As far as the U.S. Post Office was concerned in 1930, birth control and pornography were one and the same. An 1873 federal anti-obscenity statue known as the Comstock Act prohibited the mailing of both dirty pictures and “rubber goods.” According to scholars, this act, along with associated state regulations – collectively known as the Comstock Laws – were passed in part in an attempt to counteract the loss of community control over personal behavior generated by rapid industrialization and the rise of an unmoored labor class.
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). As D’Emilio and Freedmen write in their foundational text, Intimate Matters, “Opposition to prostitution united the various strains of the social purity movement” (D’Emilio and Freedmen 151). 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.
Animated by good intentions, the purity movement was cursed from the start by the stain of racism and white privilege. As D’Emilio and Freedmen write, organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, “in their quest to purify men,” exploited and reinforced “popular views about the superior morality of the white race” (153).
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.
Though sexual puritans and birth control advocates never imagined themselves allies in the years between the 1870s and the 1930s, those who thought sex talk led to degeneracy and those who thought sex education was necessary for social improvement shared many ideological pillars. Specifically, these two equally authoritarian points of view were linked by the common idea that unregulated sexual indulgence was dangerous.
And the “scientized” frame through which both radicals and reactionaries talked about sex in the early twentieth century was eugenics.
EUGENICS AND PURITY
In the first decades of the twentieth century, eugenics could be both a radical’s call and a reactionary’s creed – the center of a provocative ideology that linked birth control with socialism and progress, and the underlying “science” supporting calls to restrict immigration.
By the 1930s, with the growing awareness of the “misapplication” of supposed eugenic science in Nazi Germany, left-leaning advocates, like Julian Huxley, Hermann J. Muller, Amram Scheinfeld (see related story) and Frederick Osborn, tried to develop a less coercive eugenics and separate themselves from the now clearly racist reactionaries. But, while “reform eugenics” would have a dramatic impact on public policy into the 1960s, public enthusiasm for eugenics, of any flavor, had already been undercut and hollowed out by pornographers, merchants and artists who exploited the scientized frame to sneak subversive messages and dirty books past the censors.
To illustrate this history, let’s turn to the story of William J. Robinson.
WILLIAM J. ROBINSON – THE CRITIC AND GUIDE
At the time of his death in 1936, William J. Robinson was chief of the Department of Genito-Urinary Diseases and Dermatology at the Bronx Hospital, a fellow of the American Medical Association, a fellow on the New York Academy of Medicine and a member of the New York State Medical Society. And this list only scratches the surface of his accomplishments.
Robinson was deeply involved with the political and social issues of his day. He was an early and outspoken advocate for birth control, a close ally and sometimes advisor to Margaret Sanger, as well as a committed socialist and activist, once arrested for sedition along with John Reed for protesting the U.S. entry into World War I (Robinson opposed war because it was dysgenic – see his preface to More’s Uncontrolled Breeding).
Between 1912 and the early 1930s, Robinson authored more than 30 books, mostly on sex, birth control and eugenics. But perhaps his last published work was a cranky letter to the New York Times complaining of the danger to the public represented by the modestly reviewed mid-30s Bela Lugosi movie, Mark of the Vampire. Hysterically, Robinson wrote, “a dozen of the worst obscene pictures cannot equal the damage that is done by such films” (NYT July 28, 1935). He claimed to know for a fact that such a “horrible picture” had a “terrible effect … on the mental and nervous systems of not only unstable but even normal men, women and children.” To present such a movie was, according to Robinson, a “crime.”
An interesting position for a man who spent his life battling censors to take.
Mark of the Vampire (1935) was director Tod Browning’s follow-up to his controversial Freaks (1932). Though Mark of the Vampire was timid by comparison, like Freaks it struck a nerve, at least in William J. Robinson.
