“”Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.
|—George Bernard Shaw|
Anthony Comstock (1844–1915) is one of the reasons Americans are so squicky about abortion, birth control, pornography, and sexuality in general. While his title was United States Postal Inspector in the late-19th/early-20th centuries, Comstock bragged that he caused fifteen people to commit suicide and had arrested 4,000 people. In addition to the arrests and suicides, Comstock is estimated to have destroyed 15 tons of books, 4 million pictures, and 142 tons of printing press plates. He seems nice.
The Comstock Act
The Comstock Act was a law that made it illegal to send "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials through the mail, i.e. pornography. However, the law also banned sending contraceptives and information about contraceptives, as well as educational information about abortion through the mail.[note 1] Thanks to these laws, during the World War I, American troops were sent abroad without condoms, resulting in a very high STD rate.[note 2] The law was popular, and state level laws were also enacted. New England was under draconian law for years, with birth control being completely illegal in Connecticut until 1965's Griswold v. Connecticut decision, and nearly illegal in Massachusetts; the other states were little better.
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
Comstock founded this and along with his supporters, the YMCA. John Somner succeeded Comstock as the head of the NYSSV. He continued burning books, and prosecuting purveyors of allegedly obscene literature with the help of the New York City Police Department. The NYSSV eventually disbanded in 1950, it was the opposite of the ACLU. They are most famous for their opposition to Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawerence, though they protested many other works, such as those of Oscar Wilde. At one point, it was actually alleged that the NYSSV was actually selling porn that it had previously confiscated.
Influence in popular culture
- The main enemy in the videogame BioShock Infinite is called Zachary Hale Comstock in his honor and the main character is named Booker.
- The Economist: The hypocrites' club
- Just ask the Christian fundamentalist makers of *Birth Control: How Did We Get Here?*, who laud Comstock's censorship policy: "The film describes Anthony Comstock as a young Christian who saw contraception as 'the devil’s attack on young people. He frames contraception as one that had to be tied to abortion and pornography.'"
- The Library of Congress
- The American Experience on Comstock
- Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940 by Jay A. Gertzman (2011) University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812205855.
- Gertzman, op. cit., page 165.