Kiddie Porn

In the sexual counterrevolution, Ginsberg was the antiporn Gettysburg — the battle that turned the tide.

Margaux Williamson, We Made A New Atlas. 2014, oil on panel. Courtesy of the artist.

Is it up, Rod?she panted, undulating her body under his. “Is it up good and hard?”

“Oh, yes,” he whispered, almost unable to speak. “Oh, yes.”

I study these sentences again and again, picturing . . . what? I am not sure.

It is spring 1965, Merrick, Long Island, suburban New York City. I am 12. On my way home from school, I have found Peyton Place in a box of castoffs on the sidewalk, slipped it into my schoolbag with my Warriner’s English Grammar and dittoed arithmetic problems, and secreted the book to the backyard clubhouse.

The club has two members, Ricki Ellen Brooke and me.1 We have just finished building the clubhouse, a square shack of plywood scraps with an army poncho for a roof. Activities are posted on the wall — Boatbuilding, Archery, Science — but the most compelling activity was Construction, and with that finished the club feels dinky and babyish.

But now, alone, I am entering another club — a grown-up one. Since its publication a decade earlier, Peyton Place has passed like a totem of initiation from young hand to young hand, to my hands. It’s cold out and my fingers turning the pages are stiff. But I don’t want to bring the book inside, where my brother is watching Million Dollar Movie and my parents will soon return from work.

I search the book at random — the part where Allison MacKenzie touches her breasts in bed and feels her nipples tighten; the passage in which Tom Makris and Constance MacKenzie have sex for the first time: “He kissed her brutally, torturously, as if he hoped to awaken a response in her with pain that gentleness could not arouse.” Tom throws Constance into his car, drives her to her house, carries her upstairs, and rapes her. “‘Now,’ he said. ‘Now.’” Later, inexplicably, they become boyfriend and girlfriend.

As I read, a familiar feeling rises in me: I call it the “bad-boy feeling,” named for its first occurrence — the night I “flew up” from Brownies to Girl Scouts in the third grade. The ritual was short, held at the junior high school. One by one, we girls filed onto the stage, raised a final two-finger Brownie salute, and crossed a little bridge, pausing in the middle to wave. On the other side, we saluted Girl Scout fashion, with three fingers; a Girl Scout troop leader pinned a tiny pair of wings to our sashes. I was the only girl who forgot to wave. An indulgent chuckle rose from the audience. Back in a seat beside my parents, I was antsy with embarrassment and desperate to pee.

I escaped to the darkened school hallway. There half a dozen boys — big boys, maybe seventh-graders — loitered outside the girls’ room. As I approached, they parted narrowly to let me pass.

Maybe they barely noticed me, a child with a pixie cut, only marginally feminized by a shapeless brown dress. Yet something in the way they laughed and slouched told me they knew something I didn’t know — maybe something about me. As I moved through them, power caromed from boy to boy, glancing off me. Had any of them witnessed my humiliation? The thought intensified the zings from their bodies to mine. I wanted to linger and could not get away fast enough.

In the bathroom cubicle I sat on the toilet, my underpants dropping toward my brown knee socks. Inside me something skittered over the surface of a syrupy pool. I sank into the spreading warmth as the echoes of male voices receded down the hallway.

Between that night and this afternoon in the clubhouse, the bad-boy feeling had visited me from time to time. At a contraceptive-medicine convention with my mother, the administrator of a birth-control clinic, I had wandered the floor, examining pills in their powder-puff cases, pressing open the beak of a speculum, and staring at a wall of penises. The penises showed the symptoms of advanced venereal disease, in full color, and looked nothing like the nubbin I’d seen bobbing in our bathtub, attached to my brother. These were the penises of strangers, bearing the stigmata of adult adventure. I returned again and again to that wall.

I’d had the bad-boy feeling at the town art cinema, passing a giant box of Milk Duds back and forth with Allie Mensch, watching the documentary The Sky Above — The Mud Below, in which a tribe of New Guinea headhunters cook, hunt, and dance naked, the women’s breasts swinging, the men wearing long bone penis sheaths cantilevered to replicate erections. The memory remains synesthetic: chewy sweetness, drumbeat, beating heart.

Hidden body parts displayed right out in public; powerful communiqués camouflaged as ordinary interactions in ordinary places, like a school hallway or a convention center; that skittering anxiety, the syrupy pool — such experiences were not easy to come by. But now, in the darkening clubhouse, I am extracting those fugitive sensations from between the covers of a worn paperback, twisting them this way and that, letting them drift, reeling them in. The bad-boy feeling is not just happening to me. I am making it happen. In Peyton Place it is captive. I own it.


mile away, in a bedroom on Woodbine Avenue in Bellmore, Richard Lance Corey might be doing more or less what I am doing. Lance is 15, a sophomore at my future alma mater, Wellington C. Mepham High School. He earns middling grades, gets into fights now and then, and excels at sports, especially wrestling. In an institution committed to academic mediocrity and distinguished only by its wrestling team, it is no surprise that Lance is something of a ladies’ man.

Lance dates fast girls, girls with impenetrable hair and haughty breasts, whose black nylons are webbed with runs, as if to enable the progress of itsy-bitsy upskirt fetishist spiders. Even if I were his age, Lance wouldn’t look twice at me, an advanced-track goody-goody Jewish girl in lace-up shoes. In my imagination, he moves through Mepham’s halls in a penumbra of sex and menace.

