- The Blight of Indecency: Antiporn Politics and the Urban Crisis in Early 1970s Detroit
Late in the summer of 1972, the Adult World Bookstore opened its doors in the neighborhood of Redford, a residential community located in northwest Detroit. The bookstore—and the pornographic material it housed—quickly caught the attention of Pastor James O. Banks of the Redford Presbyterian Church, who on September 17 used his weekly sermon to discuss the Adult World. In his remarks the pastor condemned the bookstore, bemoaning what its opening symbolized both for the Redford neighborhood and more broadly for Christian values. He sought to draw distinctions between normative sexuality (practiced within the bounds of heterosexual marriage) and commercial sex as represented by the goods on offer at the Adult World: “It is cheap. It is raw sex. It is crude. It is degrading. It is sex separated from sexuality. It is sex pictures and symbols being sold. It is wrong. It represents a way of life in total contradiction to the Christian.”1 The pastor used his sermon to reiterate the importance of Christian norms on sex, norms that had been central to antiporn politics for decades. Banks ended his speech by calling on his congregation to reject apathy and take action against the bookstore.
And take action they did. Letters protesting the Adult World soon began arriving in the mailboxes of major city officials. What started as a slow stream of letters soon became a flood, with not only church members but also many neighborhood residents and organizations writing to express their consternation. Their letters, however, quite often emphasized concerns [End Page 420] very different from the ones highlighted by Pastor Banks: fears that the bookstore would lead to an “invasion” of unwanted outsiders; the perceived need to protect children from the excesses of commercial sex; the right of homeowners to decide the character of their neighborhoods; and the belief that the Adult World would cause the economic decline of Redford and Detroit. Together these letters helped form a potent new antiporn discourse, one that eschewed the overt moralizing of previous antiporn efforts in favor of economic and rights-based arguments rooted in concerns about urban decay.
This shift away from moral rhetoric reflected broader changes in society that had put the antiporn movement on the defensive in recent years. Throughout the previous decade, the US Supreme Court repeatedly narrowed the scope of obscenity law and provided greater free speech protections for film and media in cases like Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), Freedman v. Maryland (1965), Memoirs v. Massachusetts (1966), Redrup v. New York (1967), and Stanley v. Georgia (1969).2 This forced many local film censorship boards to shutter during the mid- to late 1960s, including state censorship boards in New York, Virginia, and Kansas and city boards in both Chicago and Detroit.3 Meanwhile, the Production Code—the document that had regulated what Hollywood could and could not depict in its films for over three decades—met its inglorious end in the 1960s, replaced by the more permissive ratings system.4 This decline in the prevalence of film and media censorship was the result not just of legal decisions but of changes in public opinion as well, which had increasingly turned against censorship efforts. The sexual revolution led to what conservative critics derisively labeled “the permissive society” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and within this context antiporn efforts and media censorship based on Christian norms of propriety and decency looked increasingly out of step with the times. As Whitney Strub writes of this era: “Government commissions, courts, social scientists, and the general public alike reached a consensus that, if pornography might not [End Page 421] be something to celebrate, it nonetheless posed no threat to the perpetuation of the republic.”5
Due to the confluence of these factors, in the early 1970s pornography achieved levels of mainstream visibility and respectability that it never had before (and arguably has not had since). This was the era of “porno chic,” a time when feature-length adult films racked up box-office numbers rivaling those of the era’s biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Contrary to the old stereotype...