Mark of the Vampire
Mark of the Vampire Trailer | Movie
Mark of the Vampire was one of the last films by famed Dracula director Tod Browning. Just three years earlier, Browning had stunned and repulsed sensitive moviegoers with the disturbing Freaks, a film long banned but now considered a classic. In Freaks, Browning had the temerity to present real sideshow performers, in all their limbless and intersex glory, as sympathetic heroes, and the film’s “normal” characters as evil. In an era when the disabled were hidden from view, considered a threat to “the race” and referred to even by medical professionals as morons and monstrosities, Browning’s work was profoundly transgressive. To understand why a silly horror flick struck a nerve, one must appreciate the propaganda potential radicals like Robinson saw in popular entertainment like films, plays and books.
Propaganda in the 1920s and 30s was not yet a dirty thing. Social activists thought of it as a necessary, effective, even ‘democratic’ way to educate the masses, to get them to accept policies and take desired actions “voluntarily,” without direct state coercion. Birth control advocates like Robinson attempted to propagandize through plays and movies, and crack what they considered the dangerous wall of silence Anthony Comstock and his censors had built around the topic of human sexuality.
But there was a problem. Instead of staying within the walls of “legitimate” theaters, first run movie houses or on the shelves of good bookstores, propaganda that included even the slightest potential for exploitation was immediately picked up and pimped out by sleaze merchants.
EUGENICS AS EROTICA
In the first science-drunk decades of the twentieth century in the United States, when open discussion of sexuality was severely circumscribed by custom and law, efforts to understand and control sexuality – all the institution-funded studies of prostitution, journals on birth control, books on eugenics, lectures on proper marital relations, plays and movies about venereal disease, etc. – mutated in meaning to become themselves a kind of erotica.
The desire to understand and the desire to control were inexorably linked to desire in general. And commercial interests beholden to no ideology other than profit, happily exploited the tension.
This phenomenon is as old as capitalism. In her 2009 cultural and legal history of pornography in the nineteenth century, Licentious Gotham, Donna Dennis discusses efforts to control the production and distribution of erotic materials in the 1840s. She writes, “participants in the erotica trade, far from being cowed by the forces of decency or by threats of imprisonment, repeatedly turned ostensible conditions of repression into opportunities for promotion and profit” (Dennis 8-9). Jay A. Gertzman, author of Bookleggers and Smuthounds, describes how merchants in the 1920s and 30s exploited the tensions created by social controls to sell generally dry works of anthropology and scientific sexology as smut. He punctuates his point with a bit by comic Lenny Bruce, who according to Gertzman, told a story of a “neighbor lady” who would regale his mother “‘in a pedantic fashion, using academic medical terminology’” with sex stories drawn “from ‘the volumes of books delivered by the postman every month – A Sane Sex Life, Ovid the God of Love, How to Make Your Marriage Partner More Compatible – in plain brown wrappers marked ‘Personal’” (Gertzman 186).
In his remarkable book about cinematic representations of “defective” babies after 1915, The Black Stork, Martin S. Pernick describes how serious propaganda efforts, like the 1916 pro-eugenic euthanasia movie that gave his book its title, would often fail in first run houses (eugenics made for lousy drama). But rather than disappearing, Pernick notes that these “failures” could live on for decades as “road show” movies, the cinematic cousin of the carnival sideshow, medicine show and peep show.
Let’s examine in detail William J. Robinson’s publishing career from his early days as editor of the Critic and Guide, a feisty pharmaceutical journal he founded in 1903, through his later work with the firebrand freethinker Joseph L. Lewis and Lewis’ exploitation imprint, the Eugenics Publishing Company.
A PORNOGRAPHER’S DREAM
William J. Robinson came of age at the height of enthusiasm for applied biology as a progressive social force. He believed that birth control, specifically open access to information and the development of technologies that would make it easier for both individuals and the state to regulate reproduction, “was the most important problem affecting the welfare of humanity.” Calling himself a “revolutionist from the time he was able to think,” Robinson was a force of nature … and a pornographer’s dream.
