- Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right by Whitney Strub
In her essay “Conservatism: A State of the Field,” Kim Phillips-Fein challenges scholars to “see conservatism with a new perspective—to understand its tenacity through the liberal years … and how its history is intertwined with that of liberalism.”1 Whitney Strub’s Perversion for Profit has met this steep challenge adroitly by highlighting how sexual politics shaped conservatism’s relationship to liberalism. In a well-researched and wide-ranging examination, Strub traces the mobilizing power of antipornography activism in American politics and exposes a contradiction at the heart of liberalism that gave rise to the New Right: liberals’ “stealth defense of sexual expression” enabled the growth of the pornography industry without “dismantling or discussing the social framework that denied legitimacy to prurience” (78). This inconsistency, which saw no significant liberal voices defend pornography, allowed conservative groups to soliloquize endlessly about the dangers of pornography and thus attain a disproportionate influence on national sexual politics. Organized into interrelated case studies that oscillate in focus from national to local, Perversion for Profit forcefully demonstrates how anxieties about pornography empowered politicians, enabled the constitution of sexual ideologies, and rationalized new forms of regulation that ultimately fueled the emergence of the New Right and [End Page 140] fractured postwar liberalism. In so doing, Strub places the history of sexuality at the center of the history of conservatism.
Historians from a variety of subfields will find much to interest them in Perversion for Profit. By examining a nationwide moral panic over comic books and then turning to obscenity law enforcement in Los Angeles at the height of the Cold War, Strub’s first chapter excavates the analytical and institutional frameworks whereby police forces, moral entrepreneurs, and politicians regulated sexual imagery. The chapter’s case study of Los Angeles, which shows how obscenity law stigmatized queer people and culture, will be of particular interest to GLBTQ historians. Legal scholars will likewise benefit from the second chapter, which examines the Warren Court’s “brief flirtation with free speech absolutism” (48) and the American Civil Liberties Union’s development of a free speech doctrine. Strub examines these transformations in order to spotlight the normative and disciplining effects of the modern obscenity doctrine.
When Strub examines the tactics and efficacy of the antiobscenity group Citizens for Decent Literature (CDL) in his third chapter, he realizes Bethany Moreton’s call for scholarship that acknowledges the centrality of sexuality to religious conservatism.2 CDL, he argues, was at the forefront of the formation of the New Right and grafted secularized scientific and social scientific rhetoric onto moralistic and religious frameworks. Scholars of religion and sexuality will benefit from the avenues of investigation that Strub has commenced here. Still, the contrast between the public ecumenicalism of CDL in the 1960s and the marked religiosity of antiporn activists a decade later is striking but underelaborated. Likewise, Strub’s chapter offers tantalizing clues as to how boundaries between religious and secular were demarcated in the postwar period and how conservative activists shaped and were shaped by these boundaries.
Mapping a constellation of political skirmishes that saw the New Right discover “the political capital of moralism” (120), Strub’s fourth chapter touches upon the Supreme Court nomination of Abe Fortas, the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, and the ascent in moralistic rhetoric of conservative leaders. “Morality,” Strub avers, “assumed a place of centrality in New Right rhetoric, acting both as a replacement for the fading discourses of racism and anticommunism” (117). Strub’s anchoring example, Mayor Henry Loeb of Memphis, is powerful, but Strub’s important analysis leaves important questions unanswered. If “sexual conservatism is just a borrowed raiment for ‘the new racism,’” then why did so many African American religious leaders, politicians, and newspapers oppose pornography and do so in terms similar to those of their white counterparts?3 Further [End Page 141] analysis of how conservative sexual politics could both reinforce and...