Activism / Feminism / women's rights

Have we learned nothing from Comstock?

Have you even heard of Anthony Comstock? I didn’t learn about him in classes in American history, and never heard the name until I became involved in the atheist and freethought movement. Anthony Comstock was the champion of a set of regulations that made it illegal to send “obscene” materials though the mail.

What qualified as “obscene?” For starters, and for the purpose of this post, any information or objects having anything to do with contraception were forbidden from being sent though the mail by the Comstock Laws. For the crimes of distributing educational materials about birth control, such notable women as Margret Sanger and Elmina D. Slenker were arrested and/or imprisoned. The laws also banned anyone from sending materials having anything to do with sex or sexuality, whether it be porn or medical information. Many others faced arrest and persecution and the shutting down of their magazines and newspapers.

Anthony Comstock was the founder of the eerily named "New York Society for the Suppression of Vice."

The Comstock Laws were passed in 1873, and while they have not been officially repealed they have time and again been crippled due to being found unconstitutional. However, comstockery still pops up its ugly head from time to time in American law and politics.

This is a quote from an apparently approving article in Harper’s Weekly in 1915, where Anthony Comstock’s views and those of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice are described:

If you allow the devil to decorate the Chamber of Imagery in your heart with licentious and sensual things, you will find that he has practically thrown a noose about your neck and will forever after exert himself to draw you away from the “Lamb of God which taketh away sins of the world.” You have practically put rope on memory’s bell and placed the other end of the rope in the devil’s hands, and

though you may will out your mind, the memory of some vile story or picture that you may have looked upon, be assured that even in your most solitary moments the devil will ring memory’s bell and call up the hateful thing to turn your thoughts away from God and undermine all aspirations for holy things.

Let me emphasize one fact, supported by my nearly forty-two years of public life in fighting this particular foe. My experience leads me to the conviction that once these matters enter through the eye and ear into the chamber of imagery in the heart of the child, nothing but the grace of God can ever erase or blot it out.

Finally, brethren, “let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not.” Raise over each of your heads the banner of the Lord Jesus Christ. Look to Him as you Commander and Leader.

Then, as now, the excuse and justification for limiting the liberties of others comes down to religious belief.

Later in the article, here are the words of Comstock in describing the effects of birth control in response to the questions of the interviewer.

“But,” I protested, repeating an argument often brought forward, although I felt as if my persistence was somewhat placing me in the ranks of those who desire evil rather than good, “If the parents lack that self-control, the punishment falls upon the child.”

“It does not,” replied Mr. Comstock. “The punishment falls upon the parents. When a man and woman marry they are responsible for their children. You can’t reform a family in any of these superficial ways. You have to go deep down into their minds and souls. The prevention of conception would work the greatest demoralization. God has set certain natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down that fear you bring worse disaster than the war. It would debase sacred things, break down the health of women and disseminate a greater curse than the plagues and diseases of Europe.”

Compare this to Santorum’s words.

Santorum pads his opinion by saying he supports Title X from a “governmental perspective” but quickly says that birth control is “bad for women and bad for society.” Implicit in his statements is the idea that sex for any reason other than procreation is sin, and that couples who try to avoid pregnancy when they have sex are avoiding their responsibilities. These are purely religious ideas and nothing based in the realities of human experience.

These are the kinds of motives and ideas behind “abstinence only education” (harkening back to the Comstock idea that educational material about sex is obscene). Also the recent push to allow employers to block insurance coverage of contraception in the name of religious freedom, along with the attempt to do anything possible to prevent women’s voices from being heard in the hearings. There is nothing new here, and nothing that should be surprising to us if we know a bit of American history. Those who would take away our freedoms almost always do so under the guise of good and morality and responsibility, but those ideals are not what is at stake. Let’s take care that history does not repeat itself and take women’s rights back over a century in the process.

Sources and More Information:

Stamping Out Indecency, The Postal Way — A article on the Comstock Laws, and their effects and continuing influence.

Comstock Laws — Women’s Health Encyclopedia

VIOLATING POSTAL LAWS.; A WOMAN ARRESTED FOR MAILING OBSCENE MATTER. — New York Times Article on the arrest of Elmina D. Slenker for distributing “obscene” materials though the mail. I recommend reading it, just for the shock of how they talk about her immoral ways and absolve her husband of all the wrongdoing and shame of her actions. The sexism and condescending tone of the article is breathtaking.

The Birth of the Pill — Article on the history of birth control and the effects of the Comstock Laws.

Women Without Superstition “No God’s No Masters”: The Collected Writings of the Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, an anthology compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor.

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2 thoughts on “Have we learned nothing from Comstock?

  1. I’ve always believed that most pro-life initiatives are really anti-sex initiatives. The religious right is never for options that would reduce the number of abortions but allow more sex. They only support options that would reduce sexual activity. Louisville’s own Albert Mohler has for years been calling contraception part of a “culture of death” and opposing it at every turn.

    When you realize that they take the same view towards anything that reduce sexually transmitted diseases, even opposing vaccinations to put an end to cervical cancer (essentially saying it’s better that a woman die than have sex) you realize that the common thread in all of this is that on some level they seem to view pregnancy and disease as negative consequences of sexual activity, and what they don’t want removed is the “punishment” for having sex.

  2. “The religious right is never for options that would reduce the number of abortions but allow more sex.”

    The Catholic church in particular seems to think that if a woman does not wish to be a mother having another baby for as long as she is still having sex, she should become a nun. I mean, what other options have they ever given to women? When I was growing up in an evangelical household, I was never told that birth control was wrong. But it appears that the evangelicals are getting to be as bad as the Catholics in this regard if the current national conversation is any indication. The shear prudery is sickening.

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