Lance is a growing boy with a growing boy’s appetites, in the service of which he likes to keep a renewable supply of visual aids. This does not make his mother happy. Mary Corey, a Catholic self-styled “household engineer,” is a vigilant sentry against assaults on the moral character of her four children. And as is common with this sort of battle, its mission creeps until everything to do with her children’s sexuality begins to look like the enemy. When Lance was 12, she found some brassiere ads under his pillow. Unnerved, she confiscated them and sent her son to his father, Charlie, for a stern sex-educational talking-to. The conversation was less than stern and less than enlightening.

Less than effective, too: Lance kept collecting, and didn’t even bother to hide the contraband more carefully. So sure enough, in the summer of 1965, just before his 16th birthday, Mary opens her son’s closet and finds more evidence of corruption: two girlie magazines. This time she is more than unnerved. She’s apoplectic — and burns the magazines.

Mary probably is unaware that Lance has already lost his virginity to his girlfriend, Lucy. But maybe the magazines tip her off that this romance is not entirely wholesome. At some point Mary calls Lucy’s mother. Soon thereafter, according to Lance, Lucy’s mother tries to run him over in her driveway.

The relationship ends. School starts. On October 15, 1965, thousands of people in forty American cities protest the Vietnam War. I take the train to Manhattan with a friend to mingle with the college kids at Columbia. But Lance is not paying attention to the war. Again, he gets himself a fistful of smut. He strolls through the front door and runs smack into Mom.

“Where did you get these?” she demands, her eyes zeroing in on the skin visible on the cover.

“At Sam’s,” Lance admits, seeing no profit in resistance. Sam’s is Sam’s Stationery and Luncheonette, at the intersection of Newbridge Road and Bellmore Avenue, a few blocks from Lucy’s house.

Enough is enough. Mary refuses to stand aside while some pissant storekeeper leads her son down the road to perdition.

The next part of the story is in considerable contest. According to her own account, Mary grabs her coat and her 6-year-old son, Michael, and storms off to give Sam a piece of her mind. It’s a busy time of the day: kids let out of school and adults at the end of the workday are stopping in for a soda, a coffee, or cigarettes. Sam Ginsberg, the storekeeper, stands behind the counter. His wife, Pauline, is tidying up the front. Mary strides to the magazine rack, which stretches ten feet along the wall opposite the counter. Sam asks if he can help her.

“I want to compliment you on your wide range of pornography,” replies Mary.

Sam asks the angry lady who she is.

“I’m Lance Corey’s mother,” Mary later claims she says.

“Who is Lance Corey?” asks Sam.

Mary insists that the storekeeper knows her son well; he even offered him a job.

According to Mary, it is here that Sam’s language becomes abusive. He tells her he’ll sell anything he pleases to anyone he pleases — including Michael — and it’s none of her goddamned business (or words to that effect).

This, according to the Coreys, is what really pisses Mary off. She goes home to call the Seventh Precinct. The next day, a couple of detectives come by the house on Woodbine Avenue. They sit in the living room with Mary and Charlie and cook up a sting. They ask Lance if he’ll make the buy. He thinks for a day or two and says sure.

On October 18, Charlie Corey drives Lance to the store. “Go in there and get some juicy magazines,” father tells son. Lance doesn’t dawdle. He picks out Mr. Annual with a cover girl who looks like the daughter of a Sicilian fishmonger, shrugging a cardigan far enough off her shoulders to get the reader to open the cover. The other magazine, Sir, promises hipper content: “The Beatnik Book to End ’Em All” and a survey of the sex lives of college men. The transaction — $1.60 in total — goes off without a hitch.

A week later, on October 26, two undercover cops pick up Lance and Mary at home and park their car across from Sam’s. Lance and the cops enter separately. This time, the boy chooses Man to Man and Escapade, a special issue on blondes. He walks to the counter and pays while the two cops watch from different parts of the store. Back in the car, Lance hands over the loot and everyone initials the covers.

Mary, Lance, and Detective Albert Anderson give their testimony to the district attorney. On October 28, police arrest Sam Ginsberg in the store while Pauline raises a helpless geschrei. He is charged with two counts of violating Chapter 327 Section 484-h of the New York State Penal Code, for “knowingly” selling to a minor magazines containing “any picture, photograph . . . or similar visual representation or image of a person or portion of the human body which depicts nudity, sexual conduct or sado-masochistic abuse and which is harmful to minors.”


Lance Corey was the quintessential bad boy of the bad-boy feeling, so it’s ironic that he became the star player in Ginsberg v. New York, the 1968 Supreme Court case that marked the beginning of the end of an incipient sexual revolution for kids. Ginsberg established the concept of “variable obscenity,” a sliding-scale version of constitutional free-speech protection that depends on the age of the consumer, which has supported scores of censorial regulations and laws. Along with a cluster of related cases, Ginsberg presaged the modern era of sexual surveillance and punishment — a regime that aims to protect children, but in practice restricts the freedoms of adults, infantilizes teens, and criminalizes ordinary child and adolescent sexual behavior.

Obscenity law in Britain and America was founded on the belief that sexual, blasphemous, and violent words and images could — as a British jurist put it in 1868 — “deprave and corrupt” the morally vulnerable: children, women, and the feeble-minded. It wasn’t until 1957 that the US Supreme Court challenged this belief, overturning a Michigan law that criminalized any publication that might “incite minors to violent or depraved or immoral acts.” The law did not just affect minors, said the court in Butler v. Michigan, which meant the state had exercised unconstitutionally broad discretion and power. “To reduce the adult population of Michigan to reading only what is fit for children,” argued Justice Felix Frankfurter for the majority, was to “burn the house to roast the pig.” Censorship could no longer rest on the fear that erotica had to be suppressed, lest it fall into the wrong hands.

