Before pornography was a few clicks away on your computer, and then before you could slip a videotape of an X-rated movie into your VCR, you had to go out to see performed porn. You also had to go out to buy dirty magazines. Any American city big enough had places for such commerce, but there was no commercial sex scene more famous than that of our biggest city. It isn’t surprising that the history of New York’s sex-for-sale is lively and full of contradictions, and in The Forbidden Apple: A Century of Sex & Sin in New York City (Ig Publishing), journalist and social historian Kat Long has chronicled the ups and downs of the city’s sex trade. Because New York leads the nation in many ways, this is a history of sexual culture in the United States, with particular attention to what has gone down in New York and in particular within the famous Times Square region. Long shows that though the region has been cleaned up for a few years, there has been over a century of attempts to rid the city of vice. The different versions of the vice squad through the century have fought the battle in different ways, but there has been so much give and take between the sides that it makes sense, as Long shows, to look at the different forces as symbiotic. “As everyone knows, the city is being rebuilt,” she quotes Police Chief William McAdoo as saying, “and vice moves ahead of business.” He said this, however, over a hundred years ago, and it remains true.
Long starts with a name that will be familiar to anyone who knows something about the history of American pornography. Anthony Comstock had fought for the Union and had gotten fellow enlistees to follow his pledge to avoid swearing, drinking, and chewing tobacco. The war over, he began working in dry goods in Manhattan, but he could not ignore the saloons in his neighborhood that stayed open on Sundays. The police could ignore them, though, even after Comstock complained, so he started his wide-ranging campaign to enforce his own sense of rectitude upon the city. He formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and was indignant that there should be any written material discussing or depicting sex or medical issues connected with sex. “This cursed business of obscene literature,” he wrote, “works beneath the surface, and like a canker worm, secretly eats out the moral life and purity of our youth, and they droop and fade before their parents’ eyes.” This put him at odds with a foe who would bother him for decades, Margaret Sanger, who campaigned for contraception, family planning, and the improvement of women’s lot thereby. As time went on, therefore, Comstock became passé, but not before he gained the authority to censor all mail in the United States. He was so notorious and so eager to sling Biblical invective that even the YMCA, with which he partnered because it had so many of the same goals, eased him out.
Comstock insisted that children’s moral purity had to be preserved, the sort of argument that still gets trotted out to attempt to keep adults from seeing adult entertainment. Movies came to New York and were flourishing by 1910. The movies of the time were mostly fables with good eventually triumphing over evil, but Comstock and his fellows were sure that any film suggesting a love story with sex, or a woman who enjoyed making love, was going to corrupt boys and girls. The worry about naughty movies turned into movies about the worry about naughty movies and other bad influences in the big city. “While sex-problem films were nominally educational,” Long writes, “the real thrill lay in how the evildoers met their fated end.” There were sensational pictures decrying (and yet exploiting) white slavery. A board of censorship was set up, which “only allowed infidelity and adultery if the adulterers met tragic ends.”
Long documents the increase in licentiousness after each of the world wars, and shows (in a book that often has this sort of pattern) that the sex-problem film was to return in the sixties, like Bad Girls Go to Hell, as shown in small theaters in Times Square. The exploitation pictures were surpassed by a new graphic visual eroticism, the peep show, which was invented by Martin Hodas. He didn’t invent the arcade machine; the earliest one was invented by Thomas Edison, and by the 1960s, they played loops of cartoons or comedy. Hodas bought a dozen of the gadgets, stocked them with films of nude women, and in 1967 got a bookstore owner to give him space for them in return for proceeds. The first problem was that the machines jammed because their tills were overflowing with quarters; the second was that when Hodas showed up to fix them, there was a line of men around the block waiting to get their peep. Others were disgusted by the peep shows and their popularity, but within three years there were four hundred peeps around Manhattan. There had been a cleanup campaign in place since the early sixties, fired largely by those in the Catholic hierarchy. When the courts decided against Ralph Ginzburg and his hardcover, unseedy journal Eros in 1963, advertising sexuality was judged as potentially obscene as publishing sexuality. The salacious advertising around Times Square was pulled in.
Al Goldstein fared far better with a much less classy publication starting in 1968, the tabloid Screw, which he considered “… the sword of the sexual revolution, the Consumer Reports of sex.” Goldstein reviewed sex movies, and the serious attention he gave to them prompted their improvement. Deep Throat premiered in 1972, and though the courts found it too outrageous for New York (and took testimony against it from a psychiatrist who confused the movie with another offering at the same hardcore theater), the decision meant that any community would have to decide for itself that the film was obscene. The legal notoriety didn’t hurt the film, which increased the profile of hardcore porn among the mainstream. For those who wanted not to watch but to act, there were the baths, some of which were well maintained and upscale. The famous Continental Baths became Plato’s Retreat in 1977, becoming a headquarters for group sex and thrill-seeking. The seventies, however, also saw the city getting tough with zoning legislation, a battle with sex shops that would last for decades. The moralists have been pleased with the outcome; erotic theaters and bookstores became respectable, with, for instance, the theater that premiered Deep Throat turning into the Asian restaurant, Ruby Foo’s. In Long’s summary of the battle, however, it seems that any moral crusade was simply an excuse for a land grab of some of the most valuable acres in the nation.
Long includes details and anecdotes about a wide variety of subjects, like the Pornography Commission of 1970 which embarrassed the Nixon administration by finding that porn really was not so bad for people, the subsequent 1986 commission which obediently found that porn was not at all good for people, the delightfully-named Golden Rule Pleasure Club which scandalized visitors in the nineteenth century, the ambiguous effects of the feminists of Women Against Pornography, the Victory Girls (V-Girls) who patriotically made New York friendly for servicemen of World War II, the return of morality in the burlesque of the 1950s, and much more. Right now, the sites of former erotic shops and shows have been taken over by Disneyfication, and people are enjoying their titillation more in private. If there is any lesson to this entertaining history, though, in the big city the warring forces of license and restraint will adapt themselves to each other and change again.
© 2009 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.