From left to right: a page from a Tijuana bible, an advertisement from Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review (1921) and a portrait of Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

As far as the U.S. Post Office was concerned in 1930, birth control and pornography were one in the same thing. An 1873 federal anti-obscenity statue known as the Comstock Act prohibited the mailing of both dirty pictures and “rubber goods.” According to scholars, this act, along with associated state regulations – collectively known as the Comstock Laws – were passed in part in an attempt to counteract the loss of community control over personal behavior generated by rapid industrialization and the rise of an unmoored labor class.

By the mid-nineteenth century, an often violent and sexualized culture of alcohol, fistfights and prostitution had emerged in cities. Physicians and ministers, who held to nineteenth-century fears of the debilitating and insanity-producing effects of non-marital orgasms, came together with women seeking political authority and independence in a “purity” coalition to fight what both groups saw as a common locus of evil, prostitution (Lefkowitz Horowitz, 2002). As D’Emilio and Freedmen write in their foundational text, Intimate Matters, “Opposition to prostitution united the various strains of the social purity movement” (D’Emilio and Freedmen 151). Organizations like the YMCA, through its activist arm, Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, became vigilantes of morality, policing back allies and bookstores, and confiscating printing presses, diaphragms and copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Animated by good intentions, the purity movement was cursed from the start by the stain of racism and white privilege. As D’Emilio and Freedmen write, organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, “in their quest to purify men,” exploited and reinforced “popular views about the superior morality of the white race” (153).

But not all purists were social conservatives.

Period political radicals too saw the social dislocation caused by rapid industrialization as a driver of “degeneracy.” While the efforts of Margaret Sanger and many others in the first decades of the twentieth century to legalize birth control is today often gauzily viewed as visionary advocacy of a sex-positive culture, the motivation driving this advocacy was often less about liberating the physical self and more about controlling the spread of the teeming masses.

Though sexual puritans and birth control advocates never imagined themselves allies in the years between the 1870s and the 1930s, those who thought sex talk led to degeneracy and those who thought sex education was necessary for social improvement shared many ideological pillars. Specifically, these two equally authoritarian points of view were linked by the common idea that unregulated sexual indulgence was dangerous.

And the “scientized” frame through which both radicals and reactionaries talked about sex in the early twentieth century was eugenics.


In the first decades of the twentieth century, eugenics could be both a radical’s call and a reactionary’s creed – the center of a provocative ideology that linked birth control with socialism and progress, and the underlying “science” supporting calls to restrict immigration.

By the 1930s, with the growing awareness of the “misapplication” of supposed eugenic science in Nazi Germany, left-leaning advocates, like Julian Huxley, Hermann J. Muller, Amram Scheinfeld (see related story) and Frederick Osborn, tried to develop a less coercive eugenics and separate themselves from the now clearly racist reactionaries. But, while “reform eugenics” would have a dramatic impact on public policy into the 1960s, public enthusiasm for eugenics, of any flavor, had already been undercut and hollowed out by pornographers, merchants and artists who exploited the scientized frame to sneak subversive messages and dirty books past the censors.

To illustrate this history, let’s turn to the story of William J. Robinson.


At the time of his death in 1936, William J. Robinson was chief of the Department of Genito-Urinary Diseases and Dermatology at the Bronx Hospital, a fellow of the American Medical Association, a fellow on the New York Academy of Medicine and a member of the New York State Medical Society. And this list only scratches the surface of his accomplishments.

Robinson was deeply involved with the political and social issues of his day. He was an early and outspoken advocate for birth control, a close ally and sometimes advisor to Margaret Sanger, as well as a committed socialist and activist, once arrested for sedition along with John Reed for protesting the U.S. entry into World War I (Robinson opposed war because it was dysgenic – see his preface to More’s Uncontrolled Breeding).

Between 1912 and the early 1930s, Robinson authored more than 30 books, mostly on sex, birth control and eugenics. But perhaps his last published work was a cranky letter to the New York Times complaining of the danger to the public represented by the modestly reviewed mid-30s Bela Lugosi movie, Mark of the Vampire. Hysterically, Robinson wrote, “a dozen of the worst obscene pictures cannot equal the damage that is done by such films” (NYT July 28, 1935). He claimed to know for a fact that such a “horrible picture” had a “terrible effect … on the mental and nervous systems of not only unstable but even normal men, women and children.” To present such a movie was, according to Robinson, a “crime.”

An interesting position for a man who spent his life battling censors to take.

Mark of the Vampire (1935) was director Tod Browning’s follow-up to his controversial Freaks (1932). Though Mark of the Vampire was timid by comparison, like Freaks it struck a nerve, at least in William J. Robinson.

Mark of the Vampire

Mark of the Vampire Trailer | Movie

Mark of the Vampire was one of the last films by famed Dracula director Tod Browning. Just three years earlier, Browning had stunned and repulsed sensitive moviegoers with the disturbing Freaks, a film long banned but now considered a classic. In Freaks, Browning had the temerity to present real sideshow performers, in all their limbless and intersex glory, as sympathetic heroes, and the film’s “normal” characters as evil. In an era when the disabled were hidden from view, considered a threat to “the race” and referred to even by medical professionals as morons and monstrosities, Browning’s work was profoundly transgressive. To understand why a silly horror flick struck a nerve, one must appreciate the propaganda potential radicals like Robinson saw in popular entertainment like films, plays and books.


Propaganda in the 1920s and 30s was not yet a dirty thing. Social activists thought of it as a necessary, effective, even ‘democratic’ way to educate the masses, to get them to accept policies and take desired actions “voluntarily,” without direct state coercion. Birth control advocates like Robinson attempted to propagandize through plays and movies, and crack what they considered the dangerous wall of silence Anthony Comstock and his censors had built around the topic of human sexuality.

But there was a problem. Instead of staying within the walls of “legitimate” theaters, first run movie houses or on the shelves of good bookstores, propaganda that included even the slightest potential for exploitation was immediately picked up and pimped out by sleaze merchants.

[Continued in PART II]


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–. 2007. “‘A Noble Experiment’ – The Marriage Course at Indiana University, 1938-1940.” Indiana Magazine of History 103: 3.

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Tone, Andrea. 1996. “Contraceptive Consumers: Gender and the Political Economy of Birth Control in the 1930s.” Journal of Social History 29. 485-506.

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