From the start, Robinson’s engagement with the commercial marketplace proved problematic. The early focus of the Critic and Guide (examples from 1904, 1905, 1906 and 1907) was on regulation of the patent medicine industry. As a private for-profit publication, the Critic and Guide had to sell ads to support itself. Of course the journal’s audience of medical professionals proved attractive to marketers of the very products the journal criticized. Though Robinson acknowledged that there was cause for criticism, he tended to view challenges less as reasons to change course and more as proof that he was engaged in a battle with titanic forces. Rather than examine the nature of his compromise, Robinson’s response to exploitation was to apply more force. Like Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet, Robinson in a real sense helped create his tormentors, his “monsters from the id.”
In hindsight it is easy to see how the proudly propagandistic Critic and Guide, which Robinson promoted as “the ablest, brightest, breeziest, boldest, cleverest, fearlessest, independentest, truthfulest, usefulest and uniquest pharmaceutical journal in the world,” attracted exploiters. And it is also easy to see why, as Robinson’s interests turned to broader topics of human sexuality, specifically eugenics, his exploiters only grew stronger.
In 1910 Robinson took over the editorship of the Medical Review of Reviews, a faltering 15-year old journal. By that time, Robinson, in addition to his many professional duties, was not only editing the Critic and Guide, but two other journals as well, Therapeutic Medicine and the American Journal of Urology. But Robinson was a father too, and it appears he assumed the Medical Review of Reviews in order to bring his kids into the business. Within a year, Robinson turned over the editorship of the Medical Review of Reviews to his sons, Frederic and Victor. And boy oh boy, what the boys did with their father’s fourth journal not only demonstrates the growing exploitability of eugenics, it describes an ideology growing out of control.
Immediately upon assuming editorship of the Medical Review of Reviews in 1911, Frederic hired his prep school friend, Edward L. Bernays, to broaden the journal into a platform for eugenic propaganda. Bernays, today known as the “father of spin,” saw his first public relations success promoting Damaged Goods on behalf of the journal, a controversial play about the dangers of “hereditary syphilis.” Bernays cleverly assembled prominent New Yorkers, including William Robinson and John D. Rockefeller, into a group he called the “Medial Review of Reviews’ Sociological Fund Committee.” He then attached the names of the members of this serious-sounding committee to the press releases he wrote highlighting the “controversy” surrounding the play’s staging, in the process drumming up prurient curiosity and ticket sales. Later, the journal promoted several exploitation films, including Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) and The Drug Terror (1914) (this, by the way, while Frederic and Victor were experimenting with and writing about hasheesh).
But it was in 1915 that the journal staged its most revolting bit of agitprop. The Medical Review of Reviews hired “men from the bottom strata of life” to carry signs through fashionable New York neighborhoods that bore slogans such as, “I cannot read this sign. By what right have I children?” and “I am a burden to myself and the State. Should I be allowed to propagate?” As Victor wrote, “thus was the question of birth-control thrust into the very face of society” (Robinson 5).
Over the next decade William Robinson’s political interests continued to expand, as did the volume of propaganda in its support. Writing at a manic rate, Robinson published more than 30 books through the Critic and Guide beginning in the early teens. These included: Practical Eugenics (1912), Stories of Love and Life (1913), Fewer and Better Babies (1915) and Eugenics, Marriage and Birth Control (1917), to name just a few. (The list to the left from Eugenics, Marriage and Birth Control shows Robinson had already published 12 titles by 1917.)
But the more energy he applied, the more exploitable he became.
Ads promoting Robinson’s books, like the one below from a 1921 edition of Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review (placed during Robinson’s first short-lived publishing arrangement with Joseph L. Lewis), clearly exploited erotic tensions by promising to “answer intimate sex questions” and “give you information that has never been publicly printed before.” Other ads published in the same issue carry headlines that scream: PROSTITUTION, SEX-BOOKS and BOOKS ON SEX, FEMINISM, BIRTH CONTROL AND KINDRED SUBJECTS, with the last offering such “sexy” titles as Race Regeneration Thru Women by James Hegyessy and Uncontrolled Breeding by Adelyne More (published in 1917 with a preface on the “dysgenic” nature of war by Robinson).
