Photo credit: Sebestyen Balint / Shutterstock.com

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In January 2018, when the intimate relationship between then-president Donald J. Trump and former adult film actress Stormy Daniels hit the headlines, it was easy to imagine that American society had reached Peak Porn, with privates and Public combining more vividly and directly than ever before.

When the scandal broke, Jane was deep inside a book about the history of the sexual revolution, a book for which Martin has periodically served, over the past several years, as a crack research assistant. At the center of their research is pornographic actress turned feminist erotica entrepreneur Candida Royalle, born Candice Vadala (1950-2015). Jane’s project, Candida Royalle and the Sexual Revolution promises a history from below, illuminating seismic and pervasive—but often hard to understand—changes in the intimate lives of the American people through Royalle’s remarkable life and equally remarkable archive. But the Trump/ Daniels liaison begged a question about history from above: when, how often, and above all why did national politicians talk about porn*?[1]

We started in the Oval Office, because the Big Cheese was also the low-hanging fruit. The remarkable digital corpus that UCSB’s American Presidency Project (APP) has assembled makes it easy to keyword search the public utterances of presidents and presidential candidates throughout United States history, with comprehensive coverage after 1945. Placing porn* in an APP search box yielded results manageable for ordinary, analog reading: 183 documents. They were analytically predictable: Republican presidents talked about pornography more than Democrats, often in the broader context of law and order. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan addressed the issue frequently. George H. W. Bush spoke to the topic only five times. There were surprises, too. William J. Clinton made twenty-seven statements on the subject, more than five times as many as the elder Bush and twenty percent more than the younger. The APP corpus also showed a distinct rise and fall over time. Eisenhower never uttered the word; Kennedy did so on one occasion; Johnson once addressed obscenity but never pornography. But Nixon, eager to elevate Johnson’s failures at home and abroad into the nation’s first full-scale culture war, never missed a chance to talk about porn*. As in so many domains, Nixon created a playbook that Reagan used to winning effect. The topic receded from the presidential pulpit during the Obama years, yet ticked up under the Trump administration, showing up in 17 documents–and not all prompted by questions from the press about the Daniels affair.

Though the presidential utterances were patterned, sometimes in surprising ways, that corpus worked as text rather than data. The statements on pornography swirling around the Oval Office were, in this sense, not unlike Candida Royalle’s diaries: abundant, trenchant, sometimes excessive, but ultimately human in scale.

Then we decided to take a peek under the Capitol dome, to see what Congress talked about when they talked about porn* during Royalle’s lifetime. The sheer scale of the corpus—some 2,517 dates over 70 years on which pornography was mentioned 33,419 times—demanded a different kind of processing. It was easy enough to count porn*-pocked documents in a given year—not so different from the method Jane had used when counting hundreds of speech crimes in seventeenth-century Essex County, Massachusetts for her dissertation research three decades ago. That method involved an index card, a sharp pencil, and hash marks: |||| + \.

Yet that long-ago tally, however primitive, was also much richer than keyword searching. She built that corpus by trawling indexes created by human intelligence, to which she brought her own method: following proper names from a civil defamation case to a crime of scandalizing authority, for example, and building a list of offenses that centered on speech, even when the category itself had dropped out of contemporary legal parlance. (Breach of the fifth commandment, anyone?)

But to crack the code of our 2,517 texts, we wanted tools that had faster circuitry. Though we are both, to different extents, techno-skeptics, we wondered what machine-aided readings could reveal about the patterns latent in Congress’s porn* corpus. We wanted also to retain as many of the virtues of analog reading as possible: the ability to capture adjacencies, and to track the way the meaning of our keywords shifted as they interacted with their political and cultural surround.

Could machine processing help us to see not just the shape and volume of the corpus, but also the contingencies buried in its architecture–to see, in other words, history in data?

