Dirty Works: Obscenity on Trial in America’s First Sexual Revolution

Stanford Univ. Aug. 2021. 448p. ISBN 9781503627598. $35. LAW
Gary (media, culture, and communication, New York Univ.) here focuses on the efforts of progressive New York attorney Morris Ernst. He writes that in a series of legal cases from the 1920s to 1950s, Ernst successfully defended feminists, journalists, birth control activists, and book publishers against enforcement of conservative, Christianity-based obscenity laws; restrictions on birth control research and education; and limits on scholarly research of sexual mores. Ernst favored an incrementalist approach rather than attempting a radical revision of the law; Gary makes the case that his victories gradually pushed back legal restraints on free speech and birth control. Ernst’s triumphs culminated in his mid-1950s challenge to the U.S. government’s use of obscenity laws to block the Kinsey Institute from importing erotica and other material about sex for their research. In the years after this victory, Ernst’s anti-communism motivated him to work, to Gary’s regret, with J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and the House Un-American Activities Committee to root out communists, who, Ernst believed, didn’t deserve the protection of free speech or civil liberty. Ernst became a pariah in the progressive community as a result.
VERDICT Although this book does not aim to be a biography, it would have been useful to provide more background information on Ernst and his colleagues. Still, readers interested in 20th-century U.S. history, civil liberties litigation, Ernst and his legal colleagues, birth control, or the cultural basis of obscenity laws will find this book worthwhile.
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