March 2007 Archives

BC, Porno, and the American People

| | »>

While David and I were looking through our web statistics today, we saw that someone found our blog by searching Google for "pornography and birth control." They were referred to my entry on the antics of Dr. Bowdler and his cronies, in which I only mention pornography in passing. Bemused, I Googled the phrase myself, curious to know our search ranking when it came to this vital subject. I was flabbergasted to learn that we are the SIXTH hit on Google. And everyone above us? Either personal opinion sites, or right-wing "purity clubs" promoting abstinence among teenagers. This was shocking! "Planned Parenthood needs to get their ass in gear!" I exclaimed. "They should be the top hit." "But they don't really deal with pornography," David pointed out. ", the ACLU," I countered, realizing as I said it that they don't really deal with birth control. How could it be, though, that there is no organization addressing these two subjects in tandem, these two subjects which have been inextricably linked throughout the history of the United States? Well, I'm here to tell all you hapless Googlers out there: much information awaits you, and I happen to know some good places to start your research.

My favorite book addressing the nexus of birth control and pornography in the U.S. is Andrea Tone's awe-inspiring Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. As Tone spells out in the introduction to her book, one reason that birth control and pornography were ever linked in the public mind is that both were classified as "obscenity" by a Victorian-era America. Yes, they were straight-up prudes, but the situation was more complicated: the United States, in the fledgling days of the American Medical Association, was beset by a thriving patent-medicine and sketchy-pamphlet trade that was indistinct from the "legitimate" medical profession and book trade. At the same time as certified American doctors were battling in courts and the public eye to combat cheap snake-oil treatments peddled to their customers under false pretenses, Americans were witnessing a brisk trade in what Tone calls "inexpensive, sensationalist, and sporting publications of 'questionable character' [which] promoted impotence cures, pornography, and contraceptives simultaneously."

Interestingly, one of the major battles for the early AMA was against the then-commonly-accepted practice of abortion and fertility control, largely promoted by unlicensed (read: female) midwives. The smut peddlers, midwives and hucksters all got thrown out with the bathwater in 1873, with the passage of the so-called Comstock Law. This legislation inaugurated the 100-year federal ban on abortion in the United States (individual states began outlawing it as early as 1821), as well as forbidding anything "obscene," including information about contraception as well as more obviously pornographic documents, to be sent through the mails. At the time, this was a very effective mode of censorship, as it was difficult to effect mass communication without using the postal service.

Tone does a great job outlining the amazing rationales that nineteenth-century Americans used to justify their anti-obscenity positions. These really run the gamut, from the familiar argument that education about contraception leads to promiscuity - seemingly strangely-placed in the mouths of nineteenth-century feminist suffragettes - to the weirdly essentialist notion, propounded by an AMA doctor, that a woman is "what she is in health, in character, in her charms, alike in body, mind and soul because of her womb alone," and that to deny the womb's child-bearing destiny to any degree would be to severely endanger the woman's health. Unlike bearing thirteen children in twelve years, which is great for any woman's health, lemme tell YOU. There is also the bizarre notion that using birth control renders MEN "weak and susceptible to...diseases of the brain and spinal marrow, functional disorders, organic diseases of the heart, lungs and kidneys, wasting of the muscles, blindness, and frequently impotence." That's right: using birth control results in impotence.

Clearly, the United States Government needed to STOP people from sending birth control information and devices through the mails, because it was very important that our American men not be rendered sexually impotent, and our women hysterical and sickly, through ill-advised use of birth control. Because the ability to have sex is very important to us Americans, and part of our national character. And clearly, the United States Government ALSO, in the same law, needed to stop people from sending pornography through the mails, because porn is titillating, and might induce some American people into the desire to have sex. And as everyone knows, sex is obscene and anti-American, and totally counter to everything we in this great country hold sacred. So, clearly, something had to be done.

