Below is a photograph of John Saxton Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), taken in a New York courtroom in 1937. State law endowed his organization with statutory power to uncover violations of the anti-obscenity statutes (the Comstock Laws). Anthony Comstock was the Society's founder; Sumner succeeded him in 1915. The aim of the NYSSV was that of other Progressive reform agencies: to alleviate the exploitation of the weak and innocent in areas where the social fabric was infested with crime and vice.

While other organizations worked to stop prostitution or gambling, the New York Vice Society tried to prevent another type of moral degeneracy. It aimed to eradicate a slew of physical and intellectual dysfunctions which it attributed to the availability of obscene books, magazines, and pictures: sloth, obsessive sensual indulgence, lasciviousness, wanton disregard for personal or familial duty. It is important to recognize that these were seen not only as sins against God but as barriers terminally isolating citizens from the fruits of the American Dream. Eradicating them root and branch involved stopping not only the materials just mentioned but also contraceptive devices and information about birth control, sexology, eugenics, and "free love or lust" (Comstock's words; he equated the two). For Comstock and Sumner believed that the function of sex was to allow married couples to procreate. The scope of social control deemed essential for a healthy America included active regulation of sexual appetites and behavior, not simply the impounding of stories of sexual gymnastics. A memoir of lustful adventures in a harem, a package of Japanese prophylactics, and a handbook on sex conduct in marriage all faced interdiction.

Because of shifting moral boundaries between tabooed and acceptable sexually oriented behavior and its description, Sumner thought it necessary to defend a "one-hundred-percent American" moral consensus--an amalgam of sexual reticence, patriotism, and Christian piety--against the immigrant, the Bolshevik, the money-grubbing urbanite, the worldly sophisticate, and the effete intellectual. Political subversion and sexually explicit writings were noted as equal hallmarks of radical deviance. Due to rapid social change in general, and the advocacy of eugenics and sex education by authors of tracts on radical reform of family structure, his concerns were widely shared. Summer was a "status politician," or"moral entrepreneur." His job was to muster considerable support for anti-smut campaigns from churchmen, civic groups, politicians, academics, and jurists, all concerned with the "eroticization of leisure time," which in the twenties was a result of increased social and occupational mobility. Those responsible--film moguls, dance hall and restaurant proprietors, amusement park managers, and publishers of sex-educational and/or erotic books--might be crushed under financial penalty and social stigma, especially because many were immigrants, and members of racial or ethnic minorities.

Where Sumner differed from Comstock was that the NYSSV founder "was somewhat of a religious fanatic who loved notoriety," as Sumner said, a table-thumping ranter whose stern features, mutton-chop whiskers and pot belly invited derision, and whose occasional indignant manhandling of suspects and gloating pronouncements about their penal sentences provoked anger. Comstock's hands-on vigilance was bereft of dignity and restraint, requisite virtues prized by the gentlemen who volunteered time and money to maintain the Society. Judging from the amount of public speaking Sumner did, which included forums and debates with ideological opponents, he had a reputation for expressing articulate, knowledgeable, and reasonable viewpoints to a general audience.


One journalist reported that Sumner was "a shade too refined for his job."


One could hardly imagine Comstock writing an article for Smart Set magazine advising parents to speak frankly to their "flapper daughters" about their bobbed hair, love of jazz, and visits to dance halls. But Sumner did, describing himself as a "plain, ordinary, everyday, hard-working American daddy." His words of wisdom: "it's hard to keep them from knowing things . . . . There wouldn't be half the harm in those sex plays and sex movies and sex books . . . if you parents did your job." This 1928 essay was most likely heavily edited for easy magazine reading, but in it Sumner "spoke" confidently and plainly as a typically responsible family man.

Section Headings:
Sumner's Modus Operandi
Vigilance Against Smut--and Foreign Subversion
Social Reform, Social Control, and the Need for Americanization
Sumner and the Intransigence of Authority
"The Virulence of Sex"
Boston's Watch and Ward and the NYSSV

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chapter 4