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Porn: The Tobacco of Today

Last Updated: April 9, 2015

Is the porn of today like the tobacco of 50 years ago? Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, thinks so, and she outlines some of the striking similarities in her Policy Review article, “Is Pornography the New Tobacco?

The use and acceptance of tobacco in the 1960s was ubiquitous—so much so, few people then imagined a world where cigarettes would be so universally discouraged and stigmatized. And while tobacco is still commonly used and legally available, the social stigma around tobacco has grown enormously. Could the same be true for porn in the next 50 years?

Eberstadt writes,

“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…. [Y]ou — 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.”

These sentiments could be said about Internet pornography today, which, Eberstadt says, “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.”

There are, of course, many differences between porn and tobacco, but despite these differences there are critical corporate similarities. Eberstadt points out these similarities between Big Tobacco and Big Porn, specifically in how they recruit consumers, their consumer psychology, their philosophical defenses of the products they create, and their corporate philanthropy and influence-peddling.

Could it be that we will not see a widespread tolerance of pornography some time this century? Will there be a revival of social stigma against porn in the years to come? Despite today’s consensus about the harmlessness of Internet pornography, Eberstadt writes, “it is not hard to imagine a future consensus that casts a far colder eye on that substance than does our own.”

What do you think?

  1. Charles Brooks

    I couldn’t agree more!!! