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March 03, 2016

Today Is Anthony Comstock Day—'A Day Which Will Live In Infamy'

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Every content producer in the adult industry has, at one time or another, worried about whether his/her product will run afoul of the federal obscenity laws—and guess what? The reason for all that worry tracks back to March 3, 1873, which is the date that Congress, in what Time magazine described as the "flurry of a closing session," passed the Comstock Act, which criminalized not only "obscenity" but also information about birth control and pretty much anything else having to do with sex that was sent through the mails. The Act read, in pertinent part, "Be it enacted.... That whoever, within the District of Columbia or any of the Territories of the United States... shall sell... or shall offer to sell, or to lend, or to give away, or in any manner to exhibit, or shall otherwise publish or offer to publish in any manner, or shall have in his possession, for any such purpose or purposes, an obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure, or image on or of paper or other material, or any cast instrument, or other article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, or shall write or print, or cause to be written or printed, any card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind, stating when, where, how, or of whom, or by what means, any of the articles in this section…can be purchased or obtained, or shall manufacture, draw, or print, or in any wise make any of such articles, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof in any court of the United States... he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court." Thanks to Anthony Comstock, who spent much of his adult life as the Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, well-respected authors such as Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer), James Joyce (Ulysses), John Cleland (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure aka Fanny Hill), Terry Southern (Candy) and many others had been virtually banned from the U.S. because some postal inspector (which for a time included Comstock himself) decided that what they contained was obscene. Comstock also gave a very hard time to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, who was busted in 1916 for opening a birth control clinic in Manhattan, and several times for sending information about contraceptives through the mail. That ban wasn't lifted until 1936, though some states were so anti-birth control that their laws prevented counselors from discussing the subject with patients until the Supreme Court legalized such discussions in the 1965(!) case of Griswold v. Connecticut. Comstock also apparently had a real "hard on" for early feminist Victoria Woodhull, and ordered the editors of the men's journal The Days' Doings to stop publishing what he termed "lewd images" of Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin. He later had both women arrested after they had published an expose of an extramarital affair between then-famous Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and socialite Elizabeth Tilton, claiming that the women had violated laws forbidding the use of the postal service to distribute 'obscene material.' They were later acquitted—as were many others who fell under the Comstock Act's grip. Apparently, what originally set Comstock off was the death of one of his close friends, allegedly due to his having been "led astray and corrupted and diseased," likely from the man's contact with prostitutes, many of whom had thriving businesses in mid-19th century New York, and also one Charles Conroy, who, from his basement in lower Manhattan's  Warren Street, had sold his friend "erotic materials" which the friend used to help himself masturbate. So, henceforth, consider March 3 to be a dark day in the history of adult entertainment—and light a candle for your fallen friends.

 
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