Enlightenment is a relative thing

Minnesota had a rather active intellectual life with an international reputation early in the 20th century. It had the bad — Moody Bible College, for instance, which was one of the formative centers of fundamentalist and evangelical Christian thought — but it also had some progressive thinkers, like Charles Malchow, who I’d never heard of before. Malchow was a doctor at Hamline University who was inspired to write an open-minded textbook about human sexuality, and suffered the consequences.

The Sexual Life (dedicated to Malchow’s mother, Marie), appeared in 1904, the same year Maclhow married Lydia Gluek, a daughter of the Minneapolis Gluek Brewing enterprise. The Sexual Life, over 300 pages, described in straightforward language a wide range of sex practices and problems—contraception, youthful experimentation, same-sex attraction, the physiology and psychology of sexual excitement, sexual pleasure, and sexual frustration. The book took particular aim at encouraging equality of knowledge and enjoyment for women and men.

As we’ll see, that is a charitable summary. The book does talk a lot about equality of the sexes, though, and seems to have triggered some knee-jerk reactions in the establishment.

In 1873 Congress had enacted the Comstock Act, which made using the US mail to distribute obscenity (including specifically any information about abortion) a felony. Malchow and Burton knew about the law and inquired of Minneapolis post office officials whether their advertising pamphlet—which described the book in detail—could be sent through the mail. The unhelpful answer merely referred them to the Comstock Act. They took a chance, and mailed 25,000 copies of the pamphlet to doctors, ministers, and lawyers around the country. The book quickly sold 3,000 copies.

In August 1904, just two months after Malchow’s marriage, a Minneapolis federal grand jury indicted Malchow and Burton for violating the Comstock Act. Trial began in October before Judge William Lochren, an Irish immigrant, a Civil War hero (he survived the famous charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg), and Minnesota’s second federal district judge. Lochren disapproved of The Sexual Life and made his views known to the jury, who quickly convicted both men. The First Amendment played no part in Malchow’s defense—it had not occurred to anyone at the time that the Constitution might protect the publication of explicit sexuality. And under the law of the time, Malchow and Burton were guilty of the crime.

Lochren gave both Malchow and Burton eighteen months in prison, later reduced to twelve. While their appeal made its way to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Malchow’s supporters appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt for a pardon. They failed: Roosevelt wrote that he found The Sexual Life “a hideous and loathsome book.” The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction in April 1906; Roosevelt declined the pardon in April; Malchow and Burton reported to Stillwater State Prison in May. They were released in March 1907.

Teddy thought this was a loathsome book? Well then, I must read it. Fortunately, The Sexual Life is freely available on the internet archive. It disappoints. It’s tame stuff for the 21st century, no illustrations, and it hammers away on the importance of traditional sexual and gender roles. Women can be equal to men, as long as their sexual behavior is exactly as would be expected in the pages of a Victorian romance novel — and not the seedy novels you could find under the table at men’s clubs, but the kind a gentlelady could be seen reading in public.

The word “natural” sure does a lot of heavy lifting in the text. It was “encouraging equality of knowledge and enjoyment for women and men”, but only within the narrow bounds of acceptable social behavior. Women were supposed to act one way, men another, and Medicine and Science would discourage any deviation.

It also doesn’t say much at all about same-sex attraction, briefly mentioning only male homosexuality (unthinkable that passive, mild-mannered ladies would consider such a thing), and then only to call it a perversion and dismiss it from further consideration.

Uh, right. I’m certainly not going to praise Malchow as an open-minded, forward-thinking person — the book is a paean to customary gender roles, and is built on conservative assumptions throughout.

He did go to prison for it, though, which was not just. It’s weird to read it now and realize that, for its time, it was a wildly libertine, radical perspective on sexuality. Nowadays, though, I could imagine Ben Shapiro or any of those crimped, narrow minds on the Right praising it as a great prescription for how we all should live now.


  1. says

    I got an ad from Ben Shit-hero before I was allowed to watch your most recent video. How and why is somebody paying for for this? Wrong audience dude.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    @ 1


    blockquote>How and why is somebody paying for for this?



    Who funds Kapo Shapiro’s videos is obvious: Generous backing from right-wing billionaires. The reason why is also obvious: To maintain their economic and social dominance over this shithole country.

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Goddess Synchronicity is writing this, not me. Annalee Newitz latest novel [Future of Another Timeline] features Comstock and his lead henchman as the major villains of the story.

    back to me:
    reading the story, the name Comstock kept ringing a bell in me as “familiar”, with no other details. Only the Afterward notes let me know he was a real historical figure ransacking mail looking for anything he could call perverted (the sicko) .
    The hero’s correction, in her timeline, is well worth reading.

    [disclaimer] In no way am I related to Newitz, and will not profit in any way by promoting sales of her novels

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Going off on a tangent.
    Real news that would give Comstock et al a stroke:
    A brothel in Austria is offering free vouchers to adults that get vaccinated against covid in the building.
    We have finally found an argument that may appeal to (male) anti-vaxxers.
    -I have little doubt the local clones of Ben Shapiro will turn up, once they have disguised themselves with dark glasses and the occasional wig.

  5. cvoinescu says

    He did go to prison for it, though, which was not just. It’s weird to read it now and realize that, for its time, it was a wildly libertine, radical perspective on sexuality. Nowadays, though, I could imagine Ben Shapiro or any of those crimped, narrow minds on the Right praising it as a great prescription for how we all should live now.

    So… yay, progress?

  6. Walter Solomon says

    He was probably prosecuted since he worked at an University. I imagine he was called a “bad example for the youth” or something along those lines. The same thing happened to Bertrand Russell during his brief tenure at CCNY in the 30s.

    There were definitely far more sexually explicit literature written in English for centuries before this. Even Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is more explicit than these dry passages. Not to mention, the first hardcore porn film made in the US (and the world) was filmed just 11 years later in 1915.

  7. says

    His views on women’s attitude to males seeking sex that their coyness and rejection of the approach really means that they want it sounds a lot like the standard “she really wanted it ” defence used by predatory males to justify rape.