Devices & Desires by Andrea Tone

devices & desires with sketches of contraception devicesDevices & Desires: A Historical of Contraceptives in America by Andrea Tone(2001)

Well written jacket copy so I will just start with that:

A down-and-out sausage casing worker by day who turned surplus animal intestines into a million-dollar condom enterprise at night; inventors who fashioned cervical caps out of watch springs; and a mother of six who kissed photographs of the inventor of the Pill — these are just a few of the fascinating individuals who make up the history of contraception in America.

Tone begins with the passage of the 1873 Comstock Act, which criminalized the birth control business, and ends with the intervention today (including Depo-Provera and Norplant). Along the way, she assesses the social and economic effects of chemical prophylaxis kits for World War I soldiers, condoms, the Lysol antiseptic douche and the 1973 Dalkon Shield disaster (among others).”

“Comstockery” is the title of the first (of three) sections of the book. And it still enrages me that ONE MAN, “the morals crusader, Anthony Comstock” was the chief proponent. It started by being a rushed anti-obscenity law.

. . . the statute, embedded in a broader postal act, passed after little political debate and was signed into law along with 117 other bills on March 3. The Comstock Act defined contraceptives as OBSCENE and inaugurated a CENTURY OF INDIGNITIES associated with birth control’s illicit status. Invoking its authority to regulate interstate commerce and the U.S. postal system, Congress outlawed the dissemination through the mail or across state lines of any “article of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever for the prevention of conception.” At the time, the act largely eluded public comment.” (p. 4)

The Comstock Law thus continued a policy of federal obscenity regulation that in 1873 was more than thirty years old. It expanded the scope of the 1872 law by eliminating loopholes and codifying an extraordinarily long list of “obscenities.” Ominously, contraceptives made the list for the first time. The decision to include them was Anthony Comstock’s.

. . . . Throughout his life, he clung to the austere, fire-and-brimstone faith of his childhood. The devil was real, omnipresent, and ready to suck souls into the fiery pits of hell. Abstaining from all things evil was one’s only hope for salvation. Impure thoughts and behavior — anything that might derail one from a straight-and-narrow path — were as ruinous in Comstock’s eyes as lack of faith. Even church-inspired worldliness was suspect. Once, after attending a Catholic midnight Mass out of curiosity [he was a Congregationalist], he confided in his diary that he was “disgusted. Do not think it right to spend Sunday morn in such manner. Seemed much like Theater.” [!! kind of right about that though!] (pp. 5-6)

In the next few pages she discusses his moves and when he gets to New York, post Civil War, 1860s-1870s, it was the center of “commercialized sex” in the country. Near the area where he found cheap lodging, he walked “around Broadway, and Pearl, Warren, Nassau, and Grand Streets, areas where the sale of contraceptives, abortion services, and erotica thrived. What he saw disgusted him, as did the behavior of his young business associates, who gawked at pornographic books and pictures.”

Comstock’s reactions to this sexualized economy influenced his anti-vice campaign. To ignore that the sex trade was first and foremost a trade is to miss an important part of the Comstock story. Vice, as he understood it, would forever be entangled in the commercialized state in which it was consumed. Weeding it out meant destroying an industry.

In 1868, Comstock went on the offensive, making the first of what would be hundreds of arrests during his lifetime. Largely through the efforts of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the New York legislature had recently passed its own anti-obscenity statute. With this for ammunition, Comstock went vice hunting. When a friend blamed a lewd book for luring him to a brothel, where he contracted a venereal disease, Comstock became furious. He pursed the supplier, a book dealer named Charles Conroy, whose business was headquartered in a basement a block away from where Comstock worked. Comstock bought one of Conroy’s sexually explicit books and showed it to the captain of the local police precinct; together they arrested Conroy and seized his stock. As he would with other “vice entrepreneurs” he apprehended, Comstock monitored Conroy’s subsequent business dealings and in 1874 arrested the book dealer for the third time. An irate Conroy fought back, slashing the face of the man whose relentless pursuit it of vice criminals had already become legendary. (p. 7)

I often wonder what drives people to think they have a right to control the sex lives of other people, particularly regarding abortion. Not your body, not your choice, and you damn well better not think you can force me to bear a child against my will, legally or illegally – and that’s what pisses me of the most. Criminalizing abortion doesn’t stop abortion, it kills women. And I was not surprised, but saddened to see a Facebook post comment that said women who have abortions deserve to die. Can’t quite reconcile that with “pro-life” but the truth is, of course, they are not pro-life, they are forced birth, even in the case of defects that mean the child will never be normal, able to care for itself, and may well die shortly after birth. Women who miscarry are being jailed for it because, like with rape, the men in power believe the old “women lie” stereotype (probably by rapists trying to get off).  They do not, for example, offer to adopt such disabled babies or provide any taxpayer funds for the very expensive care such a defective baby would cost. Hell, they don’t even want to pay for hot school lunches for regular kids. Not very pro-life, much less Christian.  And the other thing is that their beliefs are firmly founded on the assumption that such defective fetuses would “choose life” given the choice. I don’t think they would.

Comstock married an older woman who “bore a daughter, Lillie, who died the following summer. She never became pregnant again. After Lillie’s death, the Comstocks adopted a young girl. Comstock’s desire for a family and the couple’s personal tragedy likely amplified his anger toward women who, in his estimation, casually terminated pregnancies. ” However, I think that the binding thread of all this obsession with women’s sexuality still is based in patriarchal religions that seek to control women especially with their dogma. And the sad part is that, even though we MUST have SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE by the Constitution, religious beliefs actually creep in to many many laws. I think there is still a law on the books in Utah forbidding hand holding in public or maybe it was a worse offense, kissing in public. Religion is what makes people think they have a right to control a woman’s sexuality and they get it codified into law.


I will add more discussion later to chronicle what it took to get this man’s obsession about vice relegated to the dark ages.


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