The Sexual Caterwaul

Michael Hinds


The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade Against Smut, by Douglas M Charles, University Press of Kansas, 200 pp, £21.50, ISBN: 978-0700618255

“Or as they say in New York, sophisticated ...”

As god is my witness, I don’t think it mattered
Whether it was Aemilius’s gob or arse I was smelling.
One’s no cleaner nor dirtier than the other,
but in fact his arse is both more clean and pleasant,
because at least it has no teeth. The mouth
has teeth that stretch for a foot, gums like a go-kart,
jaws that always gape wide as the cunt
of a pissing mule on heat. He fucks all the women
that he can get, somehow he is quite the charmer,
or so he thinks. So the mule works the treadmill.
Aren’t we entitled to think that any girl who’d touch him
Would have no problem licking a dirty hangman’s hole?

We can probably agree that this (Catullus 97, my translation) is disgusting, and our poet is clearly attempting to get his reader to share in a disgust that he himself has already felt. But is it obscene? What should we say or do to its maker? In the time when Catullus wrote this, it was not as if poets were free from punishment or persecution; as Ovid found out to his cost, banished to the Black Sea by Augustus for his still unknown “error”. There is nothing in Ovid that is as apparently provocative as what we find in Catullus, however, and the latter more or less lived as he pleased, writing without fear of consequences. So when does something become disgusting to the point of being punishable or requiring legislation? That is the moment of crisis at which we can usually define the obscene.

It is rare enough now to hear talk about obscenity, a reflection of our avowed permissiveness, a state within which it is increasingly hard to feel confident about advocating the punishment of something for being disgusting; if anything, we try to discourage obscenity rather than denounce it. In this way, Western culture now invests the word inappropriate with more force than its opposite, and it offers people the opportunity to enjoy the delicious authority of moral commentator on the psycho-social-sexual practice of everyday life without really dealing with anything too horrendous. This abiding discourse, however, in which we appear to be performing with ethical scrupulousness, is of course a blind; the mildly impotent talk of managing the appropriateness of interaction between work colleagues at a newspaper can carry on, for example, while the publisher of the same newspaper presides over a publishing empire whose core business is pornography. In our pornocracy, almost nothing is obscene, or rather nobody dare call it by name, as the term is just too absolute. Calling something inappropriate allows us to preserve the fantasy that we exert a moral influence on culture, even as it also implies that there are contexts in which anything might be appropriate, which is a much more violent reality than what we usually want to admit. Trying to describe degrees of offence while Gomorrah thrives is a phenomenon on the rise for a long time, as Philip Marlowe’s denunciatory riffs in The Big Sleep make clear:

That’s just protective thinking. Once outside the law you’re all the way outside. You think he’s just a gambler. I think he’s a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control and a suborner of crooked cops. He’s whatever looks good to him, whatever has the cabbage pinned to it. Don’t try and sell me on any high-souled racketeers. They don’t come in that pattern.

Obscenity is never far away, perhaps never has been, but now that some furtive dabbing at a keyboard will permit access to all manner of sexual depravity in seconds, this seems even more irrefutable. On the other hand, it can be said contrarily that nothing is obscene once it is made available in the way that our culture now makes it available.

A single page of The Irish Times on November 3rd, 2012 provided occasion to test the contemporary obscenometer; one entirely depressing story detailed the death of a woman from Limerick who had been hired over the internet to perform sex with a German Shepherd in front of a man curious enough to want to pay for the spectacle. It turned out that she had suffered an anaphylactic shock as a result of an allergic reaction, had fallen into a coma and subsequently died in hospital. The dog was put down. The man pleaded guilty to buggery, sentencing was adjourned (he was later given a three-year suspended sentence). The senior prosecution counsel announced to the Court that “(t]his is a very obscene case”; it is hard to disagree, yet at the same time it is difficult to identify precisely where the obscenity might lie. Certainly the court struggled; as was pointed out by defence counsel, there would have been no prosecution “save for the lady in question passing away. The lady fully consented.” The whole case took on a rather melancholic and shabby aspect, with expressions of sorrow and disgust all round, a feeling confirmed by the judge’s statement on sentencing that bestiality “was socially repugnant ... even in these tolerant times”; what we might allow ourselves to remark is that this repugnance and tolerance found curious expression in the extermination of the dog. You do not have to be Peter Singer to identify an ethical problem in that the dog was given a death sentence without trial, even though he was the only participant who could not be authoritatively described as “consenting”. On that note, it also seems disgusting to presume that the woman’s consent was some kind of Get Out of Jail card for the man who hired her.