So what could censorship rest on? Four months later, in Roth v. United States, the Supreme Court both clarified and clouded the answer. Upholding the obscenity conviction of a publisher of pulp fiction, Justice William Brennan began by asserting that the First Amendment was never intended to “protect every utterance.” The intercourse the founders cared about was political; to censor work with even the “slightest redeeming social importance” requires evidence that it presents a “clear and present danger,” like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. To ban obscenity, now naked of constitutional protection, no such proof was needed.

Still, said Brennan, “sex and obscenity are not synonymous.” Sex is “a great and mysterious motive force in human life,” and thus in art, literature, and science. To determine the difference, he advanced a test: “whether, to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest.” The work also had to lack any social value. But utter worthlessness proved tough to claim. Within a few years, Roth freed Howl, Naked Lunch, Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Tropic of Cancer. In 1966, the justices overturned the long censorship of John Cleland’s 18th-century pulp novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, a.k.a. Fanny Hill. The book was dirtier than plenty of other still-banned books. So, in loosened bodice and dropped knickers, Fanny held the gates open for another round of literary — and pornographic — prisoners.

Artists and intellectuals cheered these decisions, but the Brennan test worried them. Who was this average person anyway? What community’s standards should prevail? Would-be censors, on the other hand, saw the Roth exception as a potent weapon in the “war on obscenity” the Catholic bishops had declared in 1957. Marching alongside the Church’s National Organization for Decent Literature were national groups like the John Birch Society, as well as local preachers and women’s and youth groups. State and local antiporn ordinances and statutes proliferated; police vigorously enforced them. No town was too sophisticated to opt out: the New York Police Department, under a Democratic mayor, ran a robust antiporn squad.

In the late ’50s, the antiporn crusade got a powerful infusion of grassroots energy when the Roman Catholic lawyer Charles Keating Jr. founded Citizens for Decent Literature Inc. (CDL). At its height in the 1960s, the organization boasted 300 chapters and 100,000 members, by far the country’s largest antipornography organization. While local activists picketed porn shops and theaters, the lawyers in the Cincinnati offices churned out amicus briefs for the prosecution in obscenity cases. Each issue of CDL’s bimonthly National Decency Reporter published lists of conquests — “Bondage Boarding School,” “Homo Sweet Homo,” “Lash of Desire” — simultaneously titillating the troops and goading them to battle.

Porn could be had “openly, in drugstores, delis, malt shops . . . by children!” This may be the only fact in Perversion for Profit.

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These people were working and praying for decency über alles. But they relied on the time-honored tactic of terrifying parents about the fate of innocent children. CDL’s film Perversion for Profit, released in 1963, with a second push in ’65, perfected this tactic. “A floodtide of filth is engulfing our country in the form of newsstand obscentiy,” intones “George Putnam, Outstanding News Reporter,” standing before a map of the United States in a gray suit with a white pocket handkerchief. “It is threatening to pervert an entire generation of our American children.” Most of the thirty-minute film is an encyclopedia of the subgenres of porn, from plain vanilla to S&M, illustrating the irresistibility of porn with a panoply of irresistible porn.

It is axiomatic that moral threats are ubiquitous and spreading. And so it is in the 1960s, says Putnam. With “high-speed presses, rapid transportation, [and] mass distribution” abetting the pornmonger, dirty magazines no longer had to be “bought on the sly, from under the counter.” They could be had “openly, by anyone, in drugstores, groceries, delicatessens, terminals, malt shops . . . by children!” This may be the only fact in Perversion for Profit. A photograph of the magazine rack at Sam’s at the time of the sting shows Man to Man shelved two slots away from Mad magazine, with only Muscular Development defending the space between. The louche Playboy rubs elbows with the staid Time.

Putnam ends with a call to arms and a nod to Roth: the Constitution contains “a guarantee of protection against obscenity,” he declares. Still, Butler v. Michigan was a sign that the protection of children was a weakening legal argument for censorship. A better strategy was to lay off the grownups and zero in on keeping porn from kids.

The New York State Assembly drafted 484-h with this in mind. The law asserted that exposure to profane materials is “a basic factor in impairing the ethical and moral development of our youth.” It articulated the Brennan test, only tailored to minors — for instance, a work prohibited to people under 17 had to “predominantly appeal to the prurient . . . interest of minors”; it had to lack socially redeeming value for minors. Butler unshackled adult sexual speech from child protection, but it neither substantiated nor challenged the notion that sexual speech is harmful to minors. Thanks to Roth, the harm of obscenity needed no proof. The stage was set to connect the two to reinforce the wall between kids and anything considered dirty.


For Nassau County district attorney William Cahn, the bust at Sam’s Stationery and Luncheonette cannot have come at a better time. Cahn has made headlines for taking down a housewife-hooker ring and low-level mobsters extorting barbers. Lately, though, his targets have expanded from flesh-and-blood vice to the paper-and-ink variety; CDL’s National Decency Reporter has taken notice of his efforts. But setbacks are mounting.

