From left to right: a page from a Tijuana bible, an advertisement from Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review (1921) and a portrait of Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
This is a story of eugenics – How pornographers (and their close kin, promotors and marketers) exploited the topic in the 1930s, and how in the process they undermined the puritanical authority of both America’s moral censors and its would-be managers of human reproduction.
My entry point into this story was a book I came across while researching an article on Howard W. Parshley, a Smith College zoology professor and the original translator of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I noticed, with a bit of a shock, that Parshley’s 1933 book, The Science of Human Reproduction, had been printed by an organization called the Eugenics Publishing Company. A little online research uncovered at least 60 titles published by that house, mostly from the late 1920 through the 1930s, including The Art of Love, The Sexual Life of Savages and Female Sex Perversions.
What can I say? This looked like promising material.
In the two months since, I’ve tunneled into a mountain of books and articles on sex, eugenics, exploitation films and pulp magazines, engaged in interesting exchanges with several historians, including Jay A. Gertzman, author of Bookleggers and Smuthounds and Martin S. Pernick, author of The Black Stork, and spent several pleasant evenings digging into the sleazy world of period pornography. Here’s what I have learned.
A SHORT HISTORY OF SEX AND CENSORSHIP
As far as the U.S. Post Office was concerned in 1930, birth control and pornography were one in the same thing. An 1873 federal anti-obscenity statue known as the Comstock Act prohibited the mailing of both dirty pictures and “rubber goods.” This act, along with associated state regulations – collectively known as the Comstock Laws – were passed in an attempt to counteract the loss of community control over personal behavior spawned by rapid industrialization and the rise of an unmoored labor class. 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). Though tensions grew between sexual puritans and birth control advocates over the next 60 years, there was in fact a strong ideological alignment between those who thought sex talk led to degeneracy and those who thought sex education was necessary for social improvement. These two authoritarian points of view were linked by the common idea that unregulated sexual indulgence was dangerous.
Through the first decades of the twentieth century, eugenics was the “scientized” frame through which both radicals and reactionaries could talk publicly about sex.
EUGENICS AND PURITY
Though eugenics could be a radical’s call before World War I, the center of a provocative ideology that linked birth control and socialism to progress, by the 1930s it was more commonly a reactionary’s creed. Though the potential for “breeding out” bad genetic traits had been undermined in the lab as early as 1915, eugenics as a faith or ideology was broadly embraced by the white Protestant elite in the United States, enlisted by them to frame the threat to their power represented by open immigration and “differential reproduction.”
Progressive era reformers initially thought they could bend the curve of “excessive” reproduction among the lower classes and the supposedly lower races by simply teaching middle-class manners to the wayward. However, by 1930 most reformers had lost that faith (Alexander). Gradually it became clear that purity – racial and sexual – required at least some biological knowledge. Differential reproduction leading to an ever-expanding dependent class, combined with a tide of immigration from regions considered less genetically fit, became grand existential threats. Even if harsh immigration quotas were able to stem the threat from outside, poor citizens continued to have babies. Clearly, the fecund would need more than lectures and lessons in typing to keep them from enjoying and exploiting sex and demanding autonomy relative to their own reproduction.
To make matters worse for fearful WASPs, fertility among the middle and upper classes, particularly among educated women, plummeted through the first decades of the twentieth century. Female college graduates were electing to limit their family size, and often electing to not have children at all (Smith).
The slide toward a reactionary eugenics wasn’t for everyone. Starting in the mid-1930s, many younger left-leaning scientists and science popularizers, like Julian Huxley, Hermann J. Muller, Amram Scheinfeld (see related story) and Frederick Osborn, worked to separate themselves form the now Nazi-associated promoters of direct and coercive eugenic policies. This group retained its faith in the long-term efficacy and necessity of eugenic management, but moved away from direct and individualized reproductive controls and toward the promotion of population-oriented policies, specifically education and the creation of environments where favorable traits might flourish.
This more passive approach to eugenic management was difficult for an older generation, hardened by its battles with Comstock’s censors over birth control, to embrace. For people like Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger and William J. Robinson, birth control and eugenic management remained linked, and both required immediate and direct action. But as ideologies age with their promoters they weaken, and eventually the hounds take them down. By the 1920s, Stopes, Sanger and Robinson’s once radical works slipped down the scale, moving from calls to battle, to meat for merchants, to sex for sale.
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 a “crime,” for, according to Robinson, “we must guard not only our people’s morals – we must be as careful with their physical and mental health.”
What an interesting thing for a man who spent his life battling censors to say.
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 Trailer
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. Though Mark of the Vampire was timid by comparison, like Freaks it struck a nerve, at least in Robinson. To understand why one must understand 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 to 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 kept escaping, running downtown, painting its face and getting pimped out by sleaze merchants.
Despite the best intentions of its managers, propaganda wanted to be pornography.
[Continued in PART II]
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