The grubby futility of not just the lives that had been exposed, but the haplessness of the law, would have been enough for one weekend; but on the same page of the November 3rd Times there was another story in which a trial date had been set for a man accused of causing damage to the Tánaiste’s ministerial car and breach of the peace. Although a trial date had been set, it also reported that “no damage was caused to the ministerial car but it had to be cleaned at a cost of €9”. The full weight of the law fell both on the proxy dog-molester and what turned out to be the chucker of an egg; yet the first offender had done rather better by way of our “tolerant” times than the purveyor of political slapstick. Here is where we might identify something really obscene, in the sheer disproportion between death by dog-shock in Co Limerick and non-damage by yolk in Ballyfermot. The law wanted effectively to obliterate the memory of one crime, and cast it back to the internet from which it came, while it refused to let the other one go; in terms of instinctive justice, you want to say that we should not permit either of these situations to happen, an insight made clearer by looking at them in juxtaposition. What this all amounts to is in fact the abiding truth about obscenity, which is that it is more than a term that just represents the definition of something that has become sufficiently disgusting to demand a legislative punishment; rather, it also represents a sentiment that you might experience when you feel that you have been disgusted enough already. In this way, obscenity does not only belong to the courts or the state, but rather to the instinctive sense of proportion and justice that a private individual might bear. To find at least something obscene, whether it is the Black and White Minstrel Show, governmental expense accounts or a bottomless waitress in a Tokyo coffee shop, shows that you are a sentient person.

The rise of the pornocracy, however, has meant that more and more people are being asked to decide in an immediate sense what or how much is too far, and it is significant how many trials for accessing child pornography focus upon the idiocy of a momentary impulse as a defence, as with Pete Townshend’s description of using his credit card on a child porn site “purely to see what was there”. Of course, the kind of conscientious individual that tuts at Page 3 might also be the very same person that develops a taste for dressing as Bo Peep and rubbing up against sheepdogs, but there is little we can do about that; just don’t shoot the dog next time. This emphasis on self-regulation gone wrong is metonymic of the way in which all institutions (bank, church, media) now fail, to the degree that we have given up doing anything than live within the terms of our failure. The potential for hypocrisy in matters of public and private morality, especially in terms of sexuality, is in many respects the great story of the twenty-first century so far; now that every pillar of law-making and morality enforcement in Western culture has been outed as harbouring generations of predatory gargoyles, from parish priest to president and DJ, there is not much left to be disappointed in. Hypocrisies abound in such a climate; the delighted media response to the Jimmy Savile ghoul show and purging of the BBC’s light entertainment has-beens is exactly that, a grotesquely pious inquisition into practices that appear to have been normalised and tolerated at the time of their happening. Is Saville more obscene now than he was in the 1960s? Similarly, with the child-rapist cells of Holy Ireland, is the obscenity in what they did, or rather in the tacit consent that was given to their actions by both a powerfully inert populace and a cynical administration? The answer is both, evidently, especially if we understand obscene to refer to something so disgusting that it should not be allowed to be perpetrated; in this sense, the tacit consent of the faithful is obscene, but perhaps so too is sentiment about dogs.

