PORN WARS: The F.B.I.’s Hidden Campaign to Police Morality

Douglas Charles
The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade against Smut
(University of Kansas Press, 2012)

If you caught Clint Eastwood’s less-than-compelling biopic, J. Edgar, you would have never learned about J. Edgar Hoover’s (and the F.B.I.’s) war against pornography. This missing story is the subject of Douglas Charles’s well-intentioned, if too narrowly drawn study, The FBI’s Obscene File.

Since the nation’s founding, Americans have had a difficult time with pictorial and literary works that some (i.e., those in power) considered obscene, pornographic, or, quite simply, smut.

Anthony Comstock fought for the North during the Civil War and returned to New York City deeply offended by the widespread circulation of obscene images among his fellow soldiers. Joining the Y.M.C.A., he took up the campaign against immoral published materials. His efforts culminated in the introduction of New York State’s 1868 anti-obscenity laws and, in 1873, the U.S. Congress’s adoption of even stiffer national regulations. He served as a Post Office morals enforcer until his death.

Hoover was a 20th century Comstock but with real power. He began his career waging war against subversives, serving as an able assistant to U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer during the infamous Red Scare of 1919–1920. Under Palmer’s direction, as Charles points out, U.S. agents arrested and detained 10,000 suspects for alleged subversion; 556 were deported, including Emma Goldman. He became director of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the F.B.I.) in 1924 and served in that role until his death in 1972 at 77 years of age. 

During the Prohibition era, Hoover fought a two-front war against vice. One involved the production, distribution, and sale of illegal alcohol. The other was an effort to contain a profound culture shift, the nation’s second sexual revolution. This revolution was marked by a change in popular morals, especially involving female presentation (clothes, makeup, smoking), sexual practice, jazz and dancing, interracial mixing, and a major increase in the availability of “obscene” materials.

On March 24, 1925, Hoover inaugurated an informal system that Charles calls the F.B.I.’s “obscene materials filing and mailing procedure.” In 1942, this system formally came to be known as the Obscene File, and it remained in force until the 1990s when the F.B.I. shifted its focus to mainly child pornography. The File was a series of actual, physical filing cabinets that served a variety of purposes.

First, it was a repository of an ever-changing, ever-growing collection of different media forms containing what “special agents in charge,” local G-men, deemed to be obscene. They had no formal or “objective” standard for judgment. For example, in the ’40s, agents collected a wide assortment of playing cards, books, pamphlets, movies, records, and typeset readers. However, as Charles notes, based on a New York Times report, the F.B.I. also went after cartoon booklets supposedly aimed at teenagers, seizing eight million cartoon booklets “showing crude imitations of various comic book characters in lewd poses.” These were popularly known as Tijuana bibles, a staple of illicit nightlife since the ’20s.

Second, F.B.I. laboratory researchers used items in the File to track the producers of the alleged obscene materials to determine if interstate regulations had been violated. These “investigations” are a defining feature of the Bureau’s purpose, and scientific precision was required to determine who produced, for example, a specific porn magazine. Such determination would provide an invaluable piece of evidence for a criminal prosecution. The investigators repeatedly found that certain local operators, particularly in New York, produced the original porn and that it circulated throughout the country. Smut facilitated a criminal underworld.

Third, in the post-World War II era, the battle over obscenity expanded from an issue of morality to illegal business practices. Prohibition was an utter failure, but it did lead to one successful unintended consequence, the transformation of the bootlegging gangster into organized crime. In the face of changing moral standards and the ongoing redefinition of obscenity by the Supreme Court, the F.B.I. turned to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to enforce porn laws. Porn became part of a larger criminal enterprise.

Fourth, the File served an ideological, if not political, purpose. Hoover was a shrewd bureaucrat, adroit at using the information he gathered to strengthen his own power and to enforce the moral order he championed. Charles shows how Hoover worked with New York’s Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman, newspaper reporters, Hollywood TV producers, and others to cultivate a superhero image of himself and the F.B.I.

