Originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of the Hedgehog Review.
Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock
by Amy Werbel
Columbia University Press, 408 pages, $35
The problem of pornography has never been worse than it is right now. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider: Online streaming porn is video, rather than text or image, which makes it categorically more seductive. It is not geographically restricted to seedy parts of town but accessible anywhere with an Internet connection, by anyone of any age. Much of it is free. Barriers to entry on the supply side are nil. The flood of content over the last decade means that producers have to compete for eyeballs, and because they can’t compete on price, the easiest way to distinguish their product is by going to further and further extremes in the content itself. Technology and social change have combined to push pornography to new frontiers: More of it is being produced, and what gets produced is more depraved.
It is baffling that this unprecedented state of affairs has not called forth a twenty-first-century Comstock, but then, the original Anthony Comstock, the antivice crusader best known for lending his name to a 1873 law banning distribution of obscene material through the mail, is held in low regard. His undeserved reputation is the result of a long line of hostile treatments by his ideological opponents, of which Lust on Trial is the most recent.
A professor of art history at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Amy Werbel argues that Comstock’s efforts served to reinforce “prevailing power structures and prejudices” at the expense of “the most vulnerable citizens of the day”—women, immigrants, and the urban poor. Refreshingly, she credits Comstock himself with high motives, but she still depicts him as essentially a fool, a fanatic, and a buffoon.
Missing from this picture of Comstock is the side of him that was genuinely heroic. He was, first of all, physically brave. He survived numerous attempts on his life, including a stab in the face from a pornographer that doctors did not expect him to survive. His mail was full of death threats and, on one occasion, a box of smallpox scabs (he and his wife were immediately vaccinated), to say nothing of the bomb sent to his office, which mercifully failed to detonate. He was the first antivice enforcer in the history of New York City to be immune to bribery, which is all the more impressive considering that he refused to accept either a government salary or the share of the fines to which he was entitled under New York obscenity law. He had only his modest salary from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, out of which he supported his own family as well as his widowed stepmother and the wife and children of his absconded half-brother.
Far from being a WASP Brahmin, Comstock became Comstock precisely because he wasn’t upper class. There were certain parts of town where New York’s gentleman reformers simply could not show their faces even with the best excuse. A humble dry goods salesman like Comstock was free to seek out vice in its lair. But even after he became their champion, the men who bankrolled Comstock were not about to invite him to dinner at their homes or to their private clubs. As Werbel puts it, with some poignancy, “Comstock represented and worked for the city’s elite, but in reality he was a clerk promoted to a supervisory position.”
If anything, setting himself up as a vice fighter diminished his social standing. Is there anyone lower in the status hierarchy than the professional censor? He is lower than the pornographer he hunts, who might be shunned but is never mocked with such cruelty. In her book, Werbel reproduces several cartoons making fun of Comstock, and they are remarkable for their sheer mean-spiritedness. “Let Anthony’s Punishment Fit the Crime” depicts him as a nude model for an art class, the students cackling at his fat form. When his name was proposed for membership in a local Masonic lodge, “there was an avalanche of black balls such as no man in any society probably ever received,” according to the gleeful report of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Comstock was not so stupid as to be unaware that he was an object of contempt and ridicule. He was sustained in his thankless task by a conviction that he was saving lives. He was originally launched on his crusade when he saw a clerk at his dry goods store drawn by a chance encounter into an addiction to dirty pictures and thence to brothels, venereal disease, and death. Comstock knew that the young men he rescued from the same fate would not thank him for it, but he was firm enough in his mission that he did not care. In order to give the reader an idea of the New England in which Comstock was raised, Werbel notes that during the Civil War his native Fairfield County, Connecticut, “with its high percentage of Christian abolitionists, rallied to the [Union] cause in large numbers.” The sense of duty and selflessness that inspired those abolitionists was inherited by young Anthony intact.
When the end came for Comstockery, it was his social betters who delivered the death blow. Comstock’s power came from the laws that allowed him to seize and destroy pornographic material, and it disappeared when those laws were rendered toothless. It was one very simple tactic that accomplished this legal revolution, and Werbel puts her finger on it exactly: “Defense attorneys were able to insist on expertise in the judgment of obscenity.” For centuries, artistic merit had been no defense against a charge of obscenity; in some jurisdictions it was actually an aggravating factor. Then a new standard began to develop in state courts and, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1957 decision in Roth v. United States, in the federal judiciary, requiring consideration of a work “taken as a whole” (in the words of Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority in Roth). This opened the door to expert witnesses from university art and English departments willing to expatiate upon the artistic merits of the illustrated Fanny Hill, which, if sufficiently great, would legally outweigh its pornographic demerits.
No point mincing words: This “expertise” was entirely bogus. When English professors lined up to defend Lady Chatterley’s Lover, they were trumpeting their moral sophistication, not their literary acuity. The oldest cliché in the annals of obscenity law is the defendant who points out that, after all, there are some pretty spicy things in Shakespeare and the Bible. (Having researched a number of these cases, I can categorically say that the defense is far more likely to bring up the Bible than the prosecution.) Mark Twain thought he was being clever when he suggested that Comstock should try reading Byron, Rabelais, and Balzac. The joke was on him. Proclaiming that you see no difference between Fanny Hill and the Song of Songs does not demonstrate that you have cultivated a fine and sensitive literary judgment. It proves that you have failed to.
Werbel herself cites experts whose claim to authority is dubious, in spite of their impressive academic credentials. She quotes sexologist John Bancroft, MD, on the connection between sex and humor: Both are a “release of pent-up tension,” and “many if not most of us are scared by or uncomfortable about sex and use humor as a way of reducing those anxious feelings.” A worthy observation, but where is the expertise? Every halfway-insightful person has had the same intuition. The truth is that there is no such thing as an expert in sex—not doctors, not prostitutes, not English professors specializing in D.H. Lawrence. To the extent that there is such a thing, Comstock qualified as much as anyone, from decades of experience seeing its darker side.
Before the Roth case reached the Supreme Court, a Second Circuit judge argued in a concurring opinion that the law Samuel Roth was charged with violating was fundamentally invalid because no expert evidence showed that pornography caused harm: “To date there exist, I think, no thoroughgoing studies by competent persons which justify the conclusion that normal adults’ reading or seeing of the ‘obscene’ probably induces antisocial conduct.” As it happens, we do have data showing that pornography has become a substitute for marriage among young men, with higher rates of porn consumption correlated with lower marriage rates. But whether pornography is preventing marriages or just ruining them, such studies are irrelevant. Sex is not a subject amenable to expertise, only wisdom, and the wisdom of centuries of human civilization tells us that pornography is morally wrong.