It is hard to live righteously in such a moment; as Joe Strummer once sang: “He who fucks nuns, will later join the church.” This defines us, something that Slavoj Žižek has argued consistently (in fact, this is the real source of consistency in Žižek’s writing, and refutes the lazy analysis that he is all show; he is rather the laureate of the obscene), that we live under an ideology of pleasure at all costs. Practically everything in our culture instructs us to “Enjoy Yourself!”, to the degree that this is in itself a form of normalised obscenity. We tend not to remark upon this normalised excess of enjoyment, precisely because it is ideological; it can be argued that our societies pay us not to notice, but also that there is so much pleasure around that we cannot notice (except in those impotent moments where we worry aloud about appropriateness).

The ur-gargoyle of such double-living is in many ways J Edgar Hoover, a source of terror in his lifetime but now a laughing stock of our tolerance-culture, at least to those who have little or no understanding of what his impact was on real life in the mid-twentieth century. There is no doubt that Douglas M Charles’s The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade against Smut is a book that might have been tempted to market itself around prurience, and the subtitle is not exactly discouraging the sexually curious, as nowadays the very mention of Hoover summons a fetid nightworld of men-in-frocks and sure-you-never-know-what-might-happen. This is a serious piece of documentary history by a young historian of the FBI at Penn State, however, one which offers a curious picture of the bureau as going through a remarkable rite of passage with regard to obscene material that in itself could resemble a progression through sexuality for an individual. The Obscene File was opened by Hoover in 1937, two years after the creation of the FBI (and four years before The Big Sleep emerged around the time the US joined World War II); it was opened and tentatively managed initially on a part-time basis by one bureau agent, then expanded into a nationwide operation after the war, during which the production of obscene material had dramatically increased, a surge that has a banal explanation in terms of soldiers needing something to do with their hands while they were away from home. Douglas also points out that pornography had already become a matter of propagandistic exchange in the Pacific theatre, as the Japanese disseminated pornographic images of Western women across Asia and the Americans responded by sending out “obscene prints depicting Japanese individuals in lascivious poses” that had been stored in the Obscene File. In the Cold War, operations took on a predictable turn, focusing on socially disruptive forces (as the bureau saw it) such as homosexuals and leftists, but at the same time, the bureau began to be exhausted by the sheer weight of material that it had to survey and was struggling to maintain a grip on what it should even regard as obscene any more. In a significant moment, the bureau and the Kinsey Institute requested access to each other’s collections, presumably in case they were failing to keep up with developments. Despite some predictable attempts at revival of prosecutions for obscenity by various administrations, notably Nixon and Reagan, the bureau finally was tired of hearkening to what Philip Roth has called “the sexual caterwaul” of American life, and (perhaps for good reason) it was Clinton’s bureau that closed the Obscene File, largely because they had given up trying to prosecute. John Ashcroft predictably reopened it on behalf of George W Bush and redirected the FBI towards trying to making prosecutions, but without notable results. The only sex crime actively and successfully pursued in the twenty-first century is that which involves the use and abuse of children, but this in fact signifies that the sexual abuse of children has come to be regarded as worse than obscene, if anything. There are worse crimes than smut.

Even though the Obscene File was opened just two years after the foundation of the bureau , it was a relatively small operation, and it was not conceived of as a response to a crime wave, as crime was actually falling when the bureau began its work. Hoover did not really want to prosecute porn-peddlers, of course; he wanted information, which in turn he could use tactically in a range of ways. Knowledge of the comedian Bud Abbott’s porn collection, for example, meant that persuading him to take part in the bureau’s national drive against youth turpitude (Hoover’s other front in WWII) was easy. Hoover also saw little value in prosecuting for obscenity unless there was a guaranteed political gain; astute enough to realise that nobody likes an obsessive busybody or prude, he set about using obscene materials to get results elsewhere. This could be a matter of defending the racist status quo (fear of miscegenation saw a particular interest in interracial pornography) and pursuing the enemies of society, as anointed by Hoover (homosexuals, lefties and mobsters). In Hoover’s mind, choosing not to prosecute was just as important as playing the role of moral crusader.

