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.