How An Anti-Vice Crusader Sabotaged The Early Birth Control Movement

Historians in the News
tags: contraception, birth control, history of sexuality, Comstock Laws, Anthony Comstock

In 1873, Congress passed a law outlawing the distribution, sale, mailing and possession of "obscene" materials — including contraception.

The Comstock Act, as it became known, was named after Anthony Comstock, an anti-vice crusader who later became a special agent to the U.S. Post Office, giving him the power to enforce the law. In her new book, The Man Who Hated Women, author Amy Sohn writes about Comstock — as well as eight women charged with violating the Comstock Act.

While working for the post office, Sohn says, Comstock "decoyed people" by using the mail to solicit obscenity and contraception.

"[Comstock] was given that [post office] title so that he could have the power to inspect the mail and over time it was expanded to be able to come into people's houses and seize items," she says. "It was a very broad, broad definition of what someone affiliated with the post office could do with regards to individual civil liberties."

Over time, the scope of the Comstock law expanded: "Its heart was in the mail, but ... it became much broader than that," Sohn says. "Even oral information, which reasonable people believed was constitutionally protected, turned out that it wasn't."


Interview Highlights

On the forms of birth control that were available in the 1870s

They had sponges. A very common form of birth control that many women used was vaginal douching, which were these syringes. And you could use them for health and hygienic purposes, but they would also put various substances in them, acidic substances that were said to have spermicidal qualities. Also [the rhythm method] — although they did not understand the rhythm method, and so the times that they were abstaining were actually the worst possible times to abstain. And withdrawal, which was sometimes successful and sometimes not successful.

On how Comstock became obsessed what he considered "smut"

Well, he was born in a small, rural area called New Canaan, Conn. And it was the kind of town where you knew everybody and you knew everybody's business. And his parents were very religious; he was raised Congregationalist. And after the Civil War ... he moved to New York ... [and he] lived in a house with other young men called a boardinghouse. And New York at the time was dominated by what was called "sporting culture," where all of entertainment was tailored toward these young single men ... most of whom were living apart from their families for the first time. So there were billiards and boxing and pretty waiter girl saloons. And he was exposed to all of this and [was] just absolutely disgusted. He had trouble finding men of similar religious thinking. And so that was when he decided to do something about it.

But the real precipitant to his becoming an anti-smut, anti-vice activist was he had a co-worker at his dry goods store who told him that he had visited a prostitute and become diseased and corrupted. [Comstock] became convinced that the reason this guy had gone to a prostitute was because he read dirty books. So he went to the store where the books were sold and called the police. And that was the beginning of his career as a vice hunter.

Read entire article at NPR

comments powered by Disqus