The reluctance of the US courts to define obscenity made prosecution difficult; yet it is readily contested that this was not the real source of inertia. If obscenity is really such a movable feast, does that really mean that is much different to any other phenomenon of legislature? The times and place that are in it tend to dictate the price of a cup of coffee, the sentence for murder and the offensiveness of a pin-up, and anyone venturing to prosecute on grounds of obscenity must do so with an eye on the ridicule that a potentially more permissive culture may visit upon them. Furthermore, in pornography, offensiveness and legitimacy are forever contending with one another. In a strictly economic sense, porn is perfectly legitimate ‑ relatively low overheads, a reliably curious potential market, good margins. As such, it is a model business, based on supply and demand; it calls itself the Porn Industry for a reason. In this sense, it is not surprising that America has struggled to reconcile its talent for making a dollar with its zeal for censorship. On the other hand, there have been relatively few legal challenges to charges of obscenity, indicating that there are few enough pornographer-philosophers out there, with the exception of Larry Flynt (not mentioned in Charles, presumably because he was not prosecuted federally but in Gwinnet County, Georgia). Of course, it is the very obscenity of obscene material that makes it marketable, so to deny that would be an economic own goal; and more than that, obscene material needs to be obscure material. Flynt plays the exquisite double game of hero and villain, offending sensibilities and refusing legitimacy on the grounds of taste, even as he claims constitutional righteousness and patriotic authority. Even as this was a strategy for staying out of jail, it was more obviously a way of sustaining notoriety while making even more money. This directs us back to Hoover’s pragmatism, his instruction that agents take “a common-sense view” and “not a prudish one” in defining obscenity (which was what they had to do prior to the absence of any definition of the crime from the courts); firstly, prosecution might just augment the profitable notoriety of a given publication, but it also might make the state look stupid, as when repeated attempts were made in the 1960s to denounce “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen, despite the indecipherability of the lyrics (although it was this very indecipherability that had led to the suspicion that they were dirty). Better to hide in plain sight, like Chuck Berry’s “My Ding A Ling”. Hoover understood very well that real power did not lie in its overt demonstration, but in administration; what he set about doing was the control of obscenity. In advising how agents should go about defining the crime, he also exerted his own influence to a powerful degree, as if common sense resided entirely within him. Once the Warren Court moved into the definition of the crime between 1957 and 1967, Hoover’s influence inevitably waned (and so did his interest).

The File was also a collection, but we hear little enough about its contents, as what Charles wants to show us is above all an administrative history. He does select some significant examples, however; the first of Hoover’s actions, once the Obscene File was created, was taken against a cartoonist from New York. This is indicative of the ideological geography of the time, when New York’s reputation was unrivalled as a den of iniquity and pinko dubiousness; with typical acuity, Tom Lehrer indicated that this was both a matter of dismay or pride, depending on where you came from: “I find that if you take the various popular song forms to their logical extremes, you can arrive at almost anything from the ridiculous to the obscene ‑ or, as they say in New York, sophisticated.” This is cultural warfare, but it is both cold and soft as ice cream; obscenity remains a slippery question, because it appears to suit everybody that it remain so. Similarly, this brief book is only the introduction to a debate that remains unarticulated in a thorough sense. Some questions never really get asked, and the thought persists that Charles may have more to say about Hoover (in particular) in the future. The bureau never made significant investigations into child pornography, for example, a decision that seems unthinkable now, and that reluctance is given little attention, as if Douglas had internalised the bureau’s own position. What Douglas does tells us now, however, is both valuable and depressing; even if someone in power is watching you doing something disgusting, then they will probably not do anything about it; or as the Saville case demonstrates, they will wait until you are dead.


Michael Hinds is co-ordinator of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies and Head of English at the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin.