On Kelsy Burke’s “The Pornography Wars”

Whitney Strub in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

The United States’ most important smut-buster, Anthony Comstock, he of the muttonchop sideburns and perpetual scowl, was never at a loss for florid words. Describing the impact of pornography in 1883, he likened it to a cancer, one tending toward “poisoning the nature, enervating the system, destroying self-respect, fettering the will-power, defiling the mind, corrupting the thoughts, leading to secret practices of most foul and revolting character, until the victim tires of life, and existence is scarcely endurable.”

A century and a half later, Utah Republicans still agreed with him. They passed a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis in 2016. At the heart of the resolution lay concern over “deviant sexual arousal” and the “risky sexual behavior” it purportedly facilitated — broadly defined terms but essentially Comstock’s nightmare vision of masturbation and promiscuity unto death.

When it comes to the politics of porn, time can appear a flat line of performative piety: conservatives have been making the exact same arguments about moral rot, bodily debilitation, and lust-driven crime since the object of their ire was lithographs and imported “fancy books.” This is the challenge Kelsy Burke confronts in her new study The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession — how do you make an interesting story out of the same tired tropes?

More here.