In our continuing consideration of the rights of the individual in a free society, we discussed in the last installment of this editorial series (February) the extent to which a person's private sexual behavior is the subject of governmental control in America.
This nation was founded on the premise that each one of us is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; our democratic government was established to protect these rights and our Constitution guarantees them. Yet every state has statutes specifically designed to control the most personal, intimate acts of its citizens.
America is presumably the land of the free and the home of the brave. But our legislators, our judges and our officers of law enforcement are allowed to enter our most private inner sanctuaries—our bedrooms—and dictate the activity that takes place there.
We are free in a voting booth, in a stockholder's meeting, a union hall, or a house of worship, but we are not free in bed. Our democracy, which prides itself on its permissiveness in almost every area of individual endeavor, has proven intolerably restrictive in matters of sex.
Our society's repressive and suppressive antisexualism is derived from twisted theological concepts that became firmly imbedded in Christianity during the Dark Ages, several hundred years after the crucifixion of Christ, and spread and became more severe with Calvinist Puritanism after the Reformation. In the Old World, the people suffered under totalitarian church-state controls of both Catholic and Protestant origin and many of the early colonists in America came here in search of the religious freedom denied them in Europe. Our own founding fathers, well aware of the history of religious tyranny in other countries, established with the Constitution of the United States the concept of a separate church and state as the best means of assuring that both our religion and government would remain free, thus guaranteeing the freedom of the people.
Unfortunately, the seeds of religious antisexualism were already planted in the people themselves, however; in addition, through the centuries, a certain amount of ecclesiastical law had found its way into common law of Europe, and then into American law as well. As a result, not even the guarantees of the Constitution itself were enough to keep our religion and government apart.
19th Century Antisexualism
Puritan antisexualism increasingly infected both England and America and reached its climax in the 19th century. We are not suggesting that the period was noted for its purity or sexual abstinence—quite the contrary; as always occurs, the repression merely produced an uncommon amount of perversion and sexual aberration.
We have commented previously on the extent to which Victorian England was obsessed with sex, with an excessive modesty in speech, manners and dress that only accented matters sexual (The Playboy Philosophy—Part X, September 1963). The pre-Christian Celts and Saxons were a virile, vigorous, outgoing people; Britain had paid a heavy price for its religious heritage, for the traditional reserve and lack of spontaneity of the Englishman are as much a result of his Puritan past as is his taste for the sadomasochistic pleasures of the whip (flagellation is such a common accommodation of the English prostitute that revelations on the price paid for such services—one pound per stroke—during the Dr. Stephen Ward--Christine Keeler--Mandy Rice-Davies trial raised hardly an eyebrow among blasé Britishers).
In America the antisexual bent of the 1800s was mixed with excessive sentimentality and romanticism; women were placed upon pedestals, virginity and chastity were prized most highly, and the notion that a "nice girl" might experience anything akin to sexual yearning, or take pleasure in the sex act, was unthinkable. Morton M. Hunt, author of The Natural History of Love, comments in his chapter for Julian Huxley's The Humanist Frame: "...The 19th century—that high-water mark of romantic and sentimental feeling—was a time when many men were made impotent or masochistic by the prevailing love mores and many women were warped by frigidity and frustration."
It was also early in the last century that the censor first raised his ugly blue snout in America. Our founding fathers had spoken out most forcefully on the subject: In 1814 Thomas Jefferson stated that he was "mortified" to learn that the sale of a book should ever become a subject of inquiry in these United States. "Are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold and what we may buy?" Jefferson demanded. "Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched?"
"For the first hundred years," reports Morris L. Ernst in The Best Is Yet, "the United States was unafraid of sex. It was free of literary taboos, except for a remnant of blasphemy.... These men who drafted our federal Constitution and signed our Declaration of Independence bulged their cheeks with naughty giggles when reading the works of Fielding and Smollet. The plays of Congreve were presented without expurgation. And there was no substantial demand in this land for the importation of a Master of Revels who, since the days of Fielding's attack on Walpole, had been using his shears on the drama of Great Britain...."
But in the beginning of the 19th century we have what is generally accepted as the first recorded suppression of a literary work in the U.S. on the grounds of obscenity. The book was John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known by the name of its heroine, Fanny Hill. Cleland's delightful classic of ribaldry had been around for more than half a century and no one had thought to censor; Ben Franklin is reputed to have had a copy in his library. But the book was suppressed in the early 1800s, and it did not appear again in legal publication in this country for a century and a half until, in 1963, G.P. Putnam's Sons—emboldened by the recent victories over censorship in the courts—brought forth a new addition. Fanny's reappearance resulted in several obscenity suits which the publisher successfully defended; in the most significant, late in the year, a New York court first held the book to be obscene, then—in as refreshing a bit of jurisprudence as we have witnessed in the Empire State in a very long while—reversed itself, without the need for appeal to a higher court.
After the unhappy fate of Fanny at the start of the previous century, the censors went back—for a time—to whatever censors do when they're not censoring; in a memorable debate in the U.S. Senate in 1835, Clay, Calhoun and Webster declared that the federal government should never have anything to do with censorship: and in that same year a visitor from France. Alexis de Tocqueville, reported: "Attempts have been made by some governments to protect the morality of nations by prohibiting licentious books. In the United States no one is punished for this sort of work."
Yet in 1842 Congress passed a Tariff Act that forbade the importation of "obscene books or pictures into the United States"; and in 1865 another law passed prohibiting the transmission of objectionable materials through the mail. "But there was one saving grace in these laws," wrote Ernest Sutherland Bates. "It never occurred to anyone apparently that they should be enforced.
"And then around 1870 the lid was clamped down. Censorship was spread over the land like a prairie fire." It was imported, like the Puritans themselves, from England. As Andrew Lang expressed it; "English literature had been at least free-spoken as any other to the death of Smollett. Then in 20 years, at most, English literature became...the most respectful of the young person's blush that the world had ever known."
The growing sexual repression of a century erupted in an orgy of censorship—led by the infamous Anthony Comstock and others of his ilk—continuing to the end of the 1800s and into the beginning of a new century.
Comstock toiled for a number of years as an unpaid postal inspector, ferreting out the indecent, the lewd, the lascivious and the obscene in the U.S. mails in what was clearly a labor of love, before graduating to the post of secretary of, and primary spokesman for, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He was responsible for the passage of the Comstock Act, upon which H.L. Mencken reported bitterly: "The story of the passage of the Act of Congress of March 3, 1873, is a classical tale of Puritan impudence and chicanery. Ostensibly...the new laws were designed to put down traffic [in obscenity] which, of course, found no defenders—but Comstock had so drawn them that their actual sweep was vastly wider, and once he was firmly in the saddle, his enterprises scarcely knew limits. Having disposed of The Confessions of Maria Monk and Night Life in Paris, he turned to Rabelais and the Decameron, and having driven these agents under the book counters, he pounced upon Zola, Balzac and Daudet, and having disposed of these, too, he began a pogrom which, in other hands, eventually brought down such astounding victims as Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure.
"In carrying on this war of extermination upon all ideas that violated their private notions of virtue and decorum, Comstock and his followers were very greatly aided by the vagueness of the law. It prohibited the use of the mails for transporting all matter of 'obscene, lewd, lascivious...or filthy' character, but conveniently failed to define these adjectives. As a result...it was possible to bring an accusation against practically any publication that aroused the Comstockian blood-lust."
Heywood Broun remarked, "Anthony Comstock may have been entirely correct in his assumption that the division of living creatures into male and female was a vulgar mistake, but a conspiracy of silence about the matter will hardly alter the facts."
Not until the Twenties was there any noticeable tendency toward a thaw in this chilling climate of censorship, and it was not until the most recent years that American maturity and the U.S. courts reached the point where we can once again contemplate the possibility of the free press assured us by our founding fathers.
Our fear of sex has been sufficient, as we have illustrated in considerable detail in early installments of the Philosophy, to rationalize the abridgement of our Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of both speech and press. Sex has also served as a justification for curtailing academic freedom—and the mere expression of an unpopular opinion on the subject can still cause the dismissal of a college professor (as it did at the University of Illinois in 1960); or a too realistic, though award-laden, drama by Eugene O'Neill may bring down the wrath of a university president and prompt the registration of the head and staff of an entire drama department (as occurred at Baylor in 1963).
Discussing, describing or graphically depicting sex too explicitly, or with an improper moral point of view, is still prohibited throughout much of these supposedly free United States. Why? Because it may lead to like behavior. And that it is the greatest fear of all: that sex may be indulged in freely, without the burden of guilt and shame placed upon it by our ignorant, superstitious, fear-ridden ancestors in the Middle Ages.