We seem to be living in a time warp. Conservatives are denouncing not just abortion, but birth control. There was the Rush Limbaugh “slut” episode. Actor Kirk Cameron called homosexuality “unnatural,” “detrimental” and “ultimately destructive.” Meanwhile, Rick Santorum sees Satan lurking in America’s bedrooms.
At first blush, such backwardness might seem implausible in the second decade of the 21st century. Shouldn’t we be talking about the economy?
But there is a clear historical pattern: When the economy contracts, social attitudes toward sexuality turn more conservative. It happened in the 1870s, the 1930s, the late 1940s and again in the late 1970s.
Among the 19th century’s greatest economic crises was the stock market panic of 1873. That year, a young Anthony Comstock established the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. With Americans in a state of general anxiety about the financial future of the nation, Comstock persuaded Congress to criminalize the transportation of “obscene, lewd or lascivious” material across state lines. Comstock was particularly opposed to birth control, but he embraced all forms of censorship, going so far as to shut down a New York production of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”
Comstockery fell into disrepute in the 1910s and ’20s as Americans enjoyed the benefits of economic expansion. Greenwich Village bohemianism, Freudianism and the flapper era encouraged the open discussion of sexuality. With the stock market crash of 1929, however, things took a turn toward repression. In 1934 Hollywood began enforcing the notorious “production code,” with its long list of cinematic no-nos, from swearing to suggestions of “sexual perversity.” Music, literature and the fine arts moved away from representations of bodily desire. The days of openly bisexual blues performers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith singing about their lesbian love affairs came to an end. Meanwhile, authorities in New York, Chicago and other major cities commenced a crackdown on gay bathhouses and public displays of gay affection.
Things started to relax again in the 1940s. The war years saw the birth of the pinup, the advent of erotically tinged illustrations in the men’s magazine Esquire, and an increasingly scientific attitude toward sexuality. But in the postwar period, there was a new phase of economic and sexual anxiety. The nation faced a major housing crisis. Juvenile delinquency was supposedly reaching epic proportions. Republicans and Democrats alike went after Alfred Kinsey, comic books (Batman and Wonder Woman were accused of promoting homosexuality and lesbianism, respectively) and Bettie Page-style bondage magazines. Even the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, when called before Congress, refrained from defending “smut.”
Eventually, American economic optimism returned. From the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, increasing affluence spawned the so-called sexual revolution, which allowed first young men, then young women to acknowledge their sexual impulses as never before. The double-standard, prohibitions against premarital sex and sex outside of marriage, and cultural taboos on the discussion of subjects like masturbation were all openly questioned. By the early 1970s, the gay liberation movement was calling for an end to hundreds of years of persecution and oppression of gay people.
Once again, however, the economy contracted. In the late 1970s, stagflation and a general economic downturn led to new misgivings about “illicit” sex. A war against pornography soon arose. The FBI went after porn actor Harry Reems and publisher Larry Flynt. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed course and restricted the scope of the First Amendment by broadening the definition of obscenity. On the left, feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon used new arguments to justify censorship. Of course, foes of sex education, abortion rights, women’s rights and gay rights clamored for attention. Gay activist and California politician Harvey Milk was murdered; Anita Bryant and California Sen. John Briggs pitted gay rights against the safety of children.
Now, we are in the aftermath of yet another economic crisis, and sexual anxiety is again on the rise. Alas, it is much easier to blame social problems on the sexual behavior of others than it is to call for higher taxes, regulate Wall Street or spur economic growth.
The good news is the economy is on the rebound. The reactionary sexual ideology of Rick Santorum and his like will eventually abate. We just have to hope it happens sooner rather than later. In the meantime, I recommend hiding those dangerous issues of “Batman and Robin.” If conservatives have their way, Congress may very well come after them.