In 1922, Robinson entered into a distribution agreement with the Cosmopolis Press. In the promotional copy from a two-page ad in Publishers Weekly, Cosmopolis pulled off the neat trick of exploiting the fact that Robinson was above exploitation. Like a “square-up” in a road show movie, Cosmopolis claimed it was publishing Robinson as “a service to humanity,” apologizing and titillating simultaneously by stating that it was “not only the bookseller’s privilege but his duty” to do so. The ad closed with this self-contradictory all-cap pitch: “THOUSANDS OF COPIES ARE BEING SOLD EACH WEEK IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT DR. ROBINSON, FOR ETHICAL REASONS, HAS REFRAINED FROM GIVING THEM ANY EXPLOITATION WHATSOEVER.”
In fairness, Cosmopolis seems to have done little to promote Robinson’s work subsequent to this initial announcement. It instead focused on a hit it had in 1923 with Joseph F. Fishman’s Crucibles of Crime: The Shocking Story of the America Jail. Here, Cosmoplois was ahead of Robinson. The hot topic of the 20s was juvenile delinquency, not birth control and eugenics. By the time Robinson returned to Lewis to supply the core titles for Lewis’ new venture, the Eugenics Publishing Company, the topic of eugenics was already of waning exploitability. What looks like a consolidated and focused endeavor instead represents a sad denouement.
THE EUGENICS PUBLISHING COMPANY
The origin of the Eugenics Publishing Company is a little hazy. The first book issued under the imprint, Laura A. Calhoun’s The Law of Sex Determination and Its Practical Application, was published in 1910. Other books, including a popular marriage manual by H. W. Long, Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living, and a handful of general nutrition and women’s health titles published between between 1917 and 1922 are credited to the Eugenics Publishing Company. But it is not entirely clear if these earlier companies were related, or if Joseph L. Lewis was involved in these early efforts.
Most accounts date the origin of the “modern” Eugenics Publishing Company to 1927 (or late 1926). What kind of company was it? Well, Gertzman places the Eugenics Publishing Company in the same class as exploitation publishers Panurge Press and the Falstaff Press, and places Joseph L. Lewis within his list of the era’s pornographers which also includes the imfamous Samuel Roth (see “Roth v. United States”). What is certain is that after closing his Truth Publishing Company, Lewis maintained two imprints, the Eugenics Publishing Company, which published Robinson, Sanger, Stopes and a number of other authors who had had trouble with America’s censors, and the Freethought Press, under which he issued his own writings on atheism (along with a philosophical tract by Robinson tellingly titled, If I Were God).
It does appear that Lewis was working his stable of authors for maximum exploitability. Subsequent to signing Robinson, Lewis dropped the less titillating titles, republishing only Long’s Sane Sex and Bernard S. Talmey’s Love – A Treatise on the Science of Attraction from the pre-1927 roster. But it wasn’t until the Depression was a half-decade deep that Lewis steered his portfolio heavily toward “hotter” titles. Capitalizing on the Comstock-caused struggles of the Panurge and Falstaff presses – Panurge was hounded out of business by the censors in 1936, Falstaff in 1939 (Gertzman 205) – Lewis assumed publication of a few of his competitors’ more exploitable perennials, like Paolo Mantegazza’s The Sexual Relations of Mankind and Maurice Chideckel’s Female Sex Perversion (titles republished by the Eugenics Publishing Company well into the 1950s, and promoted by remainder houses into the 1960s and 70s!).