Ever since 1873 and before, the histories of pornography and birth control - and the censorship thereof - have been intertwined, from the arrests of Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger for promoting information about the "obscene" practice of birth control, to the claims of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon in the 1970's that, far from promoting economic parity alongside birth control, porn actually prevents women from taking control of their own sexuality through its objectification of and violence towards them. Tone's book covers most of the ground in between and before these events, devoting an entire fascinating chapter to the evolving attitudes of the American military toward servicemen's sexual activities during shore leave, detailing in other chapters the methods that enterprising couples found even during the darkest era of anti-contraceptive legislation to limit their fertility, and progressing to the devastating saga of corporate irresponsibility, blatant mysoginist and racist attitudes in testing IUD's in the late 1970's and 1980's. (In one memorable letter, an IUD manufacturer claims that "If Mrs. Astorbilt, or Mrs. Searle or Mrs. Guttmacher gets pregnant while using an IUD, there is quite a stink - the thing is no good and a lot of people will hear about it. However if you reduce the birth rate of...the Korean, Pakistanian or Indian population from 50 to 45 per 1,000 per year to 2, 3 or 5, this becomes an accomplishment to celebrate." In a return to the pornography connection, women who complained of pain when defective IUD's pierced their uterine walls, were often accused of sexual promiscuity or improper sexual practices. I should also note: IUD's have come a long way since then, and ladies nowadays don't need to feel hesitant about getting one.)

Tone's is a fascinating and complete history from the contraceptive end of the scale. It does often deal with pornography, due to the connection in the American psyche between the two subjects, but there are other histories that tackle the BC/porn dichotomy from the more porn-centric side. For the United States story, Paul S. Boyer's Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age deals quite extensively with the pornography/birth control mishmash, and for the history of our neighbors across the pond I'd recommend Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians (an in-depth study of the Victorian-era pornography trade) and Michael Mason's excellent two-volume study The Making of Victorian Sexuality and The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes, which are a comprehensive look at how birth control, pornography, censorship, religion, morality and many other factors played into the sexual lives of real Victorian people, and - radical idea! - what they themselves thought about that.

Obviously, my knowledge about the nexus of porn and birth control is mainly confined to the ways in which both subjects intersect with the idea of "obscenity" and the historical efforts to censor it, being as I am a censorship-history dork. I'm sure there are many other approaches to the connection between these fields, and I implore anyone with good suggestions on relevant reading material to comment on this entry as a resource for future Googlers. Honestly, I was a little bit alarmed that this poor searcher wasn't getting any more developed discourse than a few toss-away mentions on personal blogs, and anti-sex propaganda. The least I/we can do is to put together a personal blog entry that they would find useful, assuming they aren't just a perv with a birth control fetish. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It would actually be the most responsible fetish I've ever heard of, come to think of it.

So now you know: Google. If you want me to write about some book I read on the case histories of one nineteenth-century French orphanage, or the politics of "the rogue" in eighteenth-century picaresque novels, or an essay I slogged through on how taking E is somehow a revolutionary act, all you have to do is Google it, and since I'm writing this right now you will find the blog, and I will see you and be horrified that the only hit you're getting is this rambling paragraph with no real information at all. WHAT IF YOU REALLY DECIDE THAT TAKING E IS REVOLUTIONARY? HOW WILL I SLEEP AT NIGHT???

See? Isn't that cool how the vicious cycle replenishes itself?

PS - In an interesting "it was all a dream" post-script to this story, when I Google the same phrase today I get exactly what I would have expected: a mix of personal, academic and institutional pages addressing the BC/porn nexus from a plethora of angles. Needless to say, I hope the second trend continues.

The Circus Animals' Apologia

| 1 Comment | | »>

Regarding my little diatribe against St. Patrick's Day, it so happens that three women in my life have told me, more or less, to chill out. And if the fairy tales we read as children have taught us anything, it's to pay attention to events that come in threes, especially when wise women are involved. I have to say that although I have been in the process of learning to chill out my whole life, and I hope that all the good aspects of this evolution will continue, I am still not great at it. In the meantime, to remind me not to take myself too seriously, I propose a little extra bit of poetry memorization, in honor of St. Patrick's admittedly honorable role in teaching the Irish to write. This fragment is the first poetry I ever remember reacting to with (to quote the author) passionate intensity; I have loved it ever since I could react to the pleasing juxtaposition of words together:

"These masterful images because complete
Grew pure in mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

Even though W.B. Yeats wrote his own long lyrical drama cursing St. Patrick (The Wanderings of Oisin), the monk's gift of writing was certainly well used by him. This third part of "The Circus Animals' Desertion" is one of those rare verses that is equally appealing on a surface level of pleasing lingual combinations (the only level on which I was drawn to poetry when I first discovered it) AND on a level of intellectual thought and emotion now that I have grown up a little bit. At age 10, I thought the phrase "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart" was about the coolest-sounding thing I'd ever heard. Now I think it's just about the truest idea that all grand human ideas and conceits come out of the unglamorous ephemera of our existence. Sometimes we feel like we've elevated ourselves above all that, but then we have to get humble and return to our beginnings. Not often pretty, but there it is.

