Present thinking about obscenity and pornography is wrongheaded and damaging. In order to protect vital liberties, the higher, more intellectual courts often stand out against the police, the postmasters, and popular prejudice; yet since they don’t give the right reasons, the issues are never settled. And worse, the courts lend themselves to the sexual attitude which, at this moment in our history, creates the very “hardcore” pornography that is objected to. That is, the court corrupts, it helps the censors corrupt. It ought to give light and provide leadership, and instead it stands in the way of progress. And worst of all, finally, by misunderstanding the nature of art and speech, the court emasculates them and prevents them from playing their indispensable social role. These are harsh words. Many of the readers of this magazine are going to be offended by this essay: they won’t like my statement of the problem and they will think my remedies are worse than the disease. Nevertheless let us reason about it.
We are faced with the dilemmas of a society in transition. In discussing censorship, it is impossible to make good sense and good law without sociological and psychological analysis; rehashing the statutes will not do. But it is no secret that in this field earnest authorities angrily clash on the most material issues (this is a sign of transition). Take the most undoubted sadistic pornography, socially worthless and sold at a criminal profit: one psychologist will say that its effects are disastrous, it causes “sex crimes” and juvenile delinquency; yet another psychologist will flatly assert that no such connection has ever been proved, there is no clear and present danger to warrant legal action. Now in this particular difficulty, the courts seem to have a convenient out: since admittedly the dubious object has no social merit, since its associations are unsavory and the purveyor is a racketeer, why shouldn’t the court go along with the censorship? No real freedom is impugned. But here is a dilemma: what if the censorship itself, part of a general repressive anti-sexuality, causes the evil, creates the need for sadistic pornography sold at a criminal profit? The tone of the censorship—and of the usual court decisions—is vindictive and anxious; it is not the tone of a simple prudential choice in terms of broad social policy. The censoring is a dynamic and emotional act, with novel and perhaps unthought-of effects. The social question is not the freedom of a venal purveyor, though the case is always argued in his terms since he is the one brought to court; the question is whether the sexual climate of the community is being perverted by the censorship.
The censorship justifies itself as protection of children and adolescents. But consider this issue in terms of an accepted commonplace of contemporary pedagogy, that we must provide the child a “structured permissiveness” to grow in: permissiveness so that he can act without fear, shame, and resentment, and learn by his mistakes; and a structure of firm parental morals and culture, how “we” behave, with which he can identify when he needs security and guidance in his anxiety and confusion. A good parent rarely sees a clear and present danger (of the sort of being hit by a car or swallowing poison). Most dubious associations and behaviors of a child outgrow themselves in his ongoing career in a moral and cultural environment. And indeed, this ongoing career is the only real solution for him; whereas a “protective” parental attitude will almost surely communicate the parents’ anxieties and complicate things further.
If this is a correct analysis, then the recent “liberal” decision on Lady Chatterley’s Lover is inadequate. It is not permissive in the right way and it does not provide a firm moral and cultural support. I am urging the court to re-examine its own anxieties and ask if the pornographic is in fact, in our times, obscene.
Judge Bryan’s exoneration of Lady Chatterley takes its doctrine from Woolsey on Ulysses (1933) and Brennan in Roth vs. United States (1957). Let us consider these in turn.
Judge Woolsey’s method in clearing Ulysses is as follows: he defines the obscene as the pornographic, as “tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts,” and he proceeds to show that the book does neither but “is a sincere and serious attempt to devise a new literary method for the observation and description of mankind.” Let us postpone the literary criticism till the next section, but here stop short at the definition of obscenity.
The notion that sexual impulse or stirring sexual impulse is a bad thing comes from an emotional climate in which it was generally agreed that it would be better if sexuality did not overtly exist, when people bathed and slept fully clothed, and a bull was called a he-cow. Then anything which was sexual in public, as by publication of “detailed representation in words or pictures,” violated society’s self-image and was certainly obscene. In our times such a notion cannot define obscenity. The pornographic is not ipso facto the obscene. As Judge Jerome Frank pointed out in 1949, “No sane man thinks that the arousing of normal sexual desires is socially dangerous.” We live in a culture where all High Thought insists on the beauty and indeed hygienic indispensability of sexual desires, and where a vast part of commerce is busy in their stimulation. Nevertheless, Judge Bryan on Chatterley repeats the doctrine in 1960! This leaves us in utter confusion. For consider: Bryan goes on to define the “prurient . . . that is to say, shameful or morbid interest in sex”; but, if the stirring of desire is defined, and therefore treated, as obscene, how can a normal person’s interest in sex be anything else but shameful? This is what shame is, the blush at finding one’s impulse to be unacceptable. Only a brazen person would not be ashamed. So the court corrupts. It is a miserable social policy. I would rather have Lawrence condemned than defended by such reasoning.
