ArticlesVolume 16, Number 1 (2007)

Obscenity Law and Its Consequences in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America


The conventional history of obscenity and pornography in America begins about one hundred thirty years ago with the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873, which banned obscene literature from the mail. A resulting climate of sexual repression prevailed until the middle of the twentieth century, when the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Roth v. United States, and later in Miller v. California, loosened restrictions on the sale of sexually explicit material to adults. The standard narrative picks up again in the late twentieth century with the efforts of feminist theorists and activists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin to suppress pornography as a violation of women’s civil rights. It ends with present-day controversies over the flood of sexually explicit images on the Internet and panic over child pornography.