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Anthony Comstock may be the only man in American history whose lobbying efforts yielded not only the exact federal law he wanted but the privilege of enforcing it to his liking for four decades. Given that Comstock never held elected office and that the highest appointed position he occupied in government was special agent of the Post Office, this was an extraordinary achievement—and a reminder of the ways that zealots have sometimes slipped Big sex woman the sentries of American democracy to create a reality that the rest of us must live in. Comstock was an anti-vice crusader who worried about many of the things that Americans of a similar moral and religious cast worried about in the late nineteenth century: the rise of the so-called sporting press, which specialized in randy gossip and user guides to local brothels; the phenomenon of young men and women set loose in big cities, living, unsupervised, in cheap rooming houses; the enervating effects of masturbation; the ravages of venereal disease; the easy availability of contraceptives, such as condoms and pessaries, and of abortifacients, dispensed by druggists or administered by midwives.

But Comstock railed against all these things more passionately than most of his contemporaries did, and far more effectively. Nassau Street, at the lower tip of Manhattan, was a particular horror to him—a groaning board of Boschian temptations.

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Comstock, who was born inhad been raised on a hundred-and-sixty-acre farm in New Canaan, Connecticut, with Big sex woman view of the Long Island Sound. At home, where his mother, a direct descendant of the first Puritans in New England, read her children Bible stories, he seems to have been a model of good deportment. At school, his better angels appear to have left him exposed—he was often whipped for misbehavior, and sometimes the schoolmasters, with a diabolical flair for sowing gender discord, made him sit with the girls and wear a sunbonnet. He did not attend university, but over time he developed a vigorous rhetorical style.

He brought his moral ardor with him when he served a mostly peaceful stint with the Union Army in Florida, fighting what seems to have been a losing battle with the urge to masturbate and incurring the ill will of his fellow-soldiers by pouring out his whiskey rations before anyone else could get at them.

For Comstock, the stakes were, always, almost unbearably high. Inthe Y. The following year, he travelled to Washington, D. The society abortionist Madame Restell lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue and took carriage rides in Central Park draped in ermine robes. And the declining family size in the course of the nineteenth century—from an average of seven children to half that—suggests that the use of birth-control methods became common; the advertising of contraceptive devices, their purpose often coyly disguised, certainly was.

The Comstock Act, as it came to be known, did not define obscenity, and that omission would give rise to a long chain of court cases and to a subjective befuddlement that lasts to this day. Each of us may think that, like the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it, but not everyone sees what we see. Still, the bill did explicitly tie contraception and abortion to obscenity, and enable the prosecution of people who were sharing what was essentially medical information about sexuality and reproduction.

This, too, was an innovation: like so many subsequent attempts to restrict birth control and abortion over the years, the Comstock law made them less available to the poor, surrounded them with shame, and stymied research into safer and more reliable methods, without coming close to stamping them out. The more profound damage was to ordinary people—women, in particular—for whom the new law rendered life objectively harder.

Part of Big sex woman made Comstock more successful than other anti-vice crusaders was his early understanding of the mail as a social medium. In that respect, he was like one of those Silicon Valley visionaries who understood the potential of the Internet long before most people did. Post Office, empowered to read and seize mail, and to make arrests. In rendering a verdict, the courts generally relied on a British legal precedent known as the Hicklin test: if a single line in a work was deemed obscene, the work was obscene.

Wearing his law like a bespoke suit of armor, Comstock seized and destroyed literature by the ton, and drove brothels and gambling houses and peddlers of erotica out of business. He also harassed and arrested health practitioners who offered abortions or birth control and radicals who promoted free love and safe sex. Sohn, a novelist—this is her first nonfiction book—focusses instead on some of the women who resisted Comstock and his law, offering an alternative history of feminism and of the free-speech movement in America.

There were certainly men who fought against Comstockery—outspoken journalists and a host of lawyers who defended banned works of literature and sex education against bluenosed censors. But Sohn points out that the women who did so were especially brave, since many of them were persecuted and prosecuted under the law at a time when they did not have the vote and could not serve on Big sex woman when a lady who spoke openly about sex might be assumed to have gone mad and be treated accordingly.