But it is Woolsey’s second clause, “leading to lustful thoughts,” that is the more interesting, for this is the likely and immediate effect of literary or pictorial stimulation. Bluntly, “lustful thoughts” means incitement to masturbate; and I guess that in the overwhelming majority of cases this is the chief use of pornography. Let us again look to history. In the 19th century, all sexual facts were suspect, but masturbation was a mortal sin and the prelude to insanity. Let me quote from a great, good-humored, and liberal man, the prince of the Enlightenment: “Nothing weakens the mind as well as the body so much as the kind of lust directed toward oneself. It is entirely at variance with the nature of man. We must place it before the youth in all its horribleness,” etc., etc. (Immanuel Kant, On Education). Contrast with this a philosopher of our own day: “Left to itself, infantile masturbation has, apparently, no bad effect upon health and no discoverable bad effect upon character; the bad effects which have been observed in both respects are, it seems, wholly attributable to attempts to stop it” (Bertrand Russell, Education and the Good Life). But this is pretty nearly the identical opinion of Benjamin Spock, M.D., in his pocket book of Child Care which is, I suppose, in every middle-class home in America (more than 12,000,000 copies of the paperback have been sold). And since the connection between pornography and juvenile delinquency is much touted, let me quote the identical opinion of a revered criminologist: “Masturbation is a habit without deleterious effects in itself, yet a source of behavior difficulties because of strong social disapproval” (Donald Taft).1
My point is not that the habit is good; it is morally otiose. But when the court says that stirring to masturbate is obscene, certainly the court corrupts. It is claimed that the court must judge according to public sentiment; but there is plenty of better public sentiment. Why must the police and the courts follow the worst part of the population instead of leading with the best? A more enlightened court would not solve these problems any more than it has created integration in the South; but, by the same example, a good decision is not irrelevant.
This brings us to the doctrine of Roth vs. United States. The standards to be applied in determining obscenity, Bryan quotes Judge Brennan, are “whether to the average person, applying contemporary standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.” Part of this sentence, “the dominant theme taken as a whole,” is used by Bryan to prove that Lady Chatterley is a “serious” work, following the tactics of Woolsey, and again let us defer the literary criticism. Here let us stop at “applying contemporary standards,” which is an attempt on the part of the court to cope with the changes in emotional climate that we have just been discussing. As Judge Bryan puts it, “Much of what is now accepted would have shocked the community to the core a generation ago.” I don’t think that this is a sufficient account. What is the history?
As one reviews the many cases in James Kilpatrick’s The Smut Peddlers 2 (which, despite its outrageous title and a vulgar first chapter, has many good pages), one is struck by how, year after year, this theme of changing standards recurs in the decisions : “What was regarded as indecent in the days of the Floradora Sextette, is decent in the days of the fan dance.” But what is most striking is that in the long chain of decisions over two generations, the standard becomes increasingly broader, in almost every respect: the bathing suits more scanty, the four-letter words more tolerable, the descriptions of the sexual act more realistic, the “unnatural” themes more mentionable. It is just this tendency through time that the courts fail to take into account as they judge each case. Therefore they are always behind, they miss the essential nature of the phenomena they are judging, and this has consequences.
The fact is that our generations are living through a general breakdown of repressive defenses, increasingly accelerating; and therefore a deepening: social neurosis. Freud’s doctrine, let us remember, is that it is not repression (total amnesia) that causes neurosis, but the failure of repression, so that repressed contents return in distorted guise. The process is irreversible; our culture has experienced too much of it to ban it, or frighten it, out of mind. Therefore the only recourse is to try to get, as methodically and safely as possible, to the end of it, so that the drives can reappear as themselves and come to their own equilibrium. This involves undoing the repressive attitude itself. It is just in this that our high courts, like the Lords in England, could be excellent social counselors. With expert advisors they could try to forecast, and guide toward, a sane sexual policy. Instead, they cling to an outmoded concept of obscenity and they prevent outmoded statutes from becoming dead letters. At the same time, they are forced to cede to changing public taste and relax standards. Now this must lead to social chaos, as we are witnessing with the pornography, for so long as the attempted repressing continues, the repressed contents must continually emerge in more and more distorted form. And of course we also get legal chaos, as the court twists and turns to avoid the outmoded statutes.
