Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide - Vol. 3

By Joseph W. Slade | Go to book overview
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20
Pornography and Law

HISTORY AND THEORY OF CENSORSHIP

Histories of censorship exhibit formulas and tropes. Chroniclers of suppression have dealt overwhelmingly with "high pornography" such as books, rather than "low" varieties such as comic strips and photos: modern readers can thus shake their heads at the intolerance that once savaged now-respectable works. Histories of censorship differ less in terms of the outrages they list than in the care with which they contextualize the legal climate, parse the finer points of law, and delineate the personalities involved. The best treat the law as a continuum that mutates with advancing knowledge and new technologies and, above all, with shifting moralities and changing tastes.

But there is another history, mostly anonymous, almost invisible, whose vestiges are the courthouse records of the trial of the Boston street-lamp lighter sentenced to the stocks for selling bawdy chapbooks on the side, of peddlers arrested for selling copies of Confessions of a Washington Belle from a pushcart, of waiters fined for selling Tijuana bibles from the kitchen of a greasy spoon, of "foreigners" sent to the workhouse for selling two obscene photographs during the depression, of a stag filmmaker caught with six reels at a truck stop, of the heroin-addicted woman imprisoned for fellating her boyfriend in one of the films, while her partner got off with a reprimand. A rural arrest would make the front page of a local paper, but big-city reporters gave headlines only to the occasional large busts orchestrated by Comstock or a district attorney trying to become mayor, not the arrests of small-time colporteurs and distributors. These usually plea-bargained for short time or were sentenced by a magistrate without benefit of a jury's decision on the First Amendment status of their contraband.

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