The year before, Cahn seized 21,000 copies of Barney Rosset’s Evergreen Review at the printing plant in Hicksville, calling the publication “indecent, obscene, and pornographic.” Issue 32 contained pieces by Jean Genet, Günter Grass, and William S. Burroughs. The offending features were an article on the history of the word fuck and some blurry photos of two entwined nude bodies. Rosset’s lawyer moved for an injunction, the New York State attorney general joined him, the judge released the magazines, Evergreen reaped some free publicity, and Burroughs got a line for his next novel: “Oh my God, are we ever in Hicksville.” The puffed-up Bill Cahn was punctured.

If this humiliation were not enough, the DA is facing doubts about his own rectitude. His opponent in the upcoming election is accusing this prosecutor of mobsters with excessive friendliness with a mobbed-up jukebox mogul named Irving Holzman. It’s the toughest campaign of Cahn’s sixteen-year career.

Then, a month before the election, a mad-as-hell mama appears in his offices, proffering the head of a schlemiel who has violated a law that could be nicknamed “Bill’s bill,” so passionately did the DA champion it. The arraignment takes place a week before Election Day.


Sam Ginsberg’s trial in Nassau County District Court begins on April 18, 1966. It is an ambiguous year for the First Amendment. At the University of California, Berkeley — whose Free Speech Movement the year before opened political discourse across college campuses — the Campus Sexual Rights Forum registers as a student group. When not discussing issues, it holds orgies.

In March, more than 200 youth members of Citizens for Decent Literature convene in Cincinnati. Just as the convention is wrapping up, the Supreme Court overrules Massachusetts’s Fanny Hill ban. The same day, the justices uphold Pennsylvania’s conviction and five-year prison sentence of the publisher-provocateur Ralph Ginzburg for sending Eros and the two other mildly steamy publications through the mails. The Court is particularly irked that he tried to distribute his wares from Blue Ball and Intercourse, Pennsylvania.

Morris J. Ezra, defending Sam Ginsberg, moves to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the law is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and that the claimed harm is neither sufficiently described nor documented. Judge Julius J. Chinman dismisses the motion and appears to have it in for Ezra from the get-go. Chinman overrules most of the defense’s objections and sustains most of those brought by the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Robert Rivers, even when the lawyers are objecting to essentially the same infractions.

No two witnesses tell the same story. Sam’s account of the encounter with Mary Corey differs from hers; Pauline Ginsberg tells a slightly different story from her husband’s. Mary says her outrage was piqued and her complaint to the police instigated by Sam’s insistence that he’d sell porn to 6-year-old Michael. Sam claims the little boy wasn’t there.

Lance testifies that when he made his purchase on October 26, he held the two magazines slightly apart so Sam could see the prices. One of the detectives reports seeing Lance holding two magazines out toward Sam. The other recalls that there was only one magazine, carried at Lance’s side. Sam testifies that Lance carried the magazines under his armpit and without showing him the covers, paid with exact change, and left. Lance mentions that he usually orders a vanilla soda at Sam’s. In a trial bristling with inconsistencies, even this fact is disputed.

What is not in dispute, except by Ezra, is that the publications in question are harmful to Lance and other minors. Even the Episcopal priest George L. Stowell, a witness for the defense, comes around to agreeing. Under Ezra’s questioning, Stowell testifies that he is a steady customer of the Ginsbergs. Sam’s “language is always courteous and polite,” his honesty and goodness well known in the neighborhood. “All in all,” says Stowell, Sam “has dealt with the public in such a way that would please a clergyman.”

Then, on cross-examination, ADA Rivers shows the priest some of the racier pages in evidence, apparently the first time the witness has seen them. The prosecutor asks Stowell to turn to pages 56–57 of Escapade, a spread of a woman in a head kerchief and bikini underpants, her silicone breasts aimed straight at the reader. The witness pronounces the picture “very bad.”

Next comes Man to Man, page 51. According to the caption, model Lubi Lopez could be a star pupil in Reverend Stowell’s Sunday school. She “believes in a Spartan way of life,” doesn’t smoke or drink, and practices calisthenics every day. In the photo, however, she is not doing jumping jacks. She is lifting the back of her skirt to reveal black stockings, garters, and the bottom half of her naked buttocks.

“That’s terrible too.”

And does the witness believe such pictures “have any educational value for children under 17 years old?”

Answers the chief character witness for Sam Ginsberg: “I think they encourage them into occasions of sin.”

The wild variations in testimony alone should exonerate Ginsberg. But Judge Chinman finds the defendant guilty of twice knowingly selling a minor under the age of 17 materials that “contained pictures and photographs depicting female nudities . . . [and] verbal descriptions and narrative accounts of sexual excitement and sexual conduct.” Without substantiation, he further finds that these materials are harmful to minors.

A month later, at the sentencing hearing, Chinman has softened toward the convicted pornmonger. He says he is sorry Sam had to be the “particular person who was involved in this situation.” He lectures the couple on their moral obligation to the community, especially its younger members. But heeding letters of support from the Ginsbergs’ rabbi and others, the judge suspends the sentence on all counts. “I am not going to punish you,” he says.

Lance — who, according to Pauline, has stopped by the store to taunt the Ginsbergs — finishes the school year and probably gets a summer job.

That summer, another Mepham alumnus — or rather, a 1941 dropout — is in the news. The Jewish juvenile delinquent Leonard Schneider, aka Lenny Bruce, is found naked and dead of a morphine overdose in his Hollywood home. Bruce’s friends say he was deranged by addiction and demoralized by endless obscenity arrests.