For a writer like myself, there is a bitter irony in Bryan’s statement that the previously shocking is now acceptable. Yes it is—because Flaubert, Ibsen, and Wedekind, and Dreiser, O’Neill, and Joyce paid their pound of flesh to the censor. They opened the ever new sensibility and were punished for it. Probably this is inevitable, and any advance worth having is worth suffering for; but it is a bitter proceeding. And now Lady Chatterley is accepted as a “community” art-work just when it has ceased to be a living art-work. Lawrence has explicitly told us that he wrote it “in defiance of convention”; that defiance, and its awkward rusticity, were its life. Now we are left merely with a rather neurotic fantasy of a frigid woman and a class-resentful “dominating” man. The court’s lagging acceptance of bygone classics for the wrong reasons makes it difficult for a living classic to be accepted and exert an influence in the; living community.
In the breakdown of repression, the artists do their part by first dreaming the forbidden thoughts, assuming the forbidden stances, and struggling to make sense. They cannot do otherwise, for they bring the social conflicts in their souls to public expression. But the court does not do its duty; and the critics (I will mention no names) go along with the court’s convenience and lie and lie.
What is the court’s duty as I see it? To set aside the definition of pornography as obscenity—just as it set aside the doctrine of equal but separate facilities—and to clarify and further the best tendency of the sexual revolution. To call not obscene whatever tends to joy, love, and liveliness, including the stirring of lustful impulses and thoughts. I shall argue at the end of this paper that such a policy would tend to diminish pornography—make it not a big deal.
As it is, for well-known historical reasons, we live in a stimulating, unsatisfying society midway in transition; and while the liberal court hedges in embarrassment and the critics lie, the police and the administrators lurk to get convictions on any grounds. The police make wholesale raids for girlie magazines, they entrap a harmless old man for his lustful habit, the postmaster bars Lawrence from the mails, and the Drug Administrator burns the books of Wilhelm Reich as “labels” for a contraband commodity. To restore order, there has to be a wiser policy.
Let me Proceed to a philosophical question raised by these decisions, which is, in my opinion, even more important for our society than the sexual matter: what is the nature of speech and art? To protect their “serious” books, the courts attempt to distinguish speech as communication of an idea or even as talking about a subject, from speech as an action doing something to its speaker, subject, and hearer. This is the tactic of Woolsey when he devotes most of his opinion to Joyce’s “new method for the observation and description of mankind” and of Bryan when he says that the plot of Lady Chatterley’s Lover “serves as a vehicle through which Lawrence develops his basic . . . philosophy. Most of the characters are prototypes.” The judges reason that if something like this can be established, a book can be protected under the Bill of Rights guarantee of freedom to communicate opinion. Yet, although this is a useful distinction for some kinds of speech—e.g. scientific reporting and conscientious journalism—it simply does not apply to common speech, and it is necessarily irrelevant to art, for one essential function of art is to move the audience. If Joyce and Lawrence felt that all they had done was to convey ideas, they would have considered themselves failures.
(Naturally the decisions themselves, based on an unphilosophical distinction, have been notoriously inconsistent. For example, The Well of Loneliness was banned because “it seeks to justify the right of a pervert . . . it does not argue for repression of insidious impulses . . . it seeks to justify and idealize perverted ideas.” Yet these are merely the ideas of the author. But contrariwise, Justice Stewart defended the film of Lady Chatterley by saying, “The picture advocates an idea—that adultery under certain circumstances may be proper behavior. The First Amendment guarantee is freedom to advocate ideas.” Jerome Frank has wryly commented that if an “idea” is eloquently argued, it is in danger; if it is dully argued, it is safe.)
Here is an example of the legal doctrine at work. At the Marble Arch in London, crowds gather to listen to popular orators vent their grievances and longings on every topic under the sun, freedom for Nigeria, a subscription for the Irish Revolutionary Army, the ethics of deceiving one’s wife, the nearest way to salvation. Like Bernard Shaw, the orators test their repartee against a powerfully insolent audience. All is strictly legal. But if a man comes within twenty-four inches of the speaker, he is at once hauled off by a guardian bobby! A man can say anything, but he mustn’t do anything; he can listen to anything, but he mustn’t let himself be aroused. Freedom of speech means freedom to talk about. Speech is not saying-as-an-action. The limitations are clear. If there would be incitement to riot, the freedom would cease. “Fighting words” are forbidden because they lead to fights. Pornography is forbidden because it is in the nature of detailed sexual reporting that it leads to physiological reactions and likely acts. Blasphemy and obscenity are forbidden because they are acts as such, they break a taboo in their very utterance, as well as presumably undamming what is held in repression by the taboo. Also, there are even particular topics, like the subject of Lolita, where merely to treat them at all in some public way is tantamount to sanctioning their existence in the universe. Here speech becomes magic, to name the Name creates the thing.
Jefferson and other revolutionaries who insisted on the Bill of Rights probably had a more risky notion of freedom of speech than our courts, as they did of political action in general. But if to them freedom of speech meant merely freedom to communicate opinions, they could not have intended the First Amendment to apply to belles-lettres at all, for the neoclassical aesthetic doctrine of their time held that the function of art was to move and instruct, to instruct by moving. In our modern aesthetics the legal embarrassment is even worse; we pay less attention to imitating reality and lay all the more emphasis on speech as action. To Freud, the art-act alleviates a repressed conflict by daring to express and publish it (this is Lawrence’s “defying convention”). In advance-guard art, where the artist is reacting to and vomiting up something intolerable in society, the art-act cannot help being offensive. Since the 19th century, the naturalists have meant to defy and shame when they stripped away the mask of hypocrisy. The primary aim of Dada is to shock. In his Theater of Violence, Antonin Artaud declares that theater is precisely not communicating ideas but acting on the community, and he praises the Balinese village dance that works on dancers and audience till they fall down in a trance. (For that matter, the shrieking and wailing that was the specialty of Greek tragedy would among us cause a breach of the peace. The nearest we come are adolescent jazz sessions that create a public nuisance.) The “poetry readings” of the Beats try to give us their “existent situation,” usually drunken, and the audience copes with it as best it can. I could continue a long list.
To these facts of modern art, the doctrine of Woolsey, Brennan, and van Pelt Bryan is not adequate. Such art cannot be defended as communicating ideas, and anything objectionable in it (there is much) must condemn it. Indeed, the arguments of the censoring customs officer or postmaster betoken a more genuine art-response, for they have been directly moved, although in an ignorant way, by the excitement and inner conflict of Joyce and Lawrence. Their experience is ignorant and low-grade because they are unwilling to let the sexual excitement belong to a larger world, and this is why they excerpt passages. But at least they have been made to feel that the world is threateningly sexual. As the British Magistrate Mead said, on paintings by Lawrence, “Art is immaterial. . . . Obscene pictures should be put an end to like any wild animal which may be dangerous.” And so Justice Manton, in his dissent on Ulysses, “Obscenity is not rendered less by the statement of truthful fact,” for it is precisely the fact, the nature of things, that is obscene to the censor.
Woolsey’s doctrine is insulting to the artist. He says that the book did “not tend to excite lustful thoughts, but the net effect was a tragic and powerful commentary” (italics mine). Surely the author wants to say, “It is lustful among other things, and therefore its net effect is tragic.”
In our culture an artist is expected to move the reader; he is supposed to move him to tears, to laughter, to indignation, to compassion, even to hatred; but he may not move him to have an erection or to mockery of public figures making a spectacle of themselves. Why not? By these restrictions we doom ourselves to a passionless and conformist community. Instead of bracketing off the “classics,” as especially the British courts do—indeed, the legal definition of a classic seems to be a “non-actionable obscenity”—let us pay attention to the classical pornography and we shall see that it is not the case, as the court feels obliged to prove, that a work has a “net” social use despite its sexual effect, but rather that the pornography, in a great context and spoken by a great soul, is the social use, Aristophanic comedy was still close to a seasonal ritual to encourage rebelliousness and lead to procreation. Rabelais is disgraceful like a giant baby, and this is the Renaissance. Catullus teaches us the callous innocence of highborn youth, free of timidity and pettiness; and Tom Jones is a similar type, with a dash of English sentimentality. If we may believe their preludes, both the Arabian Nights and the Decameron are cries of life in the face of death; and in our times Jean Genet, one of our few fine writers, is pornographic and psychopathic because only so, he tells us, can he feel that he exists in our inhuman world. But apart from these lofty uses, there are also famous pornographic books made just for fun, since sex is a jolly subject.