Traditionally, the concepts of obscenity and vice were intimately linked. While the obscene signified an expression in word, images, or sound of an unacceptable representation (e.g., book, photo, record, film, or live show), vice signified the immoral, unacceptable forms of sexual practice (e.g., prostitution, homosexuality, fetishism). In 1937, the F.B.I. began to systematically investigate homosexuals; during World War II, gays were deemed a security risk; in 1951, amidst the Cold War, Hoover set up the “Sex Deviates” file.

In 1953, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450 that prohibited the employment of gays and lesbians in the federal government. According to some estimates, 1,500 employees were fired and another 6,000 resigned. Nevertheless, as Charles reports, by 1971 the reign of terror against gays stopped and the 300,000-plus pages of information on suspected gays, lesbians, and sexual-rights organizations were destroyed.

What may surprise many are Charles’s revelations about the F.B.I.’s targeting of popular music. In the 1940s and ’50s, Hoover & Co. went after what was known as “race music,” popular, non-religious African-American music. The F.B.I. considered it as a depiction of “lewd and licentious acts in obscene and foul language.” The funniest episode in the F.B.I.’s endless war against obscenity was the investigation of the 1963 rock n’ roll hit, “Louie Louie,” by the all-white teen group, the Kingsmen. Hoover got letters from Indiana’s Governor Matthew Welsh and others that the song’s lyrics were secretly obscene. Agents amassed a 119-page file and came to the momentous conclusion that the lyrics, written in a quasi-Caribbean meter, were too difficult to discern.

Charles reveals how Hoover cleverly revised F.B.I. obscenity policies to meet the latest Supreme Court standards. For example, the landmark 1972 Miller v. California changed the standard by which pornography was to be defined. In place of the old Comstock standard, one based on absolutist Christian notions of moral decency, the Court established the notion of “community standards” to determine what was obscene. Hoover thus sought the most conservative “communities” to continue his anti-porn campaign.

In his dogged scholarship, Charles offers some interesting stories about public figures who had sex-related F.B.I. files. As expected, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Alfred Kinsey had files as did pop artist and very-out Andy Warhol; surprisingly, no mention of John F. Kennedy’s well-documented sexcapades is made. But who knew about the comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello? A police informant reported that Abbott was a porn collector, allegedly having 1,500 reels of obscene motion pictures. According to another report, Costello paid two prostitutes $50 each to put on a lewd performance.

Charles is a scrupulous scholar; his earlier work is J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-interventionists: FBI Political Surveillance and the rise of the Domestic Security State, 1939–45 (Ohio State University Press, 2007). He clearly has spent many hours toiling through F.B.I. official files and other sources to put his latest book together. Repeatedly, Charles confronts key names, dates, and other information that has been redacted. This must be a difficult situation for a scholar; to an ordinary reader, it’s clear that by the innumerable dead end redactions cited by Charles that the F.B.I. still has something to hide.

Charles’s The FBI’s Obscene File reveals a fascinating episode in U.S. cultural history, one that few Americans probably know about, but nobody would be surprised by. While Charles never says so explicitly, there’s been a prurient aspect at the heart of the F.B.I. since its founding. Someone, often a white, conservative Christian G-man, had to acquire, review, analyze, classify, ship, store, and maintain the obscene materials in the File. Sadly, the author never speculates as to the temptation posed by so much obscene materials at F.B.I. headquarters in Washington, D.C.

It’s unfortunate, however, that Charles, like all too many academic scholars, tells his story without a strong dramatic narrative. Chronology and one mysterious character, J. Edgar, structure his storytelling. The immoral, be it obscenity or vice, is a fascinating story, one with a seductive appeal. Charles doesn’t capture this appeal, and he never raises the issue of “demand,” of why there’s been an apparently ever-growing number of consumers desiring and acquiring what is still considered immoral, the forbidden, the obscene.

Contributor

David Rosen

DAVID ROSEN writes the blog, "Media Current," for Filmmaker magazine and regularly contributes to AlterNet, CounterPunch, and the Brooklyn Rail; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

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