I love the idea of this causal connection between the refuse of a society or an individual and its grandest self-conceptions. Both categories speak to one another, are one another in some ways. It's what makes encountering a discarded Burger King wrapper while out on a hike not only disgusting but sort of melancholic as well. The grand American vista of natural beauty is all bound up with the sweeping American bent toward self-destruction and blind disregard for the world around us, often mythologized as "individualism."

Within a given person, as Spaulding Gray has pointed out, the same applies. Gray has analyzed how our demons and neuroses are inextricably bound with our best qualities, but Yeats goes even further: our grand self-conceptions and beautiful images take their nourishment and impetus from our demons and the dirty realities of our everyday hearts, combined with our desire to make something useful, lovely or complete out of the pre-existing fragments or "garbage" that's left over after we live our quotidian lives. I love how the progression of trash in the poem steadily builds in value, causing the reader to question the worthlessness of any item listed: "old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can" (well, none of that is very valuable, the reader thinks), "old iron, old bones, old rags" (bones were once a living creature, and iron and rags items of utility), "that raving slut / Who keeps the till" (surely a living person is full of value; maybe we should take another look at that broken can). And "taking another look at that broken can" is just a less graceful way of expressing the need to "lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." Personally, I feel lucky that Yeats did just that, and wrote this fitting initiation into the poetic world. I have a feeling that as I continue growing up, it will only develop new shades of beauty and meaning.

Dr. Bowdler, I presume.


I recently got a letter from Erik, one of my Norwegian penfriends, which included an incredulous rant about a censorship scandal of which we're probably all aware by now. "Have you heard of Laura Mallory?" Erik asks, incensed. "The woman who is trying to get the Harry Potter novels banned? I do not understand this! Do people in America believe in witchcraft? And what about all the magical things that Christians believe in, like turning wine into blood, and raising the dead? How is the magic in Harry Potter any different from that? I am interested in your thoughts on this." Erik often ends his passionate anti-conservative rants with the phrase "I am interested in your thoughts on this," which strikes me as extremely humorous. "I have heard that the United States represents 60% of the market for methamphetamine, a terrible drug which continues to grow in popularity. What are your thoughts on this?" "I am often filled with rage when I hear your politicians debating the war in Iraq. Don't the Iraqi people deserve some degree of self-determination? I am interested in your thoughts on this."

As it turns out, I do have quite a few thoughts on the subject of censorship, although personally, I think Mrs. Mallory's overly persistent attempts to get Harry Potter novels out of Georgia's public libraries are more ludicrous than seriously threatening. I mean, as much as I love J.K. Rowling and think anyone who wants to should be able to read Harry Potter, does Mallory really think that a kid who wants to read Rowling won't be able to borrow the book from a friend and keep it secret? I like to imagine Mallory's own children sneaking clandestine time with Ron, Hermione and Harry in the cafeteria at lunchtime, while their friends shake their heads and say again, for the hundredth time, "Your mom is crazy!" Probably the Mallorys' friends are already "over" Potter, at least pretending to be too cool for kids' books, but for the little Mallorys of my imagination, Harry and the gang have been endowed with limitless allure by virtue of their mother's Dursleyish attitude toward magic. Maybe they are even hiding illicit copies of The Order of the Phoenix under loose floor boards in their bedrooms, with the passage about Umbridge's ineffectual censorship of Harry's "Quibbler" interview lovingly highlighted.