The summer Lance loses his virginity I also cross a threshold of erotic experience. At camp I meet Danny Conrad, a sweet-faced boy with a Beatles haircut just like mine. We say hello at the Fourth of July bonfire and within minutes we are an item. After that, things move fast. They have to: we see each other maybe four times in all. At the second square dance he puts his arm around my shoulder. On our third encounter we “make out,” at an obtuse, largely ineffectual angle.

Before we know it, the summer is almost over. At the camp fair Danny and I share an ice cream cone and move into some trees away from the festivities. We neck for a few minutes, this time face to face. Then he French-kisses me — my first time and, judging from his technique, his too.

His lips encircle the outside of mine like an airtight gasket and his tongue pushes flat against my mouth, so hard that I am compelled to open it. Once inside my mouth, the tongue flicks randomly around my teeth and tongue. His hand grasping the back of my head, he inserts his whole tongue, as if to prevent anything else from getting in, or maybe out. I pull away briefly to gasp for air (it will be a few years before I learn you’re allowed to breathe while kissing). Taking this as an expression of passion, Danny presses on more ardently.

I have hoped for this kiss all summer. But now my main feeling is suffocation, suffused with the stale, sticky sweetness of vanilla.

On the bus ride back to New York, Danny and I hold hands. Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” comes on the bus radio. “I felt sorta sick, not happy,” I later write my friend Emily Berger. “Since then I feel sick whenever I hear that song.”

But in my sleeping bag the night after the fair, I replayed the kiss over and over until it was easy and mutual. After Danny’s and my “relationship” peters out, my imagination holds on to that kiss. And as reality recedes, the kiss grows sweeter, our mouths soft and lazy, warming as slowly as the perfect summer.


Our house reflects my parents’ attitudes, which are far less rigid than Mary Corey’s, and also more confusing. Mom and Dad are professional sexual liberals — Mom works at a birth control clinic, Dad is a child psychologist. They believe in early and frank sex education, including proper anatomical nomenclature and family bathing. They aspire to a modern, secular morality and a scientific attitude toward child sexuality. Curiosity is good, “exploration” is natural, masturbation is healthy.

But this does not imply that they are unconventional about relationships and sex. The story they tell when I am little begins, “When a man and a woman love each other very much . . .” and doesn’t get a lot more detailed after that. By first grade I am well versed in the behavior of zygotes, but I don’t have a working knowledge of erections until I feel Michael Peach’s against my leg at the seventh-grade Sadie Hawkins dance. In our home, the word orgasm is not uttered.

At the same time, the living-room shelves contain all the books unbanned in the 1950s and ’60s: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita. For some reason, Fanny Hill is tucked in my mother’s top drawer beneath her bras, her girdles, and the strap-on armpit perspiration guards that resemble the masks you wear when using toxic chemicals. The descriptions of wenches in knickers and corsets amid these no-nonsense undergarments create a discomfiting image of my mother and father. This does not prevent me from pulling the perfume-smelling book out again and again.

Once in a while, my parents allow some critically authorized highbrow “erotic” periodical like Eros or Evergreen to breach our doorway. But they draw the line at Playboy, in spite of its long, left-leaning pieces by and about important men like Vladimir Nabokov and James Baldwin. Mom and Dad aren’t prudes, they’re snobs. They consider comics, Mad magazine — even mysteries — degraded forms of literature. What would they think of Man to Man? I don’t have to ask.

Nevertheless, during my middle school years I manage to expand my consumption of erotic materials beyond Peyton Place and what I can find in my parents’ bookcases. Unlike Lance, I don’t have the chutzpah — or masculine prerogative — to walk into a candy store, head for the magazine rack, and pick out a copy of Gent along with my Drake’s Devil Dogs. Instead, my explorations into the world of illicit adult stimulation take place at my friends’ houses.

Katherine Garson’s dad, an architect, displays his arty erotica with the design books in his studio in their Upper West Side brownstone. The room is filled with beautiful things: a mint-green Olivetti typewriter; a small wooden whale carved to dive and surface when dragged behind his sailboat; framed photos of the sailboat, with Katherine’s tanned and tousled father at the helm. Her mother stays upstairs, emerging from her bedroom to offer a quavering greeting and retreat into the darkness like a Victorian lady with the vapors. Later, Katherine’s father leaves her mother for his young Japanese assistant, who is as cool as the women in Eros, as sleek as the Olivetti.

If pornography is a badge of sophistication for Katherine’s father, Jill Margolis’s dad is more partial to the plebeian fare that Lance favors (or can afford). Mr. Margolis throws the creased and greasy magazines in with the car manuals beneath his garage workbench. If it’s a secret, it’s a casual secret. When Jill goes into the garage to get her bike, it’s easy for us to linger around the bench.

It is also in this garage that I witness Jill’s father whacking her across the back of her thighs with a wire hanger. “What did I do? What did I do?” Jill cries as he whips her a second time. He won’t say. Did he find out we’d been rifling through his magazines? Am I also to blame? I back away, afraid to defend my friend and ashamed not to.

Elaine Baker’s father, Tony, is shy and sinewy like Elaine, the fastest runner in our class. He comes home in dusty work clothes and showers, combing his thick hair back in a James Dean–like crest. I’ve seen him and Elaine’s mother kissing like teenagers on the subway, private in the crowd of their children.

