I’m reposting a fabulous, complimentary review of The Forbidden Apple by Amazon.com Top 50 Reviewer Rob Hardy. Rob is not the demo I’d expect to laud The Forbidden Apple–he lives in rural Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, three kids and multiple pets–but I’m extremely grateful that he took the plunge and submitted an erudite, thoughtful review of my sexy, urban book. Thanks, Rob!
“Before pornography was a few clicks away on your computer, and then before you could slip a videotape of an X-rated movie into your VCR, you had to go out to see performed porn. You also had to go out to buy dirty magazines. Any American city big enough had places for such commerce, but there was no commercial sex scene more famous than that of our biggest city. It isn’t surprising that the history of New York’s sex-for-sale is lively and full of contradictions, and in The Forbidden Apple: A Century of Sex & Sin in New York City (Ig Publishing), journalist and social historian Kat Long has chronicled the ups and downs of the city’s sex trade. Because New York leads the nation in many ways, this is a history of sexual culture in the United States, with particular attention to what has gone down in New York and in particular within the famous Times Square region. Long shows that though the region has been cleaned up for a few years, there has been over a century of attempts to rid the city of vice. The different versions of the vice squad through the century have fought the battle in different ways, but there has been so much give and take between the sides that it makes sense, as Long shows, to look at the different forces as symbiotic. “As everyone knows, the city is being rebuilt,” she quotes Police Chief William McAdoo as saying, “and vice moves ahead of business.” He said this, however, over a hundred years ago, and it remains true.
Long starts with a name that will be familiar to anyone who knows something about the history of American pornography. Anthony Comstock was indignant that there should be any written material discussing or depicting sex or medical issues connected with sex. This put him at odds with a foe who would bother him for decades, Margaret Sanger, who campaigned for contraception, family planning, and the improvement of women’s lot thereby. As time went on, therefore, Comstock became passé, but not before he gained the authority to censor all mail in the United States. He was so notorious and so eager to sling Biblical invective that even the YMCA, with which he partnered because it had so many of the same goals, eased him out. Comstock insisted that children’s moral purity had to be preserved, the sort of argument that still gets trotted out to attempt to keep adults from seeing adult entertainment. Movies came to New York and were flourishing by 1910, including the “sex problem” films which decried (and yet exploited) white slavery. Long shows (in a book that often has this sort of pattern) that the sex-problem film was to return in the sixties, like Bad Girls Go to Hell, as shown in small theaters in Times Square. The exploitation pictures were surpassed by a new graphic visual eroticism, the peep show, which was invented by Martin Hodas in the 1960s, but peeps and their advertising were pulled from Times Square after a judicial decision against Ralph Ginzburg and his hardcover, unseedy journal Eros in 1963. Al Goldstein fared far better with a much less classy publication starting in 1968, the tabloid Screw, which reviewed sex movies, and the serious attention it gave to them prompted their improvement. Deep Throat premiered in New York in 1972. For those who wanted not to watch but to act, there were the baths, some of which were well maintained and upscale. The famous Continental Baths became Plato’s Retreat in 1977, becoming a headquarters for group sex and thrill-seeking. The seventies, however, also saw the city getting tough with zoning legislation, a battle with sex shops that would last for decades. The moralists have been pleased with the outcome. In Long’s summary of the battle, however, it seems that any moral crusade was simply an excuse for a land grab of some of the most valuable acres in the nation.
Long includes details and anecdotes about a wide variety of subjects, like the Pornography Commission of 1970 which embarrassed the Nixon administration by finding that porn really was not so bad for people, the subsequent 1986 commission which obediently found that porn was not at all good for people, the delightfully-named Golden Rule Pleasure Club which scandalized visitors in the nineteenth century, the ambiguous effects of the feminists of Women Against Pornography, the Victory Girls (V-Girls) who patriotically made New York friendly for servicemen of World War II, the return of morality in the burlesque of the 1950s, and much more. Right now, the sites of former erotic shops and shows have been taken over by Disneyfication, and people are enjoying their titillation more in private. If there is any lesson to this entertaining history, though, in the big city the warring forces of license and restraint will adapt themselves to each other and change again.”