But the others are likely to be much less familiar—they are the deep cuts, sexual freethinkers left aside by most social histories of the era. Reading Sohn, I grew quite fond of them. Before they married, Ezra had left his graduate studies at Brown to become a travelling antislavery lecturer. Angela supported the abolitionist movement as well, and held a series of odd jobs.

The Heywoods, who put down stakes in central Massachusetts, were happily monogamous, but believed that the institution of marriage should be reimagined on more egalitarian terms.

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They denounced debt and wanted to disband corporations. At the same time, the Heywoods were steeped in ideas that are harder to identify with today—including nineteenth-century spiritualism and hereditarianism. Angela believed that she could commune with the beyond, and thus enjoyed a prophetic authority to speak that was seldom granted to Victorian women. For all that, the Heywoods ended up inspiring mainstream defenses of free expression that, as Sohn shows, had a lasting impact.

But I am still at it; penis, womb, vagina, semen are classic terms, well-revered in usage. In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, the National Defense Association and a group called the Free Speech League held enormous rallies and fervent fund-raising dinners not only for the Heywoods but for still trippier and more marginal sex radicals. The National Defense Association came to the aid, for example, of Sara Chase, a forty-one-year-old homeopathic physician and single mother, whom Comstock arrested on obscenity charges in Chase gave afternoon lectures on sexuality at an outfit called the New York Physiological Society, on West Thirty-third Street, which also featured music, conversation, and recitations.

Comstock, will prove to suffering womankind the most beneficent of his illustrious life. But Sohn gives Craddock her due as a brave campaigner who inveighed against marital rape, urged husbands to engage in foreplay with their wives and encouraged both partners to get naked during sex, and shared fairly reliable anatomical knowledge. She was also pragmatic enough to keep the ghost on the down low when necessary. She told her lawyer, Big sex woman young Clarence Darrow, that, if asked about her spirit lover, she would simply say that her husband was dead.

Any further inquiries into her spectral sex life should be rejected as a violation of privacy.

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Count me in for the time-travel experiment or at least the HBO series or Atlas Obscura immersive evening in which I get to see women in ringlets and crinolines and men in bowlers and spats listening to earnest lectures about the giving and getting of sexual pleasure. Taken together, these tales of the unexpected also offer a fresh angle on the history of American free-speech activism. Many of us think of it as beginning with the founding of the A. The sex radicals and their champions are not entirely unknown.

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We live in a world that Anthony Comstock would have walked through hellfire to prevent. After his death, ina series of landmark lawsuits, stretching into the nineteen-seventies, gradually eroded the reach of the Comstock statutes. They carved out more and more room for sexually explicit materials and for the distribution of birth control and information about it. These days, people are able to name and pursue their sexual desires and identities more freely and openly than ever before.

Porn is as instantly available as any utility in the privacy of your home. The Communications Decency Act, which sounds like something Comstock could have sponsored, can help Internet-service providers avoid responsibility for, among other noxious developments, the appearance on their platforms of revenge porn Big sex woman sexualized hatred. For better and for worse, we all live on Nassau Street now. Strangely, though, one of the phenomena that Comstock most wanted to quash remains vulnerable today. In the next Supreme Court term, the Justices will hear an abortion case that may overturn Roe v.

Even access to birth control is still subject to restrictions; employers with religious objections can refuse to cover contraception in their health plans. Was Comstock a man who hated women? As Sohn acknowledges, he would not have said so. But the language he used to describe the other sort of women, the women he sought to arrest and imprison, was revealing. One anecdote that Sohn relates—she has a gift for summoning up such scenes—reminded me vividly of modern-day Internet trolls.

Purity is in the mind of the beholder, but beware the man who vows to protect yours. What if you could do it all over? A suspense novelist leaves a trail of deceptions. The art of dying. Can reading make you happier? A simple guide to Big sex woman etiquette. Margaret Talbot ed The New Yorker as a staff writer in e-mail address.

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