The Sex Wars (Part 2 of 4)

Continued from Part 1

The years following the end of the U.S. Civil War saw a rise in conservative values and newspaper editorials regularly called for  measures to combat "immoral behaviour".   While women were still expected to know their place as wives and mothers,  a small but influential group of "loose women" still enjoyed many freedoms denied to "respectable women".   That included having their own income,  sex outside of marriage, and freedom to use birth control.    Despite the conservatism, prostitution was a booming business and madams were often independently wealthy in their own right.   Not only were brothels a common sight in virtually every American city but prostitutes even advertised their services in some newspapers.  

In many cases, women had few other options but prostitution considering the subsistence wages in the rare places that would even consider hiring women.   Even women who "married well" tended not to be wealthy in their own right since all their assets belonged to their husbands.    Despite the social stigma surrounding the sex trade, there were always new prospects.   And it was the prostitutes who provided the chief demand for contraceptives during the mid-19th century. 

But the backlash was already setting in.   While successful madams could run brothels that allowed them to enjoy luxurious lifestyles,  newspaper editorials condemning them were already selling papers.   In his 1869 book, The Women of New York: or Social Life in the Great City,  journalist George Ellington wrote at length on madams and their influence.  Describing them as "female fiends of the worst kind, who seem to have lost all the better qualities of nature", he also described madams as being the "friends and chosen companions of some of the wealthiest and most influential men of the city."    Though the legal crackdown after the Civil War largely ended the quiet life that many sex trade workers enjoyed, their refusal to see themselves as "fallen women" offended the Victorian sensibilities of the time.

Along with suppressing the sex trade however, there was also a backlash against contraceptives.   Religious figures denounced the sale of contraceptives in drugstores and books published in the 1860s and 1870 (with titles such as "Satan in Society") denounced birth control as a "violation of the laws of Heaven" and a "hydra-headed monster" that was meant to kill the American family.

When it came to preserving public morality though, nobody was more outspoken than Anthony Comstock.    After fighting in the Civil War (where he was offended by the profane language used by his fellow soldiers), 220px-Anthony_Comstock[1] Comstock settled in New York City where he became involved with various Christian movements including the Young Men's Christian Association.   In 1873, he founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice  and he became a major force in the U.S. drive to stem the rising tide of "immoral conduct".    In that same year,  Comstock and his followers managed to pressure the U.S. government into passing new legislation to block the shipping of "obscene materials" though the mail.   Though the official name of the new law was the "Act for The Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use, virtually everybody referred to it as the Comstock Act. 

Not only did the Act criminalize any obscene materials sent through the mail, but it also banned the possession of any materials deemed obscene, including contraceptives and abortifacients.   The Act also extended to "marriage manuals" and any educational information relating to venereal disease.  In fact, the Federal law made anyone selling or possessing these materials liable to a long prison sentence and a hefty fine.   The Comstock Act was quickly followed by similar legislation in 24 states which are still known collectively as the Comstock Laws.  While these laws were later challenged in court, the various decisions largely upheld the Constitutionality of the legislation.   There was also the thorny question of what constituted obscenity which vexed judges well into the 20th century (and still does today). 

More importantly, the Act appointed Comstock as a a special agent of the U.S. Postal Service (including the right to carry a gun) and gave him virtually absolute power in deciding what constituted obscenity.   Comstock was also free to arrest anyone whom he considered guilty of promoting or distributing obscene materials.  His definition of "lewd or obscene" was far broader than society had previously accepted and even medical textbooks featuring anatomically correct drawings were seized.  Comstock also shut down the Louisiana lottery which he felt contributed to gambling and related immorality.

Anthony Comstock became a polarizing figure in U.S. society.  While civil rights groups and sex trade workers condemned him, church groups considered him a hero.   He was also  mocked internationally and George Bernard Shaw coined the term "comstockery" after his play, Mrs. Warren's Profession, was deemed obscene under the Comstock Act.  In writing about Comstock and his crusade, Shaw said that, "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all."   Comstock, in turn, dismissed Shaw as an "Irish smut dealer". 

But George Bernard Shaw got off lightly compared to many other social reformers pushing for public education on sexuality and birth control.   Newspapers were banned from running advertisements for contraceptives and even news stories covering sexual topics could lead to newspapers being charged under the Comstock laws.   Comstock's wrath also fell on prominent suffragettes Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin for their support of feminist issues such as legalized prostitution.   He even went so far as to arrest them for running an expose of a prominent preacher's adulterous affair (they were later acquitted).

Comstock's crusade meant an end to the sale and dissemination of contraceptives, marriage manuals, erotica, and other "obscene materials".   At least, these things could no longer be openly sold.   An underground black market continued to flourish for the sex trade workers and free thinkers determined to preserve the sexual freedom they had years before.   While they were harshly prosecuted whenever Comstock could get an opportunity, the marketeers he denounced as "moral cancer planters" and "old she-villains" continued to make contraceptives available.   Considering millions of women were demanding condoms and other forms of protection,  the bootleg trade was every bit as competitive and cut-throat as what the rumrunners were up to during the Prohibition era. 

Brooklyn entrepreneur, Joseph Bachrach, sold a wide range of contraceptives and other "erotic aids" which he manufactured himself in the home he shared with his wife and seven children.  His inventory included condoms,  vaginal shields, and "rubber ticklers" for sexual stimulation.    By the 1880s, Backrach's secret factory was turning out thousands of contraceptives to be snapped up by his eager customers.  And Backrach was hardly the only one.  Julius Schmid, creator of the Fourex, Sheik and Rameses condoms, was inspired to develop his products while working in a sausage factory.   When Comstock's vice squad raided Schmid's  factory at his 46th Street home (then the heart of New York's red light district), they found 696 prophylactic "skins" and "one form for manufacturing same".   Though Schmid was jailed and fined, that hardly stopped him from keeping up with the demand for his product.   As the first American to mass produce rubber condoms, Schmid eventually cornered the market and went on to become the main source of condoms sold to U.S. soldiers during World War I. 

One of the saddest stories associated with Comstock's crusade involved suffragette and sexual pioneer Ida Craddock whose fight for open discussion of sex and birth control, and her battle with Anthony Comstock led to her suicide.   More on that next week.

To be continued.

 

 

 

 

 

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