Tony’s stash is in a locked cabinet behind the wet bar in the finished basement; Elaine and her brothers all know where the key is. Along with the usual inventory, this father has something more interesting: little photo books, each with a specific theme — nurses, or white men with black women. One publication features nothing but Asian females wearing saddle shoes and short, pleated, school uniform skirts flipping up to reveal their white panties. Some of them have pigtails; some are sticking their tongues out to lick giant lollipops. In another magazine the women are chained to the ceiling by their wrists or tied to chairs with loops and loops of rope. The women are gagged; some of the men wear masks, some wield whips.

The girls with the pleated skirts and lollipops remind me of Eloise at the Plaza, but I know they’re adults. If I’m sure, don’t the grownup readers also know it’s a hoax? I realize they know, but they get excited anyway. And the women in chains — are they in real pain or are they acting? What do these pictures mean about Elaine’s gentle, attentive father? How do I reconcile the quickening of my breath at the images of the bound women with the shamed rage I feel watching Jill’s father hurt her for no reason?

In his ruling in Nassau County, Judge Chinman applauds the wisdom of the New York State Assembly in choosing 17 as the age of quarantine from lascivious materials. Younger that that, he opines, a person is at “an age of awakening of sex desires, but also an age where the minors have insufficient maturity to deal with and to properly evaluate the plethora of material dealing with illicit sex, lust, passion, depravity, nudity and immorality.”

I may be too young to “evaluate” pornography. But this implies there is something to evaluate — some meaning or message nestled between the breasts or thighs of the model, instructing the child in a certain morality or immorality.

I have no firm answers, but I am able to formulate a few hypotheses. For instance: desiring something is not always the same as wanting it.

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Does pornography send messages? By about the eighth grade I am starting to infer that if it does, those messages are fungible. Perusing the pictures in Jill Margolis’s garage or Elaine Baker’s basement, I can attach stories to them, invent relationships, spin emotions. I can imagine myself as the pinup girl, arching my back and pushing my chest out like a gymnast. I am the nurse with breasts spilling from a white uniform, the chained woman in garter belt and stockings. I am also the cameraman, the horny patient, the torturer. Playboy gives me brainy men and beautiful women. Arthur Miller writes, Marilyn Monroe poses. At school a girl has to choose between the immediate benefits of being pretty or the soberer rewards of being smart. But I can look at Playboy and be both Miller and Monroe. I am seducer and seduced, taker and taken.

The lollipops and little skirts are tropes of girlhood and that turns viewers on, but no one is fooled that the models are anything but adults. And the women in chains? Might they also exist in a world where pain is an enticing idea, but only an idea — a place where whips draw no blood?

I have no way to evaluate these things, no context in which to put them, it is true. But maybe the idea of fucking the lollipop girl or torturing the bound woman is like Danny Conrad’s kiss. I fantasized about it all summer, but when it happened — a sticky lamprey-like attack — I didn’t want it. Until later, when, in fantasy, I wanted it again.

I have no firm answers, but I am able to formulate a few hypotheses. For instance: desiring something is not always the same as wanting it.


Sam Ginsberg’s conviction is appealed to the Supreme Court, and oral arguments in Ginsberg v. New York are heard in January 1968. As they always do, Charles Keating and James Clancy of Citizens for Decent Literature submit a lengthy amicus brief for the government, asking the court to uphold the statute and Ginsberg’s conviction.

Ginsberg’s attorney, challenging the constitutionality of Section 484-h for the ACLU, is the seasoned First Amendment lawyer Emanuel Redfield. Conversing with the justices like a professor before his grad students, Redfield begins by describing Sam: “My appellant is not a flamboyant vendor nor a self-seeking or assertive knight charging along the rights of free speech” but “just a poor, simple owner of a candy store [who] works from morning to late at night with his wife to eke out an existence.”

Unfortunately, the body of Redfield’s appeal does not prove as compelling as his prologue. It rests on one principle, still neither firmly embedded nor incontrovertibly defeated in legal precedent — that the extent of someone’s First Amendment freedoms cannot depend on whether the person is an adult or a minor. If materials are not obscene for adults, Redfield argues, they may not be considered obscene for minors. But he declines to ask the court to consider whether the pictures and stories in Man to Man or Escapade are obscene under the test established in Roth.

The attorney for the defendant is Nassau County district attorney William Cahn. Unlike the professorial Redfield, Cahn speaks with the volume and passion of a man perpetually on the stump. He often wanders from his main point — that the state does have the power to treat materials as obscene on the basis of the consumer’s age — but his point carries the day. The Supreme Court upholds Ginsberg’s conviction and the constitutionality of the New York law, six to three. The dissenters are the anticensorship absolutists William O. Douglas and Hugo Black, and Abe Fortas, who is particularly angry that Ginsberg was set up to commit a crime. “Bookselling,” Fortas asserts, “should not be a hazardous profession.”

Writing for the majority, Brennan cites Roth to assert that the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, even though, he avers, the magazines in evidence are not obscene. But if they’re not obscene, then they’re not exempt from the “clear and present danger” test. “Justice Brennan needed some means of relieving the government of its obligation to show that girlie magazines were objectively harmful to youth,” writes the legal scholar Marjorie Heins in Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth. The rabbit in his hat? Variable — that is, kid-specific — obscenity. The logical contortion of this concept is evident in the double negative of Brennan’s diction: “This Court cannot say that the statute, in defining obscenity on the basis of its appeal to minors under 17, has no rational relation to the objective of safeguarding such minors from harm.” Translation: the government may define obscenity based on the age of the viewer, and then infer from its own definition that the offending material is harmful.

