In 1962, three million American homes received a circular advertising subscriptions to a magazine. The return address listed: Intercourse, Pennsylvania. The sender: Ralph Ginzburg. In the mass missive, Ginzburg pitched EROS, his new “magazine of sexual candor,” as a “child of its time.” Ginzburg, it seems, spoke too soon. In 1963, he was indicted for distributing obscene material and after an appeal that brought his case all the way to the Supreme Court, sentenced to pay a $42,000 fine and serve up to five years in prison. The case serves as an interesting footnote in the centuries-long working definition of “obscenity”— a victimless crime, liable only as sin.
EROS, the briefly-lived erotic publication, was for it’s time, unusual. The magazine’s salaciousness was unapologetically high-brow (Ginzburg was only interested in reaching a readership with “higher than average income and intelligence”) and, for material that would later land him in jail, pornographically tame. There’s no glossy flash of flesh, no spread-eagle pussy shot. Instead the four issues of EROS featured articles that were deeply steeped in history, literature, politics, art. You’d read about lustful selections from the Bible, accompanied with suggestive Old Testament woodcuts, followed by an article arguing for the “Natural Superiority of Women as Eroticists,” or an investigation on Shakespeare’s sexuality.
And, undoubtedly, EROS as an object was meant to be touched. Heavy, thick, at thirteen inches deep and ten wide, the hardbound journal was art directed by the lauded graphic designer Herb Lublin.The art reproduced in EROS ranged from Degas nudes to Marilyn Monroe’s final photoshoot, including her own orange markings over her face.
But it was series of black and white bodies in the magazine’s final issue that fueled it’s puritanical takedown. Titled Black and White in Color the “photographic tone poem” celebrated interracial relationships, featuring tightly framed shots of a black man and a white woman entwined in a series of softcore erotic poses. Again, this was 1962. When the issue landed in the Deep South, Ralph landed in court, charged as a peddler of obscenity.
Ginzburg’s downfall rested less on the magazine itself but rather his mail-by-order ads, which specifically pandered to the erotic interest of his readership, did him in. The ironic twist: in said ads, Ralph touted the progressive policies of the Supreme Court. EROS, he wrote in the ads, was “enabled by recent court decisions ruling that a literary piece of painting, though explicitly sexual in content, has a right to be published if it s a genuine work of art. EROS is a genuine work of art.” Still today, obscenity’s harm remains in the eye of the beholder; it’s genuine nature as indiscriminate as art itself.