Anthony Comstock’s Sexless Wonderland

This is the first part of a recurring series on the history of American censorship.

If you’re looking to get a sense for an early, effective American censorship effort, you could do worse than the Comstock Act. Anthony Comstock was a Civil War veteran and facial hair pioneer and aficionado who got out of the service and then flipped his shit when he saw what was happening on the streets of his fair country. I mean, people were having premarital sex without the slightest intention or desire to procreate. Not only that, but they were looking at porn! Can you imagine? I’ll give you a minute to imagine.


Anthony Comstock. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Anthony Comstock. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, Comstock was a devout Christian and believed that the 10 Commandments were a great policy stance. When he was in the service, he didn’t like all the swearing those soldiers took up. When he got out, he made an effort to provide the police with information about seedy establishments, which turned into raids. And then, in a story of remarkable ambition (seriously), he drafted a bill and lobbied it into law. This particular law did a few things. It banned the postal distribution of publications that addressed homosexuality. It also banned the distribution of sex education information, which meant that some goddamn medical students couldn’t even get their goddamn textbooks! Most prominently, the Comstock Act made it illegal to disseminate (heh) birth control or related materials by mail or across state lines. Comstock was enlisted as an agent of the Post Office to make sure the law was being followed, and if it was, to arrest those who broke it.

Comstock was pumped. His law had stifled the distribution of scientific literature, pharmaceuticals, and nudie mags. Needless to say, this was a major blow to reproductive medicine, rights, and, uh, motivation. More, thousands were put behind bars, and a few others committed suicide. (He bragged about this.)

Among those he targeted was noted women’s rights pioneer and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Sanger was a publisher of abortion rights pamphlets, and she fled to Europe by way of Canada following an indictment for her blatant disregard of Comstock’s act. Though she had left her husband William in the dust, Comstock decided to target him in her stead. He was arrested for providing a single copy of his wife’s pamphlet, Family Limitation, to an undercover officer. Comstock personally attended the trial, where he caught pneumonia. A few days later, he died from it. Lolz.

Before dying, Comstock granted this interview with Harper’s Weekly, wherein he proclaimed the inverse of a refrain that is so often heard even today from the religious right: “To repeal the present laws would be a crime against society, and especially a crime against young women.”

Considering his law was passed in 1873, within 10 years of the end of the Civil War, you’d think Mr. Comstock would have found some better, more profitable way to make his mark. Like reaping ridiculous cotton profits. Or being a carpetbagger. Or making smut. Oh well. Anyway, what’s really remarkable is that the laws stood until 1918, a good three years after women’s suffrage, when the Supreme Court ruled that women could use contraception for therapeutic purposes. Thus began a slow crumble for Comstock’s law. In 1936 the Supreme Court ruled that doctors could prescribe birth control to their patients. In 1971 Congress lifted the ban on birth control nationwide, and the laws were neutered into oblivion by Roe v. Wade two years later.

What strikes me about this case is that one repressed and oppressive individual single handedly inserted the U.S. government into peoples bedrooms, bathrooms, and bodies. The Act banned not only pharmaceutical materials, but published materials as well. That’s straight-up censorship that impacted our scientific communities understanding of human reproduction and stunted the sexual development of god knows how many.

Comstock is but a lone, early example of a whole galaxy of instances in which good old Uncle Sam tried — or is trying — to make sure we stay pure of mind and body. Next time, we’ll be talking about the first regulations on what could and couldn’t be broadcast when the nation went all radio- and TV-crazy. Should be fun, fuckers.

Cartoon of New York post office during Comstock era from The Journal of American History, via Loyola University