To explore the nature of speech as action, consider the other forbidden topic, the mockery of sacred public figures. In our country we suffer from a gentleman’s agreement that is politically and artistically disastrous. For instance, our recent President could not frame an English sentence, and according to some observers his career as the head of a great university was dismally hilarious. “Dwight Eisenhower at Columbia” is a title to rouse an Aristophanes. In the 18th century Ike would have been richly mauled. But our satirists on stage and TV avoid such subjects. Then there cannot be great comedy, for if you dare not mock the pink elephant looming in the foreground, you can’t mock anything. Instead, our satire consists of isolated gags that do not add up to an explosion. But satire is an essential of democracy, for how can we expect our leaders to be anything but front-figures if they do not take any personal risk and cannot be stung?
The court is not philosophical. It does not see that lively speech is active speech. Sexual action is a proper action of art. The question is not whether pornography, but the quality of the pornography. To sting powerful figures into a personal engagement is a proper action of art, otherwise we sink in a faceless swamp. What the more intellectual court does do is to protect exceptional cases against vulgar prejudices and police busy-work. (But often, as in the astounding case of the revocation of Bertrand Russell’s appointment at New York’s City College, the matter never gets to a better court.) This is not enough to improve the cultural climate. In principle, the living writers are not exceptional and famous cases. Rather, it works out as follows: publishers will not publish what will get them into trouble; authors cease to write what will not be published, or what the editor censors the heart out of; soon the public has lost its authors at their best, and the authors have lost the common touch. The actual situation is that there is little that is published, and perhaps not much that is written, that does or would get into trouble with the censorship, except precisely the hard-core pornography. Why is there so little? If the publishers and authors were doing their duty, the courts would be battlegrounds. Instead, the void is soon filled with safe entertainers, gag-men, sensation-mongers, pap-journalists. Advertising is the chief public art. The community is starved of ideas.
It has become the fashion to say that the aesthetic and libertarian matters we have been discussing have no relation to the actual police problem of hard-core pornography; let the police be careful not to encroach on serious writers, and let the writers leave the police to their raids and entrapment. This schizophrenic theory is false. We are one community, and the kind of high culture we have and the kind of low culture we have are opposite faces of the same lead quarter. But let us look at the hard-core pornography in itself:3
I have been arguing in this essay that not only is there innocent and useful pornography that ought not to be censored, but the method of censorship helps create the very kind of harmful pornography that we should like to see checked. The case is similar—and not causally unrelated—to the social creation of juvenile delinquency by social efforts to control it. When excellent human power is inhibited and condemned, it will reappear ugly and dangerous. The censorious attitude toward the magazines and pictures is part of the general censorious attitude that hampers ordinary sexuality and thereby heightens the need for satisfaction by means of the magazines and pictures. It is said that the pornography artificially stimulates, and no doubt this is true (though there is no evidence that there can be such a thing as “too much” sex), but it is not so importantly true as that the pornography is indulged in because of a prior imbalance of excessive stimulation and inadequate discharge. Given such an imbalance, if the pornography heightens satisfaction, as it probably does in many cases, it is insofar therapeutic. This is an unpleasant picture of our country, but there is no help for it except to remedy anti-sexuality. I have argued that the revolution is irreversible, and the attempt to re-establish total amnesia must lead to more virulent expressions, e.g. still less desirable pornography.
Let us consider two aspects of poor pornography, its mere sexuality or “lust,” devoid of any further human contact, drama, or meaning; and its very frequent sado-masochism.
The experience of mere “lust” in isolation is a neurotic artifact. Normally, affection increases lust and pleasure leads to gratitude and affection. The type neurotic case is the sailor ashore, who seeks out a “pig” and works very hard not to get emotionally involved. Why should he behave so strangely? Let me suggest an explanation. His promiscuity is approved by his peers but, more deeply and morally, it is disapproved by himself. If he regarded the woman as a person, he would feel guilty and hate her, and sometimes he manifests this as brutal violence, really meant for himself. More decently, he restricts his experience to bare lust, though this is not much of a sexual experience. I choose the example because it is a fair analogy of the attitude of a large population in America, not unknown in middle-class suburbs. We accept the naturalness of sexuality in an abstract and permissive way, but we have by no means come to terms with its moral, family, and pedagogic dilemmas during a hard period of transition. There then occurs an isolated “sexuality” which at its best is hygienic and at its worst is mate-swapping, disowning the sexuality of those we love. Finally, I would suggest that this is the style of much of what the court elegantly calls “dirt for dirt’s sake,” the sexually stimulating without dramatic, plastic, or other artistic value. Necessarily this must be limited to a few stereotyped anecdotes and a few naked poses; and it must soon become boring.