Some hypotheses—an informed common sense deepened by the preliminary work on the presidential corpus—guided our work:

  • There would be partisan differences, with the so-called new Democrats proving something of a wildcard.
  • There would be peaks and valleys. We expected that the moments when major Supreme Court decisions changed the definition of obscenity–Roth, in 1957; Miller, in 1973–or when presidents tasked national commissions to investigate pornography–Johnson, in 1967, reporting in 1970; and Reagan, in 1985, reporting in 1986–would produce dramatic variations.
  •  We anticipated that Congress’s discussions of pornography would track the history of technology, as the genre’s forms morphed from magazines and super-8 “loops,” to feature-length films, to telephones and cable TV, and then, most recently, to the Internet.
  • It seemed almost axiomatic that when Congress talked about porn*, they talked about–and to, and for–American women. The issue of pornography dominated and then cleaved American feminism between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s, as works by Carolyn Bronstein and others richly demonstrate.[2] So we expected that feminist understandings of pornography as a particularly noxious form of gender-based violence and sex discrimination would infuse Congressional debate about its impacts.

All but one of these hypotheses proved to be true.


Our goal was to see, and by seeing, to understand what Congress talked about when it talked about pornography, and as importantly, how its pornographic imagination changed over time. In the first instance, we wanted simply to count the number of times that the word porn* appeared in congressional documents each year. We would also count words that appeared in close proximity to porn*, as a way to get at what the word might have meant to Congress. Once these data were compiled in a spreadsheet, they would be easy to visualize with a platform like Tableau.

We outsourced this tedious counting to a program called Rapid Miner, a drag-and-drop, Java-for-dummies interface for data mining. The corpus encompassed all documents stored on the open-access U.S. Government Information database GovInfo. This included the Congressional Record, which features transcripts of debates as well as written documents that politicians deliberately ‘enter into the record’; the texts of proposed bills and enacted statutes; supplemental hearings, testimonies, and committee materials; and budgetary and presidential documents. GovInfo stores all congressional documents as either text or as text-searchable PDFs. Its Application Programming Interface (API) allows outside programs and programmers to scrape data from everything stored there.

Martin told his digital research assistant – much to the chagrin of his poor 2015 MacBook Air – to access all documents that contained porn*, and to save the text that fell in a roughly two-sentence radius around each “hit” (using periods to approximate sentences). He removed duplicate results, when single moments of debate were reprinted across several documents. Then he had Rapid Miner standardize these words, putting them into lowercase, filtering out a predefined list of meaningless filler “stopwords,” and saving only the roots of each word using a “stemming” algorithm.

Rapid Miner then counted up how many times each root occurred on each day in Congress. We threw out terms that never surfaced more than 75 times in any year, which left us with 305 word-roots to track over seven decades.[3] We then used Tableau to explore the data collated in our massive spreadsheet, plotting different terms, displaying word frequencies and their changes over time, and analyzing daily, yearly, and 5-year aggregates. (You can do the same, via this interactive dashboard.)

To get a sense of the emphases and concerns that Congress prioritized in any given discussion of porn*, we first plotted the fifteen or so words that appeared most frequently overall. and then continued down the list. As we saw the ways porn*-adjacent terms clustered, we made informal thematic groupings of words – those about technology, about groups of people, or about morality and harm, for instance – and then plotted the most common words in each category. The conceptual groupings brought our own interpretive faculties to bear, but all the words we graphed emerged from tracking Congressional preoccupations with pornography.

In order to apprehend and to convey the clearest possible sense of what the data showed, we played with the different visualization formats Tableau allows. Ultimately, we found it most useful to look at these word counts in “area charts,” stacked atop one another. This allowed us to imagine Congress’ porn*-speak in any given year as a sum of different terms, and then to see how the component parts of that argot changed over time. At one point, Martin tried normalizing the quantities, dividing each year’s word counts by the number of times that porn* was mentioned that year, to look more precisely at the relative importance of different terms. The shifts in relevance that this uncovered seemed already visible enough in the raw counts, though, and this brief scratch-paper arithmetic was the extent of our statistical practice.


