Purity, Pornography and Eugenics in the 1930s (Parts I & II)


By the mid-nineteenth century, an often violent and sexualized culture of alcohol, fistfights and prostitution had emerged in cities. Physicians and ministers, who held to nineteenth-century fears of the debilitating and insanity-producing effects of non-marital orgasms, came together with women seeking political authority and independence in a “purity” coalition to fight what both groups saw as a common locus of evil, prostitution (Lefkowitz Horowitz, 2002). Organizations like the YMCA, through its activist arm, Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, became vigilantes of morality, policing back allies and bookstores, and confiscating printing presses, diaphragms and copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

But not all purists were social conservatives.

Period political radicals too saw the social dislocation caused by rapid industrialization as a driver of “degeneracy.” While the efforts of Margaret Sanger and many others in the first decades of the twentieth century to legalize birth control is today often gauzily viewed as visionary advocacy of a sex-positive culture, the motivation driving this advocacy was often less about liberating the physical self and more about controlling the spread of the teeming masses.

Howard M. Parshley’s Translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex:’ Contrition, Sabotage or Suicide?

June 24, 2010 For most of the last 25 years, Howard M. Parshley, translator of the first English edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953), has been cast as a saboteur of second-wave feminism. In a 1983 article, Margaret A. Simons characterized Parshley as a barely bilingual hack, ungrounded in philosophy, and bored…

Race, Art and Evolution


The sculpted busts of “early man” by J. H. McGregor, and the paintings of Neanderthal flint workers and Cro-Magnon artists by Charles R. Knight, alchemized imaginary beasts of centuries past into icons of progress that carried the imprimatur of science. But the narrative they supported was conflicted from the start. Created between the years 1915 and 1920 under the guidance of Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History, the images were designed to both celebrate scientific progress and alert visitors to the museum’s “Hall of the Age of Man” of an impending eugenic crisis. Osborn believed humans had reached an evolutionary peak in the caves of Lascaux, but that racial mixing was threatening to drag the species back.

It was a downer of story, and the visiting public, or at least the white public, happily skipped past it. Instead they saw in Knight and McGregor’s images visual confirmation of their own racial, cultural and scientific superiority.

If Kinsey’s Textbook Could Talk …

Updated 17 July 2010 Alfred C. Kinsey’s 1926 An Introduction to Biology was the first American high school biology textbook organized not against authoritarian concepts of progress, control and exploitation, but instead reflective themes of unity, interdependence and conservation. Anticipating concerns that would not enter the greater public consciousness for decades, Kinsey stressed the “ecologic…