The sado-masochistic pornography, however, that combines lust and punishment, torture, or humiliation, is the darker effect of a more restrictive and guilty-making training, for example certain kinds of religious upbringing. There are comparatively few real-life sado-masochists, but all the more do the smash hits of popular culture cultivate fantasies that proceed in guilt and end in punishment, genre of Tennessee Williams. This calamitous requirement, that the lust be punished, used to be a standard of legality employed by learned judges. How stupid can grown men be! For the consumer, such fantasies have a dual advantage, they satisfy both the need for righteousness (sadistic superego) and the “weakness” of giving in to pleasure; they embody an exciting conflict. But the bother with such images when used privately as pornography is that they are socially disapproved and enhance individual guilt; the excitement proceeds against strong resistance, and mounting fear, and often dies; and there is a tendency to raise the ante. It is said that this kind of pornography creates juvenile delinquents; my hunch is rather that the type of delinquent who has a need to prove his potency has a hankering for such pornography, all the better if it can be combined with cerebral know-how, as in hipster literature. Nevertheless, it doesn’t do him any good, for, on balance, it increases tension.
From even such rudimentary analysis, it is clear that we can differentiate the moral quality of various pornography and make a rough rating of useful, indifferent, damaging. The social question, obviously, is how to improve the first and eliminate the last. Police courts and administrative officers, however, and even jury courts and high courts, are hardly the right forum for important and subtle moral debates. But expert opinion doesn’t agree either; I could quote a crashing dissent to every proposition I have been making (except this one). Still, I am even less impressed by the bellow of J. Edgar Hoover that the police cannot wait for the experts to make up their minds, since one of the few things that is demonstrable is that ignorant suppression is wrong.
Yet I do not think that moral problems are private problems and can be left alone. Here I must dissent from my bold and honest classmate Judge Murtagh, who wants to leave most such issues to a person’s conscience before God. On the contrary, it is because moral problems are so publicly important that they must be ongoingly decided by the whole public; and they are so subtle that only the manifold mind of all the institutions of society, skirmishing and experimenting, can figure them out and invent right solutions. In this essay I have been proposing to the judges a particular public experiment, a particular “firm morals and culture” and “permissiveness” in which there might be both the on going solution of these social evils and, more important, a growth into a more living culture. Let us speculate about it. Suppose that the courts altered their previous doctrine, as I have suggested, and now decided that it was not obscene to stir sexual desires and thoughts. And suppose that at the same time they somehow strengthened the requirement of a provable social or human utility (as would be a reasonable requirement for TV stations, for instance, since they use the public channels). This decision would simply express our best present-day thinking: that sexual feeling is a fine part of life and it is a part of life.
What might occur?
An immediate effect of this drastic change would be to open to the legal public media a very large, and I think soon preponderant, part of the traffic that is now subterranean and culturally uncontrolled. This is an advantage, for now the traffic can meet open evaluation, the appraisal of critics, the storm of angry letters that frightens advertisers.
In principle anything might now be shown, from a hint of sexual desire to the drama of the sexual act itself. Since the change-over would be so drastic, the court might aim at a deliberate slowness, and the great mass media would wisely want to meet together and agree on a prudent rate of change. The test of proper deliberateness would be that, regarded as mere isolated and excerpted pornography, showing the act would be little more interesting than the hint. And in between, it is hoped, there would develop the habit of treating sexual facts as the common part of life which they are.