Plenty of historians amass, and analyze, quantitative data. But the idea of using the written word as data has been most thoroughly explored in the literary disciplines, where digital humanities practice originated. Our notion of “distantly reading” the Congressional Record comes from Stanford’s Franco Moretti, who coined the term in 2000, before he was using computers to do it. Moretti challenged scholars of literature with a polemic: “We know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.” For Moretti, distant reading was a disciplinary imperative, due to the sheer quantity of published fiction and the need to see aspects of genres as larger phenomena. “The more ambitious the project,” he wrote, “the greater the distance must be.”[4]

Distant readings help those in the literary disciplines with their main preoccupation: interpreting texts. More than a decade ago, for instance, Matthew Kirschenbaum and the Nora Project at the University of Maryland created a program that taxonomized features of a literary corpus, attempting to mimic the classifications that scholars actually make. Input from experts – for example, about which words in Emily Dickinson’s poems a scholar considered “erotic” – would train Nora to make its (her?) own classifications. Kirschenbaum’s goal was what he called “provocation”: scholars would train the tool, and then look at the fruits of Nora’s intelligence in the hope that “outlier results might surprise [them] into attending to some aspect of a text not previously deemed significant.”[5]

Our method was far less involved than training machines to generate interpretive insight – but it was also somewhat less reliant on prior assumptions of terms’ meaning and significance. We didn’t tell Rapid Miner anything about how, why, or what historians think, or try to teach the tool in any meaningful way to “read” the corpus, beyond the raw processing of simple tallies. Nor for that matter did we try to tell it whether Congress thinks, much less what the political stakes of any given season of porn* talk amounted to. If this minimal design left room for further statistical analysis, it also allowed plenty of space for surprise.


This is where our own archive re-enters the story. We started by plotting the when of Congress and porn*, mapping it onto Candice Vadala’s life. The flatness of the curve before 1967– Vadala’s girlhood–surprised us. Conservative anti-pornography forces were organizing during those years, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI zealously policed public morals. Charles H. Keating founded Citizens for Decent Literature in Cincinnati in the mid-1950s, to inveigh against what he and many others saw as a “flood tide of filth” threatening to overtake American culture. Keating’s campaign energized a new Catholic and evangelical Right, animated by “family values” more than geopolitics.[6]

That conversation surely reached state legislatures, but scraping the Congressional Record offers no evidence that Mr. Keating had yet taken his case to Washington. Nor did the Supreme Court’s decision in Roth v. United States, which began the process of defanging obscenity laws, provoke speedy reaction in Congress.[7] We saw expected spikes in 1970 and after 1986, with the release of the reports of the Johnson and Meese pornography commissions, respectively.

But what about 1977, 1998, and 2006? Tableau’s baseline answers provoked questions that seemed fruitful.

The peaks and valleys of Congressional attention also traced a technology story–the how and what of pornography. This story emerged especially vividly when we grouped term frequencies in five-year intervals, smoothing out year-by-year variation. The post and the mail (above in purples) surface strongly and then all but disappear from the menu of concerns; film (red) peaks in the 1970s – after the release of Deep Throat (1972) – and remains largely constant until around 2000; telephony (yellows) pops up suddenly in the late 1980s, only to wane to almost to nothing in the early 1990s. Words related to the Internet (greens) overwhelm all other concepts of pornography’s form and regulatory challenge by the turn of the twenty-first century. It is tempting to read the falloff after the year 2000 as a tsunami of Internet porn, victorious over the tiny, leaky buckets with which Congress tried to catch it.

The technology story has already been well-established, but never has it been documented in a way that so graphically entwines it with the policy energies that both enabled and opposed these format changes. In the 1980s, the shift from 35 mm film to video cassettes transformed pornography as a product, its loci of consumption, its constituencies, and the political dialogue around it. That transformation catalyzed Candida Royalle’s career as a director and producer. Femme Films, through which Royalle made the case for a feminine and feminist pornography, was a creature of the VCR, the heterosexual couple, and pornography’s journey into the private home.

Yet this story of the tape in the box below the TV in the bedroom is little in evidence in these visualizations – Congress’s attention fixes on “video” only after 1996, and thus most likely on streamed or internet video. Further research would be needed to say why. Did home video benefit from the Reagan administration’s deregulatory impulses more than it suffered from its carceral and moral energies? To what extent did the sites for buying or renting porn occupy less heavily policed spaces, as entrepreneurs like Royalle succeeded in moving explicit material out of sin district sex shops and into the curtained enclaves of video stores in upscale neighborhoods?

It was in the realm of the who that the patterns Rapid Miner documented and Tableau visualized most productively unsettled our pre-existing assumptions about the political conversation around porn*. Despite the intensity of feminist argument on the subject, one needs a magnifying glass to find “wom*n” (grey—as authors, as characters, even as victims in peril–in the story these visualizations tell.