But anyone who knows me well can tell you that the history and human urge of censorship are endlessly fascinating to me. I actually own three seperate histories directly devoted to book censorship, as well as three more having to to with the history of "obscenity" or pornography (that oft-sought-after censorable commodity), and another dealing with the history of birth control in America - birth control, which was defined as obscenity and outlawed, and any literature promoting or mentioning it was censored. I just can't get enough of stories about censorship. I'm drawn to them in the same way that people are drawn to rubberneck at the scene of a car crash, but I am also fascinated by the systems that people put in place in order to censor, the unfathomable (to me) passion that some people bring to the task of censoring, the different sources of censorship-worthy squeamishness that have existed for different cultures in different times, the inherent contradictions involved in BEING a censor (most notably, that you have to accept the hypothesis that "obscenity" is harmful to the reader, but then somebody has to read the material in question in order to see whether it's obscene), and the persistance of the censoring impulse in the face of evidence that it's never really worked. Even in intensely repressive places like modern-day China, people are finding ways around the government control of web and print media. My Russian professor Tatiana used to tell stories about trading outlawed copies of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita back in Soviet Russia. And in nineteenth-century America and England, population statistics show plain as day that people were practicing semi-reliable birth control, despite being thoughtfully "protected" from its harmful influence by their governments. So why does this urge persist?

For me, the fascination with censorship is a combination of genuine concern with maintaining free expression, and unabashed hilarity at the ridiculousness of the censorship urge. It's not that I think powerful censors can't wreak havoc, but for some reason I also find them irresistably funny. Of the specifically censorship-related histories I've read thus far, I think these two elements come together best in Noel Perrin's Dr. Bowdler's Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America. Its narrow focus (it deals only with the book-expurgation movement, not obscenity laws, outright banning of books, censorship of the mails, the pornography industry, birth control, etc.) means more entertaining anecdotes and character studies, as well as a cohesive story which has a clear beginning, middle and, somewhat disingenuously, end. Perrin's book originally ended with the quasi-sanctimonious and obviously untrue assertion that we're moving beyond such silly pursuits as chopping up and disfiguring books; he then revised it in 1992 to say, more or less, "Oops! Apparently we haven't!"

But the unduly optimistic original ending is the least interesting element of the book. In its beginning pages, we become acquainted with early expurgators like Sir David Dalyrimple, Lord Hailes, who replaced mildly improper lines in Scottish songs of Protestant propaganda with lines of asterisks that suggest much more impropriety than was ever there to begin with:

"The Parson wald nocht have an hure [whore],
But twa, and they were bony,
The Viccar thought he was pure,
Behuifet to have as many;
The parish Priest, that brutal beist,
* * * * * * * * * * * * * "

What can the parish priest have been doing? It turns out he was only "tickling" some girls: much more boring than anyone would have imagined, staring at that line of asterisks.

The reader also learns stories of latter-day bowdlerism, such as the case in the late 1960's where some anonymous hack at Ballantine Books decided to put out an expurgated edition of Farenheit 451 - yes, the seminal anti-censorship novel of the 20th century - for schoolchildren who might be irrevocably damaged by reading the word "damn" or encountering a passage where fluff is removed from a human navel (this actually was censored from the expurgated edition). Then, in 1973, probably through some kind of administrative snafu, the adult copy of the novel disappeared, and the expurgated copy became the only one available!. I love the ludicrousness of this happening because of un-noticed carelessness on the part of some secretary or other. It's just like Bradbury's novel itself: nobody cares enough to actually read the books! Nobody noticed the expurgation until 1979, at which point Bradbury himself stormed Ballantine and demanded that they restore the book to the document he actually wrote. As Perrin writes, "Ballantine meekly agreed."

In between these two stories are a whole lot of even better ones, including entire chapters on Shakespeare, the Bible, dictionaries, poetry and prose. I eat this stuff up with a spoon. In the Shakespeare chapter, for example, there is the story of expurgator Francis Gentleman, who italicized offensive passages in Othello, with the thought that ladies and youths could just skip over the highlighted text. Ladies, youths, I ask you: even with the best of intentions, who among us could help skipping straight TO the italicized text and gobbling up the juicy bits? I mean, that's what italic text DOES. It grabs the eye. Probably my favorite story from the Shakespeare section, though, is that of the version edited by William Chambers and Robert Carruthers, which attempted to mark bowdlerizations with quotation marks, rather than merely replacing Shakespeare's words with their own and leaving them unmarked. In practice, this is truly hilarious; Chambers and Carruthers turn Shakespeare into some kind of over-the-top postmodern hipster egregiously addicted to air quotes. They replace this quote from Othello, for instance,

I hate the Moor;
And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets
He has done my office

with this version:

I hate the Moor;
And it is thought abroad that "with my wife"
He has done "me wrong"

By which Iago probably meant that he found a merchant selling "fresh fish" down by the "Vinny's bar." The eagle has landed, Desdemona.

