Is Pornography the New Tobacco?

Another curious reversal in moralizing

Imagine a substance that is relatively new in the public square, but by now so ubiquitous in your society that a great many people find its presence unremarkable. Day in and day out, your own encounters with this substance, whether direct or indirect, are legion. Your exposure is so constant that it rarely even occurs to you to wonder what life might be like without it.

In fact, so common is this substance that you take the status quo for granted, though you’re aware that certain people disagree. A noisy minority of Americans firmly opposes its consumption, and these neo-Puritans try routinely to alert the public to what they claim to be its dangers and risks. Despite this occasional resistance, however, you — like many other people of your time — continue to regard this substance with relative equanimity. You may or may not consume the thing yourself, but even if you don’t, you can’t much see the point of interfering with anyone else’s doing it. Why bother? After all, that particular genie’s out of the bottle.

The scenario sketched in these paragraphs captures two very different moments in recent American history. One is the early 1960s, exactly the moment when tobacco is ubiquitous, roundly defended by interested parties, and widely accepted as an inevitable social fact — and is about to be propelled over the cliff of respectability and down the other side by the surgeon general’s famous 1964 “Report on Smoking and Health.” The resulting social turnaround, though taking decades and unfolding still, has nevertheless been nothing short of remarkable. In 1950, almost half the adult American population smoked; by 2004, just over a fifth did. Though still in common use and still legally available, cigarettes somehow went from being widely consumed and accepted throughout the Western world to nearly universally discouraged and stigmatized — all in the course of a few decades.

Pornography is the single most searched-for item on the internet and also the most profitable.

The other moment in time captured by the opening description is our own, except that the substance under discussion this time around is not tobacco, but pornography — especially internet pornography, which today is just about as ubiquitous, as roundly defended by interested parties, and as widely accepted as an inevitable social fact as smoking was 50-odd years ago.

The ubiquity is plain. Pornography is the single most searched-for item on the internet and also the most profitable. It is referred to knowingly, whether explicitly or with a wink and a nod, in more public venues than one can possibly enumerate — including on phones and in video games and popular music, in comic books and on skateboards, among other areas of juvenile culture. Even the more “serious” quarters of the internet, those devoted to news and politics and general-interest blogs, are riddled with knowing references to pornography. As the protagonist of the recently chic movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno comments, “It’s all mainstream now.”

Today’s prevailing social consensus about pornography is practically identical to the social consensus about tobacco in 1963: i.e., it is characterized by widespread tolerance, tinged with resignation about the notion that things could ever be otherwise. After all, many people reason, pornography’s not going to go away any time soon. Serious people, including experts, either endorse its use or deny its harms or both. Also, it is widely seen as cool, especially among younger people, and this coveted social status further reduces the already low incentive for making a public issue of it. In addition, many people also say that consumers have a “right” to pornography — possibly even a constitutional right. No wonder so many are laissez-faire about this substance. Given the social and political circumstances arrayed in its favor, what would be the point of objecting?

Such is the apparent consensus of the times, and apart from a minority of opponents it appears very nearly bulletproof — every bit as bulletproof, in fact, as the prevailing laissez-faire public view of smoking did in 1963. In fact, just substitute the word “smoking” for that of “pornography” in the paragraph above, and the result works just as well.

And that is exactly the point of our opening thought experiment. Many people today share the notion that today’s unprecedented levels of pornography consumption are somehow fixed, immutable, a natural expression of (largely but not entirely male) human nature. Even people who deplore pornography seem resigned to its exponentially expanded presence in the culture. This is one genie, most people agree, that is out of the bottle for good.1

But this widely held belief, while understandable, overlooks a critical and perhaps potent fact. The example of tobacco shows that one can indeed take a substance to which many people are powerfully drawn and sharply reduce its consumption via a successful revival of social stigma. What might this transformation imply for today’s unprecedented rates of pornography consumption? Perhaps a great deal. For in one realm after another — as a habit, as an industry, as a battleground for competing ideas of the public good — internet pornography today resembles nothing so much as tobacco circa a half-century ago. Let us begin to count the ways.

Introduction to much longer article by Mary Eberstadt – to read go to


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