The hideous resurrection of the Comstock Act

By | April 9, 2023

Michelle Goldberg writes:

Anthony Comstock, the mutton-chopped anti-vice crusader for whom the Comstock Act is named, is back from the dead.

Comstock died in 1915, and the Comstock Act, the notorious anti-obscenity law used to indict the Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, ban books by D.H. Lawrence and arrest people by the thousands, turned 150 last month. Had this anniversary fallen five or 10 years ago, it barely would have been worth noting, except perhaps to marvel at how far we’d come from an era when a fanatical censor like Comstock wielded national political power. “The Comstock Act represented, in its day, the pinnacle of Victorian prudery, the high-water mark of a strict and rigid formal code,” wrote the law professors Joanna Grossman and Lawrence Friedman. Until very recently, it seemed a relic.

Yet suddenly, the prurient sanctimony that George Bernard Shaw called “Comstockery” is running rampant in America. As if inspired by Comstock’s horror of “literary poison” and “evil reading,” states are outdoing one another in draconian censorship. In March, Oklahoma’s Senate passed a bill that, among other things, bans from public libraries all content with a “predominant tendency to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.” Amy Werbel, the author of “Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock,” described how Comstock tried to suppress photographs of cross-dressing women. More than a century later, Tennessee has banned drag performances on public property, with more states likely to follow. [Continue reading…]