Monday, August 3, 2009

Imprisoning and Silencing America's First Sex Educators

Remember how quickly Congress reacted to the Janice Jackson "wardrobe malfunction?" Lawmakers have long been hitching a ride on America’s sexual hang-ups. In fact, Congress began throttling sex education, and cutting off access to sexually related materials, in the 1870’s. That is when they joined forces with the notorious self-appointed sexual morals activist, Anthony Comstock.

Comstock was the founder of the highly influential New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. (Consider its apparent similarity to the present-day Saudi Commission for the Protection of Virtue and Suppression of Vice.) Blocking access to information about birth control was Comstock’s chief concern. He also wanted to stiffle information on abortion. And while he was at it, he also campaigned to stamp out “obscene” books including serious novels, “dirty” pictures, birth control devices, and so forth.

Comstock’s Society kicked off its activities by conducting vigilante raids on retailers; confiscating and handing over to the police, “bad books” and “articles made of rubber for immoral purposes and used by both sexes.” Then, emboldened by the success of this campaign, Comstock and his Society launched a national political campaign to criminalize sex education, sex toys, racy illustrations and “bad books.”

Their efforts were one hundred percent successful. In 1873 Congress passed, without debate, the Comstock inspired, Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use. Significantly, sex education, particularly as it pertained to preventing conception, was defined as obscene. Here is an excerpt from that statute:

Whoever … shall sell, or lend, or give away, or in any manner exhibit … or shall otherwise publish … or shall have in his possession, any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, … or instrument … 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, … shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof, 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.

The law also specified that it was a serious crime to send such materials through the mail.

That last provision created a government job for Comstock because, when this legislation became law, he was appointed a special agent of the US Post Office with exclusive enforcement powers. He held this position, — in essence, America’s sexual morality czar — for the next 42 years.

As an agent of the government Comstock prosecuted anyone who provided information about birth control or who committed any of other sexual “offenses” involving the mail. Upon retirement Comstock boasted that he had successfully prosecuted more than 3,600 defendants and destroyed 160 tons of sexual materials.

He also provoked at least one famous suicide when feminist Ida Craddock killed herself rather than be imprisoned for sending sex education information by mail. Her suicide note reads, in part,

“I am taking my life because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has declared me guilty of a crime I did not commit -- the circulation of obscene literature. Perhaps it may be that in my death, more than in my life, the American people may be shocked into investigating the dreadful state of affairs which permits that unctuous sexual hypocrite Anthony Comstock to wax fat and arrogant and to trample upon the liberties of the people, invading, in my own case, both my right to freedom of religion and to freedom of the press."

Thus ended the life of one sex education pioneer. Hundreds of others ended up in federal prison. How far have we come since then? You decide.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at

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