages, were in a fine
humanitarian spirit to dare to publish some of the things he knew in order to help dyspeptic humanity, he
would have been robbed of his worldly goods and clapped forthwith into jail. Fancy that under such
circumstances a man who had lived his three score and ten years and had learned something from his own
suffering and experience, something from the secretly imparted information of others, might not say a
word to help his fellows. Is it not too absurd to contemplate without both tears and laughter that that man
who should plead with his fellow men to abstain from habitually living on butter cakes and coffee, should
be charged with obscenity and imprisoned in consequence? And imagine some sapient postoffice official
solemnly declaring that any discussion of digestion is obscene. Consider how the land would be flooded
with literature describing the pleasures of gluttony and depicting impossible gastronomic feats! Consider,
too, trying to cure indigestion and to suppress the orgies of our children in pies, crullers, fritters and butter
cakes by the na&i;ve device of forbidding all knowledge of the digestive function and making the
utterance of the name of a digestive organ an obsecenity punishable by fine and imprisonment!
Digestion is a matter to be considered in the light of hygiene. So is sex. Digestion is not in itself either
moral or immoral. Neither is sex. But there is the most hideous immorality in the ascription of obscenity
to sex, sex function or any phase of sex life. And this is the crime of Comstockery. It has reared an awful
idol to which have been sacrificed the best of our youth; with hypocrisy the high-priest, ignorance the
creed, and pruriency the detective.
Comstockery strikes at the very root of life. It forbids that we shall know how to live our best; it forbids
that we shall know how to save our children from the perils we have so discreditably passed through; it
raises barriers of false modesty between parents and children by branding the very science of life an
obscenity. Owing to the shocking suggestions of Comstockery all that relate to life is degraded into the
gutter; and that which would be pure and sweet and wholesome in the home or in the school, becomes
filthy Comstockery on the snickering lips of ignorant playfellows.
The wonder is that we have endured the nasty thing for so long a time. We have been boys and girls and
have gone from our parents to our school-mates and play-fellows for the information to which we are
entitled by very reason of living, but, more than all, because of our need to live right. We all know the
hideous untruths we were told because of Comstockery; we all know how much we had to unlearn, and
how great the suffering mentally, how great the deterioration physically in the unlearning; we all know our
unfitness for parentage at the time we entered it; every man knows how the brothels kept open doors and
beckoning inmates by the thousand for his undoing. And yet we endure it -Comstockery.
It is such a subtly pervasive thing, this Comstockery, it steals in wherever it can and puts the taint of its
own uncleanness on whatever it touches. Clothing becomes a matter of Comstockery. We do not always
see it, but such is the fact. We do not wear clothing for convenience, but to cover our nakedness. You see
nakedness is obscene. Not in itself, but only in man. You may take a naked dog on the street, but not a
naked human being. The summer previous to the last one was a very hot one in New York, and a poor
wretch of a boy of fourteen years of age, being on the top floor of a crowded tenement was half crazed
by the heat and the lack of fresh air which there was absolutely none in the closet in which he was trying
to sleep. He ran down into the street nude at two o'clock in the morning in the hope of finding a surcease
of his distress. A policeman saw him, remembered his blushing Comstockery in time and haled the poor
lad off to a cell. The next morning the magistrate in tones of grimmest virtue sent the boy to the
reformatory, remarking with appropriate jest that the young scoundrel might have seven years in which to
learn to keep his clothes on.
Theodore Roosevelt, who is at once the greatest President and the wisest man of whom we have any
record, tells us that we must breed more children. But how shall our women bear more children, or
presently bear any, if they are to be continually made more and more unfit for motherhood by the pitfalls
into which their ignorance of the science life leads them? Because of the Comstockery which has its felt
grip upon our throats we may not instruct the little child in the way of health; or if it be said that there is
nothing to prevent the parent from instructing the child, yet it must be insisted that the parent has no
means of knowing since Comstockery prescribes ignorance as the only way to innocence; and innocent
our girls must be at any cost. Besides, the average mother, if she will but admit the truth, is ashamed to
talk with her daughter about Comstockery things. We all know that this is so. Our parents treated us in
such fashion, and we are so treating our children.
The knowledge which each generation acquires at the cost of health, yes, at the cost of life even, dies
with it, for the most part. The one thing we most need to know is how to live; the science of life begins
with sex, goes on with sex, ends with sex; but sex we may not discuss; thus we go on in ignorance of life.
Shall it remain so? Is Comstockery to be our best expression of the most vital matter of existence? Life,
sex, should be and is when we recognize it, the purest, sweetest, simplest subject of discussion; and we
make of it a filthy jest. We will not tell our sons the things we have learned through bitter experience,
because we cannot bear the shame of discussing sex subjects with them, because of the accursed
Comstockery that is within us; but we will go to the club and the bar room, or anywhere behind locked
doors in the the select company of our fellows, and there pour out the real essence of our Comstockery in
stories which make a filthy jest of sex. Every man knows this is the truth. Perhaps women, in their
Comstockery, know it too. As has been already said, treat digestion as sex is treated, and it will be
sniggered over behind locked doors in precisely the same way.
Let us rid ourselves of the fatal, prurient restrictions on sex discussion and in a marvellously short time we
shall have a store of sweet knowledge on the subject that will enable us to live well ourselves and fit us to
bring into the world such children as will amaze us with their health of body and purity of mind. No
alteration of the facts of life is necessary, but only a change of attitude. Why, when Trilby brought the
bare foot into prominence, it was gravely debated whether or not such an indecency should be permitted.
It was assumed that a naked foot was indecent. Why a foot more than a hand? Why any one part of the
body more than another? Comstockery! Comstockery!