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  • Writer's pictureMax Sinsheimer

SOLD! Sex on Trial (by Brett Gary)

Morris Ernst, second from left, defending Flaubert’s November against obscenity charges in a New York City courtroom, 1935. Copyright: Harry Ransom Center, UT-Austin

I hope everyone had a nice 4th, and that any people or pets living within fifty miles of a city are healing from the inevitable shell shock. I especially enjoyed this drone video showing LA's insane amateur pyrotechnics displays, which is more or less what I witnessed in DC.

I was already in a celebratory mood heading into the holiday weekend, because on Thursday I closed a deal with Stanford University Press for Brett Gary's exceptional book, Sex on Trial. Sex on Trial is the untold story of America's first sexual revolution, when the legal system overthrew the yoke of obscenity laws and gradually embraced sexual modernism. It focuses on a series of significant courtroom cases in the 1920s-1950s that featured famous defendants who ran afoul of obscenity statutes, including Mary Ware Dennett, Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger, Dr. Hannah Stone, LIFE magazine, Radclyffe Hall, James Joyce, and Alfred Kinsey. Astonishingly they, along with a colorful cast of burlesque theater owners, bookstore clerks, and others, were all represented by the same lawyer: Morris L. Ernst. 

Sex on Trial reveals how Ernst's small New York City law firm reshaped modern American liberalism through a systematic campaign against the nation's antiquated "Comstock" obscenity laws. While Ernst and his colleagues were not activists—they did not go to jail, endure hunger strikes, and sacrifice in so many other ways for, for instance, women’s rights to contraception—they were agents of change. Their arguments on behalf of sexual liberalism helped the American legal system catch up with the larger culture.

I think this is an important and timely book because battles over sexuality, especially reproductive rights, are still at the fore of contemporary political debates. The cases Ernst and his colleagues argued set the stage legally and culturally for the sexual revolution of the 1960s and beyond. But the issues they raised eight decades ago are nowhere near resolved in today’s culture; consider, for example, the Supreme Court's decision last week to strike down yet another law, this time in Louisiana, that would have restricted abortion rights. Ernst and his team’s legacy, and the legal and cultural arguments they produced to defend sexual and cultural modernism, must be reckoned with in our contentious present.

Stanford UP has an excellent legal and cultural history list, with books like Nancy Leong’s Identity Capitalists, Andrea Freeman’s Skimmed, Lonnie Brown’s Defending the Public’s Enemy, Jay Wexler’s Our Non-Christian Nation, and Mary Anne Franks’ The Cult of the Constitution. Sex on Trial will expand their offerings on gender and sexuality studies in a legal context, alongside recent and forthcoming books like Renee Cramer’s Birthing a Movement: Midwives, Law, and the Politics of Reproductive Care, and Erin Mayo-Adams’ Queer Alliances. The deal was all the sweeter because the acquiring editor, Marcela Maxfield, and I overlapped as editors at Oxford University Press. I'm glad Sex on Trial gave us an excuse to get back in touch, and eager to watch her steer it to publication!

Here is the deal memo in Publishers Marketplace:

Congratulations to Marcela and Brett!

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