[From "Kicking Against the Pricks"]
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.
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.
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.