What is the harm? Brennan doesn’t say. No censor ever does. And after Ginsberg v. New York, the harm to minors of sexual speech goes without saying and without substantiation. If the government may protect minors from the demonstrable harms of working in sweatshops or drinking gin, it may also protect them from the unidentified harms of looking at Lubi Lopez’s ass.


The year Ginsberg is argued in the Supreme Court, the Motion Picture Association of America replaces the 1930 Hays Code, which aimed to purify the morals of all Americans, with a version of the rating system we have today, to help parents shield their children from unseemly content.

In 1970, Richard Nixon appoints Keating to the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography — the “Lockhart Commission.” The commission finds no harms of sexually explicit material, for anyone, and recommends that restrictions be loosened — for adults only. Keating issues a minority opinion: “Never in Rome, Greece, or the most debauched nation in history has such utter filth . . .” and so on.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan appoints another commission on pornography, essentially to overturn Lockhart. The Meese Commission — named after Attorney General Edwin Meese — also finds no conclusive evidence of the harms of pornography. Nevertheless, like Lockhart, it recommends restrictions on minors’ access, based on the notion that sexually explicit materials “teach” children “that sex is public, that sex is commercial, and that sex can be divorced from any degree of affection, love, commitment or marriage,” a lesson its majority calls “the wrong message at the wrong time.”

Whereas the 1960s antiporn crusaders were often religious conservatives, the coalition behind the Meese Commission includes a new true believer: the antiporn feminist. And where the censors of yore feared that bad images inspire bad acts, these feminists declare that bad images are bad acts: pornography is sexual violence. If this is so, then far more radical law enforcement is called for.

But rather than do anything concrete to diminish violence against women and children — say, legal protection of sex workers or housing for battered women — the Meese Commission erects a broad network to chase and prosecute those perpetrating symbolic attacks on the commissioners’ morality: smut peddlers. Just as in the ’60s, however, wiping out porn does not generate an upswell of support among adults, who have moved on from hubby’s stash in the garage to Saturday nights à deux (or trois) watching X-rated videos. Proposed ordinances to ban pornography as violence against women fail. Obscenity convictions of adult materials are almost impossible to win.

So, as in the ’60s, the decency brigades leave adults to their own worst impulses and take up the cause of “families” — which are not the same as sexual adults — and children. Keating’s CDL becomes the Children’s Legal Foundation, which morphs into the National Family Legal Foundation. The National Federation for Decency is renamed the American Family Association. The Justice Department’s National Obscenity Enforcement Unit, set up after the Meese Commission, is rechristened the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.

The word decency enjoys a renaissance in the 1990s, when the Moral Right pushes through the Communications Decency Act, an attempt to protect children by censoring a capacious category of less-than-legally-obscene materials online. In Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court case challenging the CDA, the government uses Ginsberg as precedent to defend the law’s constitutionality. But the ACLU does not just advance the burning-house pig-roast argument — that the law threatens all speech to achieve the narrower aim of protecting children. This time, the plaintiffs include people who want to expose kids to sexually explicit materials: sex educators and psychologists, AIDS and rape preventers and LGBTQ groups, contraception and abortion providers.

The court strikes down the law without recruiting this argument. In 2003, it upholds the CDA’s third iteration, the Child Internet Protection Act (2000), requiring filtering software on computers in federally funded libraries and schools. Legally unscathed is the assumption that sexual speech is uniquely harmful to minors. Variable obscenity lives.

But one reason the CDA fails is the law’s sheer unenforceability. Information on the Web cannot help but be free to all. The more kids go online, the less effectively the government can keep porn from them. To allow more aggressive enforcement, the enemy has to look scarier than the little smut-shopkeeper around the corner. Enter: the child pornographer, anonymous and unnumbered, everywhere and nowhere.


When child pornography was first “exposed” in the 1970s, there was no evidence of its ubiquity — or scarcity. As of 2016, there still is little of either. Or if there is, no one knows; it is illegal for journalists and scholars to access what prosecutors call child pornography. Nor, beyond the harm of the abuse being filmed, is there credible evidence of the harm of the photographic record of the crime. Again, the harm is asserted: that the child model is “revictimized” every time someone views the picture, even if the “child” is 50, or dead. Perhaps because it can’t find enough real child porn, Congress has steadily broadened the scope of the statute, from production and distribution to receipt and possession; it’s raised the maximum age of the models from 12 to 17 — and included adults dressed to look like children. Those lollipop girls are now illegal. In 1992, the Supreme Court deemed pornographic some videos in which the children were neither unclothed nor doing anything sexual. The operative definition of obscenity was variable, based on a characteristic of the producer and viewer: the advertising targeted pedophiles.

Observing the Talmudic courtroom disquisitions on whether this or that picture might arouse perverse lust, the legal scholar Amy Adler argues that the law compels police, judges, and juries to adopt the “pedophilic gaze,” under which every image of a child is suspect. The rest of us adopt it too. The obsession with child porn and pedophilia has us all rummaging through our erotic responses to discern the sexual skullduggery of other adults. Through this paranoia, we read potential trauma in any encounter any child might have with any sexual expression. On This American Life, Ira Glass regularly introduces segments with the advisory that a story “acknowledges the existence of sex.”

