Issue 117, Fall 2012

Sex is, as the late Justice William Brennan said, “a great and mysterious motive force in human life [which] has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages.” However, from 19th century vice societies and public morality campaigns to contemporary attacks on pornography, Americans have been at war over sexual expression – and with themselves over their ambivalence about sex.

Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, wasn’t the first anti-sex crusader, but may have been the most influential. He proudly took responsibility for burning 50 tons of books and millions of photos as well as for 4,000 arrests and 15 suicides.

Even after Comstock’s death, his legacy lived on. In 1920 the Little Review magazine was prosecuted for publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses. The book was banned in the U.S. until 1933, when a federal judge overturned the ban because he found the book more “emetic” (vomit-inducing) than “aphrodisiac.”

“Aphrodisiac” works like  D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer remained banned until midcentury, when U.S. culture had become more open to sexuality and sexual expression, a development promoted and reflected by a Supreme Court decision protecting sexual expression unless “obscene,” and “utterly without redeeming social importance.”

The 1960s ushered in an era of sexual liberation. President Johnson appointed the “Lockhart” commission to study the effects of pornography, expecting to document harm. Two years later, however, the commission concluded that pornography was not in fact harmful and called for the repeal of obscenity law.

The Commission’s report was immediately denounced by President Nixon who “categorically rejected its morally bankrupt conclusions” and promised that pornography would be controlled if not eliminated under his administration. A new public morality campaign was launched by groups opposed to pornography, including conservative and religious groups and feminist anti-porn activists.

In 1985, Attorney General Edwin Meese convened a commission of anti-pornography crusaders that issued a dossier on the harmful effects of pornography.1 While admitting that linking aggressive behavior and sexual violence “requires assumptions not found exclusively in the experimental evidence,” the Commissioner saw “no reason, however, not to make these assumptions…that are plainly justified by our own common sense.” These views continued to attract public and political support – in 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft spent $8,000 on drapery to conceal the bare-breasted statue The Spirit of Justice, which had stood in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice since 1933. His successor, Alberto Gonzalez, declared that pornography was his top prosecutorial concern alongside terrorism.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo captured our cultural ambivalence: “We are…caught in this uncomfortable contradiction: the desire for what disgusts us, the disgust for what we desire.”

According to a 2009 Harvard Business School study, he’s right: the highest per capita consumption of pornography occurs in those states with the most restrictive laws regulating access to adult content.

Ironic, huh?


1 In January 1986, while the Meese Commission was in session, NCAC organized a public briefing, The Meese Commission Exposed, featuring Kurt Vonnegut, Betty Friedan, and others, who anticipated and warned about the negative consequences of censorship of  sex, especially for women.