Paladin Of Purity
Anthony Comstock spent a lifetime on a crusade to clean the nation’ Augean stables of smut, vice, and nudity. Sometimes it seems as if he pried in vain
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
By the time he died, Comstock had already become an anachronism. During his heyday the majority of the American public undoubtedly approved his aims if not always his methods. In his last years they were beginning to be bored by the old man and to find him a bit of a nuisance. Young couples were dancing to a syncopated beat, snuggling up to each other in the turkey trot and the bunny hug, even doing the sinful tango. In the sophisticated cities the sight of a young lady joining her escort in a cigarette and a cocktail no longer created a scandal. The narrow, expurgated world of Anthony Comstock was crumbling fast.
The process of disintegration has gone a long way since then. Motion pictures playing to mixed audiences portray scenes that not long ago could be seen only at stag parties. Nudity and obscenity are common on the stage. There are virtually no themes and no words that cannot be used in a novel today. Night clubs offer topless waitresses and bottomless entertainers. Contraception and abortion, which Comstock fought bitterly for years, have been sanctioned by the courts.
Although the seeds of the sexual revolution were beginning to sprout even before World War i, the greatest change has been in the last ten years or so. Our society, increasingly preoccupied with war and civil unrest, oppressed by a feeling of rootlessness and of helplessness before the dehumanizing influence of modern technology and supercorporations, has leaned toward total permissiveness. The recent Supreme Court decision recognizing the right of states to prohibit material that is “patently offensive” to “contemporary community standards” is a step in the other direction. It remains to be seen whether a chaos of nonuniformity is preferable to a chaos of permissiveness, however, for as the Court itself recognized, what is patently offensive in Oshkosh may be quite acceptable in Las Vegas or New York City. Still, it does seem that it is time again to set some standards of behavior and lay out some limits to license, however difficult questions of definition may be.