However, based on the publishing history available, it appears the exploitability of eugenics as pornography had all but run its course by the mid-1930s. Only a few of Robinson’s titles were reprinted after his death in 1936, with those tending toward the more ‘technical,’ including Robinson’s Medical and Sex Dictionary (last published in 1958) and The Technique of Birth Control (last published in 1953). This may represent a victory for censors. But more likely it represents a lessoning of exploitable erotic tension surrounding the subjects of birth control and eugenics. Of course it might might simply signal the availability of “better” porn.
What is certain is that, along with the drop in exploitability of eugenics, professionals, educators and businesspeople began to take advantage of the eugenic frame to more freely trade in birth control information and birth control devices.
Perhaps censorship is a luxury of flush times. Regardless, when eugenics meant business it stopped being dirty.
In 1936, the Supreme Court overturned a long-standing ban that had prohibited physicians from sending contraceptive devices and information in the mail. In 1937 the American Medical Association endorsed the right of physicians to prescribe birth control. Beginning in the late 1920s, colleges and universities got “modern” by offering marriage courses, which along with other interesting tidbits taught the basics of eugenics in the hope that educated white women, whose fertility was dropping precipitously, would accept their racial duty to reproduce. And by the later 30s, drug and department stores were doing brisk business in birth control, euphemistically (and eugenically) marketed as “feminine hygiene” (Reagan, Drucker, Tone). According to Andrea Tone, distribution through Woolworth, Kresge, W. T. Grant, and other major chains led to a three-fold increase in the contraceptive market between 1935 and 1940 (263).
Though it faded as a topic of research interest, eugenics remained important as conceptual frame for white elites in the United States into the 1930s. Prohibition, immigration restriction, birth control liberalization, sterilization of “defectives,” college marriage courses and vice suppression were all defended, at least in part, as necessary to protect or advance “the race.”
William J. Robinson’s story serves as a good example of how authoritarian efforts to promote control of human sexuality in the early decades of the twentieth century were, unceremoniously, shepherded to cultural irrelevance, at least in part, by pornographers willing to exploit the leveling force of sexual desire. Robinson railed against being labeled a puritan by some, a pornographer by others. But the merchants of vice didn’t care either way.
According to Gertzman, pornographers like Samuel Roth saw themselves as agents of social change, or at least that was how they defended themselves whenever hauled before government tribunals. But did pornographers really lead the way in challenging the stifling censorship surrounding the topic of human sexuality in the 1930s? Were they truly the vanguard of a movement that later included medical professionals, educators and mainstream retailers?
Andrea Dworkin positions pornography as violence against women, pure and simple. She suggests that even if the “practice” of pornography has some accidental social utility, that utility is outweighed by the damage done to individuals by its production and consumption. Writer Angela Carter takes a slightly more flexible stance. Without directly commenting on the nature of the production of pornography, Carter suggests its existence is not without its compensating, or at least instructive, value. She writes:
Sexual relations between men and women always render explicit the nature of social relations in the society in which they take place and, if described explicitly, will form a critique of those relations, even if that is not and never has been the intention of the pornographer (qtd. in Hunt 40).
The battle over the open promotion and sale of commercial erotica continued to wage through the 1950s and 60s, and to a lesser degree, still wages today. But the breech created in the 1920s and 30s through the exploitation of eugenics by erotica merchants helped establish a beachhead they, and more mainstream marketers, educators and medical professionals, would never again fully relinquish. The publishers of pulps in the 30s and 40s, Playboy in the 50s, Screw in the 60s and Hustler in the 70s owe a nod of thanks to pornographers of the 30s for breaking the market open, as do pharmaceutical companies, cultural historians and curious adults seeking to spice up their sex lives. But perhaps all of us owe these sleaze merchants a bit more than that. The scientized movements for sexual control born of nineteenth century anxieties concerning changing conceptions of class, race and gender spiraled into dark applications, not only in Nazi Germany, but in many places on the planet. Intentionally or not, pornographers in the United States helped undermine the paired movements of purist authoritarianism represented by Anthony Comstock and William J. Robinson before either reached its brutal apotheosis.
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