Artistically, of course, the extremes are quite different, for it requires a setting of powerful passion and beauty to make artistically workable so vivid a scene as the sexual act. And indeed, one of the most salutary and hoped-for effects of the change I am proposing would be the radical diminution in sheer quantity, and the improvement in variety and quality, of the hundreds of shows that a person exposes himself to every year. Since at present the stimulation is low-grade, the repetition is chronic; perhaps if the experience were fuller, there would be less repetition. Perhaps we could have something else than the endless westerns, crime stories, and romances if there were more animal satisfaction and not merely the stereotyped symbolic satisfactions that these genres offer, with the sex climaxing in shooting, which for some reason can be shown. As it is, the public never gets beyond sex and violence. Culturally, the greatest curse of censorship is that it produces too many and too trivial art works, all of them inhibitedly pornographic.
The aim is to establish a principled general policy. The states and localities could continue to enforce whatever censorship they please, so long as they do not risk a national suit and are content to do without some of the national culture. The situation, as I envisage it, is somewhat the opposite of the school-integration decision; for the federal court is not intervening in any region, but is insisting that national policy must provide intellectual and historical leadership unhampered by local prejudices; yet as far as possible it will keep hands off to allow for various regional experimentation. This is not the effect of the court’s present policy—e.g. in opening Lady Chatterley to the mails—for that does do violence to local sensibilities, necessarily, in order to give some scope for mature experience. But if there were a more principled general policy, and the courts were not continually obliged to fight, a generation too late, a rear-guard action against morons, the nation could allow the localities to be much more restrictive and self-defensive; in order to protect local option, they could even uphold the postmaster. It is possible in a federal system to decentralize the cultural climate. This allows for experiment and for citizens to have a freer choice of the life that suits their needs; but there must be freedom to experiment. Now we have the worst of the contrary situation: a degenerate centralism, a conformist mass made of the lowest common denominator of the narrow provincial multiplied by the venality of Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
Legalized pornography would, naturally, deplete the criminal market. (As Morris Ernst has speculated, the price on dirty postcards would drop from three for a dollar to three for a nickel.) In my cynical opinion, a first effect would be that the great publishers, networks, and film producers that now righteously keep their skirts clean and censor the prose and poetry of their moral and intellectual betters, would eagerly cash in. But a fairly quick effect, it is to be hoped, would be that such isolated pornography as a genre would simply become boring and diminish, just as women’s short skirts today create not a flurry.
Finally, there would be immense cultural advantages. Less embarrassment, a franker language, and a more sensual feeling would magnify and ennoble all our art and perhaps bring some life to the popular culture; and conversely, the exposure to such art would help to humanize sexuality and break down the neurotic compartment of “mere lust.” In the difficulties of our modern sexual transition—where we do not know the best form of the family, the proper attitude toward pre-marital and extra-marital sex, nor even what physical behavior is “normal”—we certainly can profit from the warm fantasy of these subjects in lyric and tragic art. And not least, any social change in the direction of permissiveness and practical approval, which integrates sexual expression with other ordinary or esteemed activities of life, must diminish the need to combine sex with punishment and degradation. To increase the possibility of satisfaction in real situations is to make unnecessary the hipster struggle for violent and apocalyptic experiences.
My argument is a simple one: a more principled high-level policy on obscenity, which realistically takes into account the tendency of our mores, would facilitate the moral and cultural structuring that can alone solve the problems of hard-core pornography; and it would also have beautiful cultural advantages. Whereas the present attempted repression by the police, administrators, and lower courts not only must continue to fail but keeps creating the evil it combats. Certainly many earnest people would consider the remedy I suggest to be worse than the disease, and they would prefer to muddle along. I am not sure that we can.
1 Let me spell out the damage. According to sexologists the dangers in this act come from (a) inhibited performance, (b) guilt and shame of the act, (c) guilt about accompanying images. Our public policy obviously enhances the first two conditions, but it is also importantly responsible for the guilt-inducing images, for it associates lust with punishment and degradation and so creates sado-masochistic thoughts.
2 Doubleday, 312 pp., $3.95.
3 Most simply, we must bear in mind the remark of William Sloane of Rutgers, cited by James Kilpatrick: “I am unimpressed with the record of repressive legislation in this country. The laws against narcotics, for example, are supporting a large criminal class and leading to large-scale corruption of our youth. The laws against off-track betting are supporting a large criminal class and lead directly to police corruption. No set of laws will prevent the bootlegging of pornography.” But they will make it profitable. When J. Edgar Hoover favors us with his periodic philippics about the frighteningly increasing rate of crime, flood of pornography, theft of autos, etc., and asks for more teeth in the laws and more money for enforcement, surely he proves too much. There is the possibility that his methods, since they do not work, might be the wrong methods.