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Nowadays you can get just about any sort of pornography you want with a few clicks of the mouse, and much of it is free. Before that, New York City, especially Times Square, was known as the headquarters for porn movies, and when porn was available only in print media, New York's Nassau Street in lower Manhattan (close to City Hall) was its hub. Historical factors made it so around 1840. Donna Dennis, a law professor, has taken the history from that beginning through the end of the century in _Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and Its Prosecution in Nineteenth Century New York_ (Harvard University Press). As you'd expect from her background, there are plenty of legal case studies here, with descriptions of court arguments and eventual punishments or lack thereof. There are amusing descriptions also, however, of the sort of poetry, prose, and pictures that were considered hot stuff in their day, as well as profiles of the publishers who were part of the incipient American pornography fascination. Of course, the fascination continues, and although plenty of the porn mentioned here has more of a historic rather than prurient appeal, many of the legal issues still stand.
The ambivalent nature of the works described here is perfectly shown in the 1839 _Prostitution Exposed: or, A Moral Reform Directory, Laying Bare the Lives, Histories, Residences, Seductions &c of the Most Celebrated Courtezans and Ladies of Pleasure of the City of New York_. The anonymous author advised that readers could use the guide so as to shun the brothels described in detail within. Or not. Enforcing morality really began with the coming of the "flash" weeklies like _The Whip_ or _The Weekly Rake_, which offered themselves as guides to the best and worst of available commercial sex. What really got them into trouble, however, was that they made much of their income by blackmail, offering to hold particular stories about public figures for a fee. New York also became a center for the publishing of "fancy books", relatively expensive, well-bound texts illustrated with engravings. Dennis shows that the books did reflect a change in the understanding of female sexuality in acknowledging that it even existed. The women in the books enjoyed sex and experienced lust at a time when it was the men who were supposed to be carrying on that way. The men reading the books obviously enjoyed thinking about women with such attitudes. In 1856 came the nation's first sex magazine, _Venus's Miscellany_. One of its most popular features was its letters column, a forerunner of _Letters to Penthouse_ or blog entries, wherein men and women would describe their sex lives and secret desires (no matter that most of the letters were written by magazine staff). The 1873 Comstock Act made it illegal to send such things via the US mail. The act that bears his name appointed Anthony Comstock a commissar within the Post Office to snag pornography in the mail. His work was initially wildly effective, and literally tons of erotic mailings were seized and burned. He became less effective as he assumed controversial stances and overreached, like prosecuting those who sold classics like _Tom Jones_ or _The Decameron_, or arresting the owner of an art gallery on Fifth Street for selling photographs of paintings from a Parisian Salon.
Comstock didn't succeed in stopping pornography (and for all his industriousness, he wound up being a laughingstock of prudery). Dennis's volume shows pointedly why such efforts will never be successful. The simple enjoyment people get from viewing or reading about other people having sex makes it too big a commercial pull. (Indeed, the current governor of New York has proposed taxing downloads of pornography from the internet; he did not suggest trying to eliminate it.) Faced with a simple supply and demand economy, the product got through, no matter what. The pornographers adapted with new styles, techniques, and delivery systems, and the moralists proposed new solutions and prosecutions that made them feel they were making a more moral city. It is easy to see that the dance has never stopped.