Congress seems literally deaf to early feminist activism against violent and pornographic images, in the mid-1970s. The slim grey band of wom*n snaking along the X-axis thickens only slightly after 1980, when lawyer Catharine A. MacKinnon and activist writer Andrea Dworkin began their work to create a civil rights tort that would invite lawsuits by broad categories of complainants harmed by pornography. Even at its most prevalent, in the early 1990s, wom*n remain a tiny piece of the Congressional plot, literally crushed beneath the weight of attention given to the relationship between pornography and children (“child*” in dark pink, along with smaller bands for “young” and “minor”). You can use the dashboard to zoom in closer, filtering, say, on the years that track the rise and fall of the anti-pornography civil rights ordinance strategy that began, with seeming promise, in Minneapolis in late 1983 and died its last and most ignominious death on Beacon Hill in 1992. Even viewing only those years, the picture doesn’t much change.

An even more granular level of detail reveals that in the same period, there were only two days of proceedings – 10 October 1984 and 10 July 1991 – when the story Congress told about porn* could even remotely have resembled a story of what wom*n did and didn’t want.

Tableau makes startlingly visible what Congress talked about instead: emperilled children.

For more than a century, concern for the sexual vulnerability of children has featured in American political thought and moral argument. As early as the 1890s, gay men were demonized as a source of threat; the twinned red and lavender scares of the 1950s resuscitated and ratcheted up fears about the figure of the child molester. Porn entered the conversation somewhat later, as conservative grassroots organizers argued that porn created molesters, who in turn used sexually explicit images to groom or entice young victims. In 1973, the Supreme Court’s liberalizing Miller decision cited states’ “strong and abiding interest in youth,” allowing jurisdictions to “regulate the dissemination to juveniles of, and their access to, material objectionable as to them, but which a State clearly could not regulate as to adults.”[8]

Since the 1970s, the American political conversation about pornography has mostly been a conversation about child endangerment, child abuse, and child protection. Our distant reading suggests that the focus reached the Capitol suddenly, during Carter’s presidency; it increased with something like first derivative growth in the 1980s; and it has shown stubborn persistence, continuing to rise even when overall congressional attention to porn* dipped, after Reagan, and falling more slowly than the baseline in the first decade of the current century.

On average, children were mentioned alongside pornography 19 times per year through 1976. In that period, child* appeared only once for every ten times that porn* did. But in 1977, Congress spoke about children alongside pornography 986 times – meaning that nearly every mention of porn* (1,059) included a reference to child*. That one-to-one correspondence has remained constant since, and at times has even grown. The most striking moment came in 2006, when Congress enacted the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. That year, Congress mentioned porn* 2,845 times, and in the same sentences, invoked children 3,713 times.[9]

The curve that our word counts draw hints at the overwhelming impact of the movement to combat child sexual abuse on Congress’s consideration of pornography. In the 1970s, as the historian Philip Jenkins notes, “[c]hild protection became a national social orthodoxy,” a shift he sees as “a revolutionary and perhaps irrevocable change in American culture.”[10] That shift owed a great deal to feminist research and organizing energy, from the work of Susan Brownmiller, who crystalized a recent flurry of research and activism on rape and sexual battery in the landmark publication of Against Our Will  (1975), to such signal works as The Best Kept Secret, in which Florence Rush enlarged her recent writing on the topic (1980); and Judith Herman’s Father-Daughter Incest, which followed the next year.[11]

Infused by the energies of feminists as well as by a surging Christian Right, the new social orthodoxy of child protection claimed to discover rampant sexual abuse of children in homes, daycare centers, schools, teams, scout troops, and churches. It led to new arguments about drug abuse and prostitution as corollaries to, or symptoms of, childhood sexual abuse.

