Nowadays, with porn available from every glowing screen, it’s hard to comprehend that the publisher of a literary sex magazine called Eros went to prison for violating obscenity laws as recently as 1972. Don’t we associate the early ’70s with sexual freedom, Deep Throat, and swingers? Sure, but take a look at Times Square: In that halcyon time, it was a carnival of filth, and now it’s a family destination. Maybe succeeding generations will have trouble getting their heads around that, too. Hopefully, there’ll be future editions of Kat Long’s The Forbidden Apple: A Century of Sex & Sin in New York City to help give them some perspective.
The book’s ground—despite the subtitle, less about sex than the struggles of the sex and smut trades against suppression—is well-trod; even a casual student of urban vice will recognize many incidents and ideas. Specific totems of these struggles are part of our common nostalgia. Even folks who’ve never seen Minsky’s Burlesque, peep shows, or gay bathhouses know what they are, and something of the crackdowns that swept them away.
So a lot of The Forbidden Apple is familiar, which occasionally provokes impatience. Yet by the end, I wished it were longer. There is something in it that suggests an epic history: While the story is self-evidently cyclical—the libertines rise and fall as repeatedly and randomly as a pubescent’s erection—you can also see growth and erosion on both sides. Though their motivations and antipathy seem eternal, the forces of license and repression ever adapt and mutate; the more things stay the same, the more they change.
Long begins in rowdy post–Civil War New York. Vice is rampant and inspires reform, which comes in some variety: There’s the two-fisted postal inspector Anthony Comstock, the scolding preacher Charles Parkhurst, and the proto-sociologist Jacob Riis. Though we don’t see it at first, these characters set a kind of template for reformers to come: the vice cop, the clergyman, and the social scientist.
Their first wave of repression upon the city’s moral offenses—prostitution, smutty shows, bars that tolerate gay and mixed-race couplings—is achieved mainly by denunciatory campaigns and political arm-twisting that produce laws and commissions. But the methods are crude and the results incomplete: One police captain, whose complaisance with disorderly houses has been bought by graft, is removed from temptation by a promotion to Chief of Police; purveyors of proscribed businesses grow cannier and turn “Raines Law” hotels—which sprang up to serve thirsty locals after an 1896 ordinance forbid Sunday liquor service anywhere but in hotels—into barely disguised brothels.
But the repressionists adapt, too. An elite Committee of Fourteen works with the city’s Brewers’ Association (which, Long informs us, “also wanted to clean up its public image”) to make licensing more restrictive, which kills the Raines Law hotels as well as “dance halls, burlesque theaters and tenement barrooms.” By 1912, the city’s morals seem safe.
But not, and never, for long. Then comes the moving picture, which attracts the reformers’ attention as an incubator of vice. Exhibitors craftily respond with proto-sexploitation films—in which “the fear of movies’ bad influence on children,” says Long, “morphed into a genre of movies about the bad influences on children in a treacherous city,” such as the titillating but morally instructive The Inside of the White Slave Traffic.
Reform forces—the vice cops represented by the Comstock-led New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, social science represented by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the clergy involved with both—agitate for and receive raids and theater closings. Thus another crisis is averted.
Then social movements transform again the way the fight is fought. A new breed of reformers, such as birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, muddy the reformist waters: With her frank sex talk, Sanger is an obvious offender, but also a social science progressive with a modish message of uplift and emancipation. Anti-sex advocates start to speak the language of the new enlighteners; a pre–World War I campaign against venereal disease, while still flogging the old biblical theme of fallen womanhood, also promotes “new standards in safeguarding public health.” Prostitutes are tested for syphilis; Bible-beaters work hand-in-hand with sex scholars; the term “social disease” is born. Later, some progressives will side with the pornographers in defense of freedom of expression, but some always remain on the other side to make the enlightened, humanistic case for social control, represented variously by public health commissions, urban planners, and Andrea Dworkin.
Long covers the great upheavals that have pushed the advantage in the sex wars one way or the other: the explosions of licentiousness after each World War; the feminist, gay, and sexual revolutions; venereal epidemics, including the rise of AIDS; the long drive to purify Times Square; and so on. She also includes some interesting sketches of entrepreneurs who helped push things along: Gladys Bentley, the gay blueswoman in Harlem in the ’30s, whose lyrics “reveled in lesbian double entendre”; pioneer female porn-film director Doris Wishman; and Marty Hodas, who turned the peep show from a children’s pastime to a triple-X empire, each night carting home thousands of dollars in quarters.
The Forbidden Apple is expansive and yet particular enough that it set me to seeing signs of the city’s sexual past in the present. For example, when I noticed that the American Social Health Association was celebrating February as National Condom Month, I was reminded that the organization had been founded by John D. Rockefeller as the American Social Hygiene Association to unite social hygienists and anti-white-slavery crusaders. I saw a Board of Health sticker on the door of a closed health-club steamroom and thought of the bathhouse raids of the 1980s. I looked upon Times Square and thought of the days when tourists went there to see “pansy shows” of “painted men”—not in the last century, but in the century before that.
For the moment, it seems as if the prudes and the prurients of New York are in a state of truce: Our streets are largely scoured, our computers and TVs blue with smut. But as our recession deepens, we may be in for yet another great upheaval. How will that affect the balance of power? The answer is yet unknown, but The Forbidden Apple suggests that when it comes, it will be very like something New York has seen before.