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Perversion for Profit: Citizens for Decent Literature and the Arousal of an Antiporn Public in the 1960s

From: Journal of the History of Sexuality
Volume 15, Number 2, May 2006
pp. 258-291 | 10.1353/sex.2007.0013

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The film begins. "Outstanding news reporter" George Putnam warns viewers that a "floodtide of filth threatens to pervert an entire generation" and then presents a parade of unsubstantiated information: 75 to 90 percent of the pornography purchased by adults winds up in the hands of children; the porn industry takes in $2 billion every year; the "moral decay" wrought by obscene magazines weakens American resistance to Communism; exposure of even a "normal" adult man to male physique magazines can "pervert" him into becoming a homosexual, while young boys have even less resistance; one of every twenty births is illegitimate; and venereal disease is on the rise, even among the ten-to-eighteen age bracket.

Perversion for Profit, released in 1963, crystallized the philosophy and methods of Citizens for Decent Literature (CDL), the preeminent antiobscenity group of the 1960s. The film overwhelmed its audience with this barrage of horrors but offered a solution in the law. Because the Supreme Court has placed obscenity outside the protection of the First Amendment, the film declared, citizens possess a "constitutional guarantee of protection from obscenity" that is best realized by forming a local CDL chapter. In the event that George Putnam's threat of "your daughter, lured into lesbianism" failed to motivate viewers sufficiently, the film also displayed and explained various examples of obscene magazines, with slim red bars covering the "obscene" body parts. A rear shot of a naked woman "appeals to the sodomist," it was declared, while a picture featuring a naked woman on a farm, with a goat in the distant background, contains "overtones of bestiality." The bars leave very little to the imagination; a patch of female pubic hair eludes the red bar in one nudist picture, while the naked breasts of a tied woman being whipped receive no bar whatsoever.

Through the methods shown in Perversion for Profit—fabricated facts presented as self-evident truths, appeals to legal recourse against obscenity, and an antisex message articulated in oversexed rhetoric and imagery—CDL rose to prominence in the 1960s and reshaped the discourse of antiporn activism. Founder Charles Keating was a man of dubious moral qualities: investigative journalists later described him as a racist and a sexist who leered at the attractive young women he hired in his business career—"all young, mainly blond, often buxom"—and who frequently pressured them into having breast enlargement surgery. When the journalists asked Keating to explain his passion for fighting porn, he grew quiet and inarticulate, "mumbl[ing] something about his Catholic education, his moral training." Despite these uncertain qualifications, Keating was a charismatic leader and brilliant tactician, and CDL provided him with access to power and corporate connections. Under his guidance CDL reached its pinnacle of influence in the late 1960s, and it played a leading role in both the derailing of Abe Fortas's nomination for chief justiceship of the Supreme Court and the undermining of the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography appointed in 1967.

While the group faded into relative obscurity in the 1970s as its founder turned his attention to less decent innovations such as junk-bond financing, CDL merits scholarly examination as a significant agent in the coalescence of the New Right. Historians have sought the origins of the New Right in diverse locations, in such developments as white resentment toward the "entitlement" programs of the Great Society and the coded or sometimes blatant racism of opposition to public school busing programs. Similarly, the "law and order" backlash to the campus unrest and urban rioting of the 1960s also helped mobilize the nascent New Right. Alongside these issues came a conservative revulsion to the perceived excesses of the sexual revolution and the discovery of the political capital of moralism. For instance, Janice Irvine has shown how battles over sex education beginning in the 1960s ultimately played into the conservative agenda after conservative leaders distorted the terms of the debate. Opposition to pornography, too, followed this pattern, as members of the postwar liberal consensus found themselves pinned down by their vigilant defense of civil liberties even as they generally supported obscenity laws and thus unable to respond adequately to conservative attacks. CDL led the way in showing conservative...



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