Comstock Act

The Comstock Act, Contraception & Sex Worker Rights

Driven by a traumatic past and deeply rooted in Victorian moral panic, Anthony Comstock dedicated his life to eradicating “obscenity” and restricting women’s access to contraception. He became a staunch advocate for moral purity and sought to eradicate obscenity, which included romance novels, medical information, and devices, believing all of it to be a threat to his firmly held Christian values.

The culmination of Anthony Comstock’s efforts was the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873. This Act criminalized the distribution of “obscene materials,” including contraceptive information and devices. Its aim was to “protect” women by limiting their access to what Anthony Comstock deemed indecent.

The Comstock Act’s criminalization of contraception had profound implications for women’s reproductive rights. Access to information about contraception was severely restricted, limiting women’s ability to make informed choices about their own bodies and reproductive health. This oppressive restriction on women’s rights persisted for decades, reinforcing traditional gender norms and perpetuating extensive gender inequality. A series of court cases eventually overturned much of the Comstock Act. Most famously Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, which legalized contraception for married couples.

Despite Anthony Comstock’s best efforts to suppress information about contraception, there were people who bravely resisted these oppressions. On this podcast episode we elevate the stories of individuals who fought against this puritanical campaign, showcasing their resilience and determination. These brave souls worked tirelessly to challenge the restrictive laws and advocate for reproductive rights and sexual freedom. And although many of them were not successful, their stories of resistance continue to inspire advocates today.

Through this historical lens, we gain a deeper understanding of the shared history between the criminalization of sex work and the criminalization of reproductive justice. Both movements seek to control and regulate women’s bodies and choices. The fight for sex worker rights has always been intricately linked to the broader struggle for access to reproductive health care and bodily autonomy.

In our modern society, where the fight for reproductive rights continues, it is essential to recognize these lessons from history. The legacy of Anthony Comstock serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of moral panic and the suppression of personal freedoms. By understanding the past, we can better comprehend the challenges faced by those who fought against oppressive forces, and draw inspiration from their resilience.

Learn More: Old Pros Resource Guide on Reproductive Justice & Sex Worker Rights

2023 - The Oldest Profession Podcast - Kaytlin Bailey - Old ProsThe Oldest Profession Podcast reminds listeners that sex workers have always been part of the story. Each episode focuses on an “old pro” from history, contextualizing that figure in their own time and connecting their story to the ongoing struggle for sex worker rights. Kaytlin Bailey created The Oldest Profession Podcast to be an accessible and entertaining resource for anyone who wants to learn more about sex workers and our place in history.

Sohn, Amy. The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 

Through an immersive and narrative tone, as well as a range of historical photographs and cartoons, Sohn makes the anti-vice movement come alive while still delivering a well-researched and academic perspective. A highly approachable source, The Man Who Hated Women is an excellent book for listeners wanting to learn more about the man behind the Comstock Act, and the period in which he operated.

Beisel, Nicola. Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in the Victorian Era. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

In Imperiled Innocents, Nicola Beisel argues that the success of moral reform politics and anti-vice movements relies on the establishment of a link between the moral corruption of children and threats to the social position of the middle and upper classes. Through this lens, Beisel is able to convey the influence of immigration, fluctuating gender roles, and class warfare on the struggle for contraception and information about sexual health. This book is highly academic and not recommended for a casual audience.

Schreiber, Rachel. Gender and Activism in a Little Magazine: The Modern Figures of the Masses. New York: Routledge, 2016.

A comedic, academic, and evidence-based book, Schreiber’s Gender and Activism in a Little Magazine is a quick read which characterizes the anti-vice campaign of the Progressive Era and the society that reacted to it. Schreiber examines suffrage, censorship, motherhood, and the division of labor through close reading of The Masses, a controversial magazine published between 1911 and 1917. Chapter Four: “Sex and the Single Woman” focuses on the sexual morality of the period, contextualizing the Comstock Act through The Masses’ comics about race, birth control, and modern dating. Schreiber includes various cartoons specifically mocking Comstock for his prudishness.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Rereading Sex: Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-century America. New York: Knopf, 2002.

In this academic yet approachable book, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz reconstructs the national sexual debate of the 19th century through the stories of Anthony Comstock, Victoria Woodhull, Sylvester Graham, and other prominent figures. Similarly to Rachel Schrieber’s Gender and Activism in a Little Magazine, Rereading Sex uses contemporary periodicals such as the Sunday Flash and the National Police Gazette to recount the societal tone towards sex and prostitution. This Pulitzer Prize finalist is an immersive, jargon-light volume for listeners wanting to dive deeper into the Victorian zeitgeist.

Learn more about the modern relevance of the Comstock Act:

Vander Ploeg, Luke and Pam Belluck. “What Is the Comstock Act? How It’s Challenging the Mailing of Abortion Pills.” New York Times, May 16, 2023.

Millhiser, Ian. “A 19th-century anti-sex crusader is the “pro-life” movement’s new best friend.” Vox, Apr 12, 2023. 

Donegan, Moira. “An anti-obscenity law from 1873 was discarded for decades. Now the anti-abortion movement wants it back.” The Guardian, April 19, 2023.