As sex grows more mediated and virtual, anxiety about the corrupting power of representation heightens, and the state redoubles its efforts to contain fantasy through surveillance and punishment. With the sex cops on patrol at all times, from the local PD to Homeland Security, it is no surprise that they will collar the people who live online, the very “children” the laws are meant to safeguard. Twenty-year-olds are arrested for talking dirty to 15-year-olds. Teenage lovers are indicted for sexting naked pictures of themselves — the only crime of which one person can be both perpetrator and victim.

If ever there was a moment when kids’ sexual liberation might have happened, it was between 1965 and 1975, during which time Ginsberg proceeded. The Pill hit the market in 1957 and irreversibly changed sex, especially for young unmarried women. Parietal rules at colleges fell. Underground comics dripped with sex. Into the mid-1970s, progressive psychologists and educators were taking Freudianism to its logical conclusion and advocating the liberation of childhood sexuality.

But America’s anxiety about child and adolescent sexuality never eased. And when the right mobilized to disinfect the culture to safeguard the sexual purity of children, no one stood in its way. Few stand in the way now. In the sexual counterrevolution, Ginsberg was the antiporn Gettysburg — the battle that turned the tide. The field is still filling with corpses, and many of them are young: while general incarceration and criminal-supervision rates fell from 2005 to 2013, sex offender registration increased by almost a quarter. Among the more than 800,000 registered people, the most common age is 19. It has occurred to me that were I a kid today, I’d be locked up for sex crimes.


Shortly after the Supreme Court upholds Sam Ginsberg’s conviction, DA William Cahn is incarcerated on forty-five felony counts of mail fraud and falsifying statements to law enforcement. In 1990, ADA Robert Rivers, the prosecutor in Nassau County v. Ginsberg, is imprisoned for tax evasion.

Charles Keating spends the 1980s taking advantage of savings-and-loan deregulation to bilk his customers out of millions of dollars. When the S&L scandals come to light, Keating is convicted on multiple charges of fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy. He, too, goes to prison. Journalists reveal that while at CLD, he hired mostly young, blond assistants, whom he pressured to have breast enlargements.

In 2003, New York governor George Pataki grants Lenny Bruce a posthumous pardon of his obscenity conviction.

In 2012 I find Richard Lance Corey, retired from a career as a high school history teacher, living in a small town on the Hudson River. He’s happily married to a second wife and splitting his time between painting and political advocacy.

The Ginsberg case meant little to him, he says. He shrugged then and he shrugs now. Is he remorseful for putting Sam through all that? Not really, he says, repeating the story of 6-year-old Michael, potential victim of the storekeeper’s impunity. But Lance is not interested in talking about Ginsberg. He wants to talk about his activism. He is deeply engaged in the campaign — which has recently gained momentum — to eliminate the statute of limitations for child abuse. He also wants all “pedophiles” prosecuted in federal court.

Lance has a personal interest in this cause. At the age of 40, he had a recovered memory of repeated rape by his Boy Scout leader from the ages of 10 to 12. “Roger put a .38 in my mouth, to make me forget,” Lance says. It’s possible this happened, but improbable. Psychological research widely discredits claims of total amnesia and subsequent recovered memory. The problem for victims of extreme trauma like long-lasting sexual abuse is not absence of memory, but surfeit.

It is not incidental that Lance suddenly remembered the abuse around 1988, the year Ellen Bass published The Courage to Heal, the self-help book that launched an epidemic of “therapeutically” aided, often false, memories of molestation, fueling the child sex abuse panics that still grip us. Wrote Bass: “If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.” The symptoms in books like Courage range from low self-esteem to poor dental hygiene.

Lance believes the alleged abuse (and not his hot girlfriend Lucy) made him “prematurely” interested in sex. He does not blame girlie magazines either. Nor do I. I’ve examined the pictures that inflamed Mary Corey and took Ginsberg to the Supreme Court. And I’ve concluded that if pornography sends messages, this boy could have done worse. The models in mid-20th-century low-rent mainstream porn have sticky coifs, cheesy thighs, and downward-pointing nipples. They wear polyester panties and loll on lumpy couches. Unlike Playboy’s polished Girls Next Door, these are the girls you’d actually live next door to, if you lived in a working-class neighborhood — if you lived, in fact, in Bellmore, New York.

Here’s the thing about coming of age in the Sixties: just as every child carries her parents’ DNA inside the body of a unique and novel person, old zeitgeists hang around when new ones emerge. During the so-called sexual revolution, two cultures mixed and recombined — one of license and one of limits, one promoting guiltlessness and the other fostering shame. The freedom of the Sixties made the Sexual Revolution revolutionary; the repression of the Fifties made it sexy.

But you don’t just grow up in an era. You grow up in a family. I was lucky. My parents communicated that sex is good, then left me alone to make my own mistakes. They bequeathed me a skeptical mind and a resistant spirit. I was a teenage porn hound and lived, happily, to tell the tale.

Lance was the son of a Catholic fanatic, whom he also refers to as a radical feminist. Together they made a contribution to turning back the Sexual Revolution. In small part thanks to him, myths about child sexual innocence and paranoia about adult sexual perversion are bolted firmly into American law and jurisprudence. Lance suffers from the anguish that a sexual criminal stole his childhood. No court case, no person, no event is singularly responsible for history. But Richard Lance Corey is a casualty of history, a casualty of Ginsberg v. New York.

  1. Some names have been changed. 

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