My favorite story from the Bible section of Dr. Bowdler involves a brilliant ploy by a censor who put all the dirty bits at the back of the book (it must have been quite a hefty portion, considering how many dirty bits the Bible contains) and then claimed that he wished everyone to look at those chapters relegated to the back, although he feared that the reader may find them dull, as they mostly had to do with old Jewish laws and other obscure subjects. But he assures the reader that, if they have the strength of character to struggle through, they will benefit morally from the exercise. Imagine the surprise of the one person who actually decided to read one of these ostensibly ultra-dry passages, upon turning to the given page and finding an account of an old man whose daughters decide to bear children by him! Ooh la la.

Other wonderful characters include the aptly-named Mrs. Trimmer, who trimmed down the Bible so her kiddies could read it, and James Plumptre, who had grand dreams of "cleansing" all the great dramatic works of literature for the English stage and being hailed by history as a literary hero on par with Shakespeare and Johnson, but faced the minor hurdle of a total lack of interest in his project, even at the height of the bowdlerism craze. Poor Mr. Plumtre.

Of course, there are more sweeping and significant insights in Dr. Bowdler's Legacy as well, like the insight afforded by the changing standards of different cultures, the different things that make us uncomfortable. And the persistent idea that rich/educated people are "stronger" and better able to handle obscenity than poor or uneducated people. But mostly, I devour this stuff because the histories of these individuals and systems are simultaneously horrifying, fascinating and, in their own ways, enchanting.

Lovely in her bones


In honor of the nicest weekend of 2007, and walking 18 miles in two days after remaining totally sedentary for four months, the poem I've decided to memorize for March is Theodore Roethke's buoyant ode "I Knew a Woman":

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

What is not to love about this poem? In a season starved for the beginning of springtime, it is a light wiff of summery playfulness and lovely sunny language. I love the roguish, slightly goofy sense of humor in lines like "But what prodigious mowing we did make!" (nudge nudge, wink wink!) and the reference to "English poets who grew up on Greek" being uniquely endowed to speak of the love interest, along with gods. But mostly I take a sheer, visceral delight in the quality of the language, the way the words trip along so musically and unexpectedly. "She played it quick, she played it light and loose" is a line that embodies so perfectly its own content, that it makes me smile to myself every time. Try saying it out loud; it trips so joyously off the tongue that I almost feel like singing the melody rather than saying the words.

Also breathtaking for their word-candy quality are "I'm martyr to a motion not my own" and "These old bones live to learn her wanton ways." The uncontrolled exuberance implied by all of the poetic devices employed in the second line - assonance between "old" and "bones"; alliteration between "live" and "learn," as well as between "wanton" and "ways"; the fact that the entire line rhymes with the line above it AND the line below it - encapsulates so perfectly the overwrought lover intoxicated by the object of his affection as (perhaps) only an older man in love with a younger woman can be. Or maybe the speaker only felt old before meeting the woman who reinvigorated his state of being and taught him to delight in making a happy, sensual fool out of himself. That, too, is a satisfying interpretation.

I like the poem's accepting, even celebratory, attitude toward the less dignified aspects of falling in love: "She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake, / Coming behind her for her pretty sake / (But what prodigious mowing we did make!)" Whether because one is the old (feeling) man being blessed with an infusion of youthful beauty, or for myriad other reasons, loving another person usually involves humbling oneself and coming off as a bit ridiculous on occasion; this poem joyfully proclaims the exercise more than worthwhile.

Of course, there is also a hint of sadness in the poem, a bit of the elegy even, since it is written in the past tense: the speaker knew a woman, but, he implies, no longer knows her in the present day. All of her flowing, dancerly actions are taking place in a gilded past of perpetual summer. Toward the end of the poem, in particular, are many reminders of mortality: "Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay" being the most blatant. This gives the line "These old bones live to learn her wanton ways" a little more emotional weight, since the speaker may be carrying on a legacy in addition to imitating an inspiring lover. I think the joy of the poem works even better with the addition of this hint of sadness. Personally, though, I choose not to dwell on the tragic elements of the poem; or, more accurately, I have a hard time focusing on them because the astonishing lingual delight of the words and phrases keeps distracting me. I end up, like the poem's narrator, "martyr to a motion not my own," and that motion will, hopefully, keep me smiling until Spring arrives for real.

June 2012

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography