Sex and the City
Pornography and prohibition in 19th century New York
When even the most computer-challenged preteen can easily Google an infinite number of graphic pictures, it is almost quaint to ponder antebellum porn, which was heavy on suggestion and implication when it wasn't masquerading as medical advice.
One representative publication, 1848's The Secret Habits of the Female Sex, came translated "from the French of Jean Dubois, M.D." (ooo la la!), and promised its readers "of all classes" glorious details of what happened to young girls who became "the premature victims of a pernicious passion" while also offering "a Medical Treatment and regimen which has never failed of success."
There were also innovative "flash weeklies," racy tabloids with titles such as The Libertine of New York that publicized the location of brothels and the services offered within, sometimes under the pretense of investigative journalism. The Weekly Rake reported of a prostitute named Maria who "was decked in all the finery the dry goods and jewelry stories of this city can afford. Her residence is Green Street and she has, (we have her word for it) only three gentlemen visitors. She is a very fine looking woman of 30, about the middle size."
The editors and publishers of the flash weeklies also routinely blackmailed prominent men who frequented the dens of iniquity, threatening johns with exposure of the worst sort (that's a revenue stream the embattled newspaper industry might think about reviving). Sometimes the victims fought back in court. A stockbroker dubbed "Big Levy" pressed libel charges after being called a "practical amalgamationist" due to his alleged predilection for African-American prostitutes.
Licentious Gotham, a new history by Rutgers law professor Donna Dennis, covers all this and much more in riveting and good-natured detail. It's not just her descriptions and reproductions of old-fashioned dirty pictures that hold the reader's attention. Her discussion and analysis of legal and social responses to the growth of erotica is as compelling as it is comprehensive. Civic leaders fretted that passion-inducing material "posed a special risk of harm because it represented the antithesis of rational, ordered liberty," writes Dennis. As the makers of contemporary porn—and video games, movies, and music—could tell you, such fears are alive and well in contemporary America.
Municipal authorities actually had few legal weapons at their disposal and eventually created the laws and statutes that continue to govern obscenity prosecutions, albeit in a very attenuated way.
Dennis eschews moralism and underscores ways in which the prohibitionists and pornographers abetted each other's efforts. "The prohibitions against obscenity gave rise to innovative ways of creating, marketing and distributing pornography," she writes. "In turn, new forms of pornography generated new prohibitions, including unprecedented techniques for regulating, investigating and prosecuting pornographers."
Early porn merchants skirted local laws by selling their wares through the mail, which eventually gave rise to federal prohibitions, "a striking regulatory move" during a period when almost all crimes were prosecuted at the local level. The 1873 Comstock Act, which made it illegal to send obscenity via the US mail, was an early indication of a broad-based shift of power from the states to Washington, D.C.
There's an important lesson to be drawn from the book: Moral regulators cannot effectively police the desires, dreams, and fantasies of consenting adults. Indeed, prohibition typically creates or exacerbates many more problems than it solves. It's a lesson we are painfully slow to learn, whether the offending substance is alcohol, marijuana or porn. This book may speed up our education.
Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com. This article originally appeared in the New York Post.