The 20th Century Smut Shamer

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If Anthony Comstock were alive today, he’d be a regular talking head on Fox News. 

Or it is perhaps more accurate to say that Comstock, in various reincarnations, is still alive today. Although he died more than a century ago, his obsessions—about the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, the blasphemy of contraception, the heinousness of abortion, and the existential social threat of unfettered female sexuality—continue to revivify, like Halloween’s Michael Myers, to stalk and terrorize new generations of progressives. 

The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age
by Amy Sohn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pp.

In his heyday, from about 1870 to 1910, Comstock was America’s most prominent (or as some might say, most loathed) defender of decency, especially when women’s chastity, fertility, or frigidity seemed to be in peril. Initially a self-appointed young anti-smut crusader, he rose to national prominence when he browbeat Congress into passing a federal anti-obscenity law, making it a felony to use the U.S. Postal Service to disseminate illicit materials of any kind. The 1873 law, later known as the Comstock Act, was eventually used to prosecute sellers of contraceptives, publishers of anatomy textbooks, free love advocates, and purveyors of calendars featuring copies of a gauzy French nude painting titled September Morn.

Comstock reveled in his power. He boasted about the thousands of porn vendors he had put behind bars, and he gleefully kept a running account of the many victims he had driven to suicide. 

In The Man Who Hated Women, the novelist Amy Sohn tells Comstock’s story through the lives of eight women—dubbed “sex radicals” by Sohn—whom Comstock singled out for persecution and prosecution. 

By any standard, this is a fascinating group of women. Sohn is a vivid writer with an eye for detail, and she is clearly inspired by her subjects’ fervent beliefs and dramatic lives. The stories of some of the women Comstock hated, such as Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, will be well known to many of Sohn’s readers—
although they may be surprised that Goldman rivaled Sanger as a fervent, nationally known advocate for birth control. Others will come as a shock to readers who think back on the primitive sexual mores of previous generations with pitying condescension (and who would flinch to think of the words orgasm and Grandma in the same sentence).

It’s not surprising that Comstock is better known to modern readers than most of the women he tormented. Partly, that’s our collective confirmation bias at work; most Americans view the arc of sexual history as a smooth, straightforward trajectory from repression to liberation. It’s unsettling, and vaguely threatening to our sense of ourselves as a new generation of sexual pioneers, to realize that Ida C. Craddock—a mystic, feminist, and putatively virginal sexologist—was writing highly detailed sex tips in 1904 that this publication would almost certainly blush to reprint today. 

But it’s also a reality that persecutors are often more vivid and memorable than their victims. Consider Rush Limbaugh’s rants about a Georgetown University law student who dared to testify to Congress about the need for all health insurance policies to cover contraception, even if the sponsoring organization was a religious institution. The student noted that birth control pills can cost students upward of $1,000 a year. Her fairly mild comments sent Limbaugh on a tirade; he called her a “slut” and a “prostitute” for “having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.” It was jaw-droppingly nasty, to the point that Limbaugh started bleeding advertisers until he wa forced to (halfheartedly) apologize. Yet today, we still remember Rush Limbaugh in all his fetid glory, while we struggle a bit to remember Sandra Fluke’s name. 

Comstock reveled in his power. He boasted about the thousands of porn vendors he had put behind bars, and he gleefully kept a running account of the many victims he had driven to suicide.

This discomfiting reality demonstrates the enduring power of the Comstock playbook. He dehumanized his victims, misrepresented their views, exaggerated their impact, and then encouraged newspapers to publicize their names and addresses, in a 19th-century version of doxxing. Comstock’s books would provide a thesaurus of steaming epithets for Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, et al. In Comstock’s world, free love advocates were “an enervated, lazy, shiftless, corrupt breed of human beings, devoid of common decency, not fit companions, in many cases, to run with swine.” Making contraceptives available to married couples would “debase sacred things, break down the health of women and disseminate a greater curse than the plagues and diseases of Europe.” One national group that opposed his efforts was “so liberal that it would give the vilest and lowest of criminals freedom to send their engines of moral death into your very families to destroy your children at your firesides.”

Comstock could have led webinars on staging outrageous media stunts for maximum political effect. In 1873, when he was lobbying for his federal anti-smut law, he took over the vice president’s office in the Capitol to display a curated exhibit of “contraceptives; obscene engravings, plates, woodcuts, photos, books, and playing cards; abortifacients; and ‘rubber articles,’ ” all lavishly presented on a mahogany table. Not surprisingly, the salacious display drew crowds of prurient legislators—and Comstock’s law slid through both the House and Senate in the last few moments of a lame-duck session. 

The sheer brute force—and effectiveness—of Comstock’s tactics can be seen in his harassment of Craddock, who was (depending on your point of view) either an intellectually frustrated, sex-obsessed, emotionally unstable crank or a self-educated sexology researcher who bravely risked public opprobrium and criminal prosecution to demand women’s God-given right to sexual fulfillment. Craddock first drew the unblinking eye of Comstock in 1893, when she self-published a short pamphlet: The Danse du Ventre (Dance of the Abdomen) as Performed in the Cairo Street Theatre, Midway Plaisance, Chicago: Its Value as an Educator in Marital Duties. Both Craddock and Comstock had been galvanized by the sight of “Little Egypt” (a stage name used interchangeably by three female performers) belly-dancing at the World’s Columbian Exposition. But where Comstock was filled with furious loathing by the sight of a writhing, partially clad female, Craddock saw an emotionally overwhelming fusion of sex and spirituality. That transformational experience led her to a career as a (verbal) sex therapist and writer of marriage manuals. For the next six years, she veered between small successes as a lecturer and private practitioner and terrifying encounters with postal inspectors and federal agents invoking Comstock against her. 

After two trips to federal court and three months in a mental institution (committed by her mother, in league with a Comstock-supporting district attorney), Craddock eventually abandoned her therapeutic efforts and set up as the head of a new “Church of Yoga,” which embraced sexuality as part of its doctrine. Assuming that this approach would protect her under the First Amendment, she republished one of her previously banned books, adding a new introduction that called Comstockism “an institution resembling the Holy Inquisition of mediaeval times.” Her provocation brought Comstock himself to her door in 1902, brandishing a warrant and accompanied by three deputies. In his record of her arrest on both state and federal charges, he described her as a “lecturer of filth,” and he told reporters that she had planned to distribute her books to girls’ high schools, and that she had even accosted two 16-year-old girls to force her books into their pure young hands. When Craddock was convicted on state charges after a salacious trial, Comstock “exulted with savage glee,” one onlooker reported. 

During her federal trial, Comstock falsely claimed under oath that Craddock gave her books to underage girls. His perjured testimony led to her conviction. Facing a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison, Craddock took her own life the night before her sentencing hearing. In one of her suicide notes, she wrote, “Perhaps it may be that in my death more than in my life, the American people may be shocked into investigating the dreadful state of affairs which permits that unctuous sexual hypocrite, Anthony Comstock, to wax fat and arrogant, and to trample upon the liberties of the people.” When a reporter informed him of her death, Comstock’s response was characteristically coldhearted and self-serving: He repeated the lie that she had sold her sex manuals to children. 

Sohn clearly revels in the double-sided shock value of the stories she tells, detailing both the audaciously explicit sexual advocacy of her heroines and Comstock’s ham-fisted retaliations. But her book would have been more powerful if she had pared down some of the lengthy (if spicy) details and instead offered readers a broader vision of the political landscape in which Comstock flourished for so long. As an example, consider Sohn’s description of Little Egypt—her dancing, her costume, and the sensation her performance provoked. Sohn’s discussion of the dancer’s scandalous performance never ventures beyond the Columbian Exposition’s Midway Plaisance, the fair’s mile-long stretch of “anthropological” exhibits and arcade attractions. Yet just a few short blocks away stood the other half of the fair, the Columbian Exposition’s massive Beaux Arts Court of Honor—better known as the White City—which celebrated the loftier aspects of culture and commerce. The Court of Honor included the Women’s Building, which showcased women’s art, literature, ingenuity, economic power, and rising political might and was commissioned by the fair’s wealthy and influential “Board of Lady Managers.” These ladies were likely revolted by Comstock’s tactics, but they shared his foundational view of Woman as the purifying and ennobling force that upholds all that is good in human society.

So the two halves of the Columbian Exposition, the White City and the Midway Plaisance, symbolized the tensions between two dueling visions of feminine power: Woman as Temptress versus Woman as Moral Guardian. These two enduring and dialectically opposed strains in American political thought stretch back deep into our history, and they continue to shape our politics and our worldviews today. 

Anthony Comstock was not merely a bitterly unhappy and misogynistic individual who somehow happened to persuade a group of wealthy, conservative New Yorkers to bankroll a quixotic crusade against smut. He was the fanatical champion of a large group of Americans whose conservatism was affronted by the idea that women might want to step off their pedestals, unlace their corsets, and enjoy every aspect of life, just as men did. Comstock’s backers may have chuckled inwardly at his ability to ferret out a single lewd passage in an otherwise mind-numbing spiritualist tract, and they may have felt a bit queasy when they saw the way he relished dismantling his victims’ livelihoods and destroying their lives. But for some 30 years, a good chunk of the American political establishment chose to countenance Comstock’s search-and-destroy censorship. His power was derived not from his extremism, but from his well-connected adherents, who viewed themselves as the vanguard of a silent, moral majority.

Similarly, it may be tempting for us to see Comstock’s stalwart female adversaries as women ahead of their time. But the true moral of Sohn’s story is that all of these women were absolutely of their own time, just as Comstock was. They served as the spearpoints of a radical political and social movement that drew hundreds of thousands of passionate supporters. These women may have been notorious in some social circles, but they were celebrated in others. Their insistence that women should make their own decisions about their own bodies and lives struck a deep chord with many Americans, both male and female, and their collective resistance to Comstockism eventually shifted the fulcrum of the nation’s political thought.

In the American political world, no battle is ever permanently lost nor permanently won. Comstock versus Emma Goldman morphs into Phyllis Schlafly against Gloria Steinem, which devolves into Rush Limbaugh attacking Sandra Fluke.

At least until it shifted back again. Because the lesson we should take from this book is that, in the American political world, no battle is ever permanently lost nor permanently won. Anthony Comstock versus Emma Goldman morphs into Phyllis Schlafly against Gloria Steinem, which devolves into Rush Limbaugh attacking Sandra Fluke, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Although we may prefer to see ourselves as warriors on the social vanguard, boldly going where no man (or woman) has gone before, history brusquely reminds us that we are mere foot soldiers in a political Hundred Years’ War, taking, losing, and retaking the same bloody disputed territory.

This is the reason that history matters—not as a pious genuflection to people who once were brave and now are dead, but as a reminder that the culture wars we fight today are deeply, perhaps permanently rooted in the American character. The principles that animated Comstock and his followers do not simply vanish. They fade, ebb, and dissipate, like viruses, only to resurge unexpectedly in a more contagious and virulent form.

Today, as I was writing this review, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed anti-abortion bills that would redefine most abortions as homicide and would strip doctors who perform abortions of their medical licenses. The New York Center for Reproductive Rights is considering legal action to overturn these new laws. 

Anthony Comstock lives. So does Emma Goldman.

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