The rise of that orthodoxy explains the 1977 peak in our “when” visualization: Congressional hearings on the sexual exploitation of children that spring resulted in the bipartisan Kildee-Murphy bill against the creation, sale, or possession of pornographic images of children, which passed the House of Representatives without a single dissenting vote. The year 1977 also saw Anita Bryant’s campaign to “Save Our Children” from what she decried as the mortal threat of gay teachers and other gay role models. Writers at the time, and since, have labeled such sudden upwelling of widely-shared fears “moral panics.”[12] In The Advocate, Bay Area sex radical Pat Califia decried “The Great Kiddie-Porn Panic of ’77,” a wave of concern that flowed from the grassroots to the media to Congress.[13] As Gayle Rubin warned in her landmark 1984 essay “Thinking Sex,” “no tactic for stirring up erotic hysteria has been as reliable as the appeal to protect children.”[14]She worried that the wave would soon swamp feminist energies, too.

Rubin was right to worry. Our visualizations demonstrate that arguments framed around age, not gender, starred in Congressional debates about pornography. Neither feminism nor individual feminists cracked the top three hundred words surrounding porn* in our massive corpus. The root feminis* appeared only 35 times, total, over seven decades; for scale, porn* would regularly come up 70 times in a single day.

A visualization centered on a shifting cluster of terms that define why sexually explicit material demands legislative attention nonetheless suggests feminism’s impact behind the scenes of Congressional debate. Until the mid-1960s, definitions of the problem of pornography were chiefly moral. Words like “smut” and “obscenity” dominate the conversation; “filth—Keating’s watchword—ices the cake. By 1970, the framing that undergirds feminist arguments against pornography had begun to assert itself as Congress tried on a different language: sexual “abuse,” “victim(s),” and “violence” enter and then, by the 1990s, come to dominate the discussion.

The criminality (crim*) of porn* remains somewhat constant, but what exactly constitutes the offense changes: the discourse appears to shift, broadly, from indecency to harm, as if taking up MacKinnon’s argument in a much-cited 1982 speech, published two years later as “Not a Moral Issue.” The “feminist critique of pornography is a politics,” MacKinnon offered, “specifically politics from women’s point of view, meaning the standpoint of the subordination of women to men. Morality here means good and evil; politics means power and powerlessness. Obscenity is a moral idea; pornography is a political practice,” one which demanded new laws as well as new thinking.[15]

Yet when Congress took up the call for to constrain pornography, legislators imported feminist framing without feminist purpose. Protection, not revolution, was their goal. Children, not women, were the political subjects who mattered.

For decades, scholars have debated the nature and the impact of the alliance between anti-pornography feminists and conservatives during the “sex wars” of the 1980s. Our visualizations dramatize the one-sidedness of that alliance, and the political as well as the intellectual risks taken by feminists who tossed women and children into the same lifeboat. “Feminists who believe that they are calling the shots in the anti-porn movement are living in a fool’s paradise,” wrote John D’Emilio, the pioneering historian of gay life, to the head of NOW’s Southeastern division in October, 1986. D’Emilio warned the chapter that its support for the MacKinnon / Dworkin model ordinance strategy was alienating to his feminist students, and predicting it would prove “politically disastrous.”[16] Speaking out during that same traveling NOW roadshow on pornography, Gayle Rubin framed the argument in terms of strategy. “The women’s movement lacks the political capacity to enact any legislative program on pornography,” she testified in San Francisco that March. The Right was “more powerfully entrenched in the political structure of the United States than it has been in decades. It wields the formidable power of the federal bureaucracy and has enormous influence on legislative activity at all levels of government.”[17] Tableau, no student of feminism or of politics, nonetheless dramatically illustrates the perceptiveness of their claims.

Candida Royalle, too, was wary of being treated like a child. She put a liberal spin on D’Emilio and Rubin’s more radical warnings: “It’s high time we grew up,” Royalle wrote in her statement to the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography in 1985. “I don’t need anyone protecting me from my own choices.”[18]


Social historians have in recent decades tended to focus on moments of resistance, when individuals or groups worked to subvert dominant cultural, social, or economic paradigms. The radical feminist fight against pornography was one such moment. Yet as Walter Johnson worries, conventional narratives of such struggles sometimes make a fetish of individual agency, “conflat[ing] activity with ‘resistance.’” They thus ignore the observation of another great historian, Karl Marx: that people “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.”[19]

