If you don’t know the name of Anthony Comstock, two things: 1) brace yourself and 2) count yourself lucky – the man was… something else. Read on, and be enlightened!
Born in 1844, Comstock grew up and went off, as did many million young men of his generation, to fight in the Civil War (he fought on the side of the Union, aka the North, which was the side against slavery, so perhaps his original intentions were good.) How he felt about this bloody conflict is unknown, but his distaste for his fellow soldiers’ bad language is on record – he found his fellow soldiers to be uncivil, and laid objections to their language with his superior officers.
Surviving the war more or less unscathed, Comstock then went off to work with the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in NY. In those days, the organisation placed a huge amount of emphasis on the Christian part of their name and weren’t the cool, fun organisation envisioned when the song of the same name plays at the club… While in New York, Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (not to be confused with the completely different entity named ‘Society for the Suppression of Vice, similar though they may be). This organisation devoted itself to rooting out and eradicating what it called ‘obscenity’ and it did so with enormous success. Comstock forged connections that saw the enactment of the ‘Comstock Law’ which prevented the sending of ‘obscene’ material by postal service.
While this all sounds noble and potentially a very good thing – after all, who would not want to protect the world from nastiness and bestial practices? – it really was not. This is because his views – and those of the people he surrounded himself with – of obscenity were broad and wide, and some of the material he objected to included: some anatomy textbooks, necessary for medical students to train up into doctors; books and information sheets about birth control, contraceptive products; materials on abortions and how to perform them (or source them) safely; and information and products relating to the prevention and cure of venereal disease. Of course, his grasping investigators also seized any number of sex toys, erotic art and literature and anything and everything that their smutty minds decided was nasty, and not in a good way.
If you are preparing to dismiss Comstock as a prudish nutter who was, at heart, quite harmless, banish the thought! Comstock openly drove, and was loudly proud of doing so, up to 15 people to suicide – mainly women for whom he had removed their last hopes, or those who worked tirelessly to save the lives of women for whom giving birth would have been dangerous. He was also proud of the fact that he was responsible for causing over 4,000 arrests.
So if you ever wonder why the US seems to be as prudish in some matters as a 1920s virgin aunt, now you know – you can thank Anthony Comstock for setting art and literature, contraception, and women’s sexual health in the USA back almost a century.