Distant reading on this scale contributes a view of structure to narratives of human agency or movement efficacy and a dose of empiricism to the history of culture. In our case, it reveals the magnitude, persistence, and ultimate success of the new Right’s efforts to locate a different object of harm rather than to take seriously feminist attempts to promote a different way of legislating. The point of course isn’t to downplay the work of radical social movements, but to get a better sense of what exactly it is that they’re up against. Or at least—to borrow from Cherríe Moraga and Amber Hollibaugh—exactly who they were rollin’ around in bed with, and which coalition partner ended up on top.[20]

Seeing through Tableau can’t tell us why politicians, and some feminists, embraced a child protection framework in their fight against pornography: we need the archive for that. Digital tools can neither parse family history nor plumb the human heart. They show us ways and means, never motives. The outputs don’t tell us what representatives meant when they said a certain word, much less how deeply they believed what they said.

Text mining did allow us to massively scale the humanistic work we were already doing, to get a rough but empirically grounded sense of what was actually happening in Congress, as well as how and when. The raw tallies and their outliers provoked new observations and further questions. Ultimately though, Moretti’s assertion – that the distance of one’s reading and the ambition of one’s scholarship are correlated – falls flat. We’re left with the feeling that we’ve noted some hard to discern trends and established important, background facts around which to conduct more research – no less than that, but not all that much more either.

The tools can certainly be pushed further. Another round of machine analysis could, for instance, capture who exactly was doing all of this speaking: Republicans or Democrats? From the rust belt or the Sunbelt? Committee chairs or freshman legislators? We could execute statistical analyses: were there significant differences between how different types of speakers spoke? With what other words, topics, or events captured in the Congressional Record were our words meaningfully correlated?

But on the whole, while our tools disconfirmed some of our assumptions, and surfaced new topics for analysis, we’d caution against fetishizing statistical methods. Relying too heavily on these methods risks pulling one’s focus primarily towards those questions that can be addressed by running regressions.

In the end, distant reading the Congressional corpus served us primarily as a way to generate historical questions, rather than to answer them. Our charts showed event-related peaks and valleys, casting into sharper relief the political backdrop to seasons of Candice Vadala’s life. But they also offer an almost palpable sense of longer-run trends: the river of porn* which has flowed through American political life since the 1970s, sometimes overflowing its banks, and the tsunami of “child pornography” as a political preoccupation that crested in the late twentieth century and has not receded yet.

What factors, beyond the machinations of entrepreneurial politicians who found and exploited a hot-button issue, control these currents? It’s worth noting that politicians of both parties spoke the language of child pornography, with sudden frequency and moral urgency that no natural incidence rate can possibly explain. Nor should we see Congress’ preoccupations as inevitable responses to technological development. No moral panic is an island.

The discussion of pornography, both in Congress and the White House, gathered steam in the late 1970s and became more fully entrenched in the 1980s and 1990s. American historians working in disparate areas often describe this period as one in which old orders unraveled and new ones began to knit. It saw the demise of the Soviet Union and with it, the collapse of the Cold War as an organizing political and cultural force. It also marked the end of what Hunter Crowther-Heck calls an intellectual “Age of System” and the beginning of Daniel Rodgers’ “Age of Fracture;”[21] as well as the death of an economic order shaped by Keynesianism, and the beginning of Jonathan Levy’s “Age of Chaos” in its place.[22] These decades witnessed the displacement of aesthetic high modernism with the proliferating genres of “postmodernism,” too.[23] And most obviously related to our charts, highly politicized “culture wars” emerged, heightening the emphasis politicians placed on the protection or rejection of traditional values.[24]

Could the fall of Keynesian fiscal policy, the rise of the women’s movement, the end of the Cold War, and the congressional obsession with child pornography all be meaningfully connected as well as coincident? Distantly reading such a large quantity of material makes it possible to at least think of these phenomena together – including in facile but suggestive ways, like this chart superimposing one key signifier of a new cultural politics with another, of the new economic order.

Our data can raise questions at this scale, too – and then good historical analyses, mostly the analog kind, the kind used since Herodotus, will answer them.

The authors would like to thank Jill Lepore, Durba Mitra, Claire Potter, and Gayle Rubin for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

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Martin Bernstein received his B.A. in History & Literature from Harvard College in 2021. In September, he will begin graduate study in economics at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).

Jane Kamensky, Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard and Pforzheimer Foundation Director Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, is working on a book provisionally titled Candida Royalle and the Sexual Revolution: A History from Below, to be published by Norton.


[1] In our searching and visualizations, we have used porn* as a wildcard to capture any word beginning with “p-o-r-n”: pornography, pornographic, porn, pornographer, porno…

[2] Carolyn Bronstein, Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter, Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture (New York: Routledge, 1995); and, most recently, Lorna N. Bracewell, Why We Lost the Sex Wars: Sexual Freedom in the #MeToo Era (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2021).

[3] We also compared this list of 305 words with the 300 words that occurred most frequently overall (these occurred at least 423 times total from 1950-2020), and also with the 322 words that occurred at least 30 times on at least one day. The only differences were between the dozen or so words at the bottom of these lists. But those differences were interesting. We chose to focus on those words that had at least one year in which they were modestly influential, because our analysis seemed generally to be at the annual level, as we tracked changes over time. But looking at daily outliers could instead highlight brief moments of Congressional obsession: for example, the Peraino crime family was suddenly of great importance on February 1, 1984, when “Peraino” was mentioned 51 times. (Congress linked the family’s involvement in the production of the infamous 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat with their involvement in organized crime.) Such fleeting foci were overlooked by the higher-level filters; yet a daily filter overlooked some words that remained more subtly persistent over time. Questions of historical method and emphasis persist.

[4] Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (January 1, 2000): 57.Moretti has since been accused of sexual assault and harassment on three campuses, with some allegations stemming from the mid-1980s; see Fangzhou Li and Hannah Knowles, “Harassment, Assault Allegations against Moretti Span Three Campuses,” The Stanford Daily, 16 November 2017, https://www.stanforddaily.com/2017/11/16/harassment-assault-allegations-against-moretti-span-three-campuses/.

[5] Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, “The Remaking of Reading: Data Mining and the Digital Humanities” (National Science Foundation Symposium on Next Generation of Data Mining and Cyber-Enabled Discovery for Innovation, University of Maryland, 2007), 4, https://www.csee.umbc.edu/~hillol/NGDM07/abstracts/talks/MKirschenbaum.pdf.

[6] Whitney Strub, Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012).

[7] Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957)

[8] Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), footnote 17.

[9] George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, PL 109-248, in July, 2006. Named for a six-year-old Florida boy who was abducted from a department store, beaten, and murdered, the Act’s major innovation was the creation of a national sex offender registry. Seventeen other missing and murdered children were named in the bill.

[10] Philip Jenkins, Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 118–19.

[11] Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Bantam Books, 1976); Florence Rush, The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980); Judith Lewis Herman, Father-Daughter Incest (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981). Rush first published on the topic in 1977; see “The Freudian Cover-Up,” Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture, no. 1 (January 1977): 31-45.

[12] Kenneth Thompson, Moral Panics (New York: Routledge, 1998).

[13] Pat Califia, “The Age of Consent: The Great Kiddy-Porn Panic of ’77,” reprinted in Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex (Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1994), 29-52.

[14] Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex” (1984), in Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, Duke University Press Books, 2011), 141, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11smmmj.

[15] Catharine A. MacKinnon, “Not a Moral Issue,” Yale Law & Policy Review 2, no. 2 (1984): 323.

[16] John D’Emilio to Maura Fallon, 22 October 1986, National Organization for Women Records, 1959-2002, MC 496, folder 95.6, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

[17] Gayle Rubin “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong: An Analysis of Antipornography Politics,” in Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Duke University Press, 2012), p. 273.

[18] Candida Royalle, Draft statement to the Meese Commission, pp. 2, 4, 6, enclosed in CR to Joseph B. Haggerty, 27 July 1985, Papers of Candida Royalle, Schlesinger Library, 66.2.

[19] Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 113–24. Johnson quotes Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, p. 113.

[20] Amber Hollibaugh and Cherríe Moraga, “What We’re Rollin around in Bed With: Sexual Silences in Feminism,” Heresies 12: The Sex Issue (Fall 1981), 58-62.

[21] Hunter Crowther-Heyck, Age of System: Understanding the Development of Modern Social Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015); Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).

[22] Jonathan Levy, Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States (New York: Random House, 2021).

[23] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Post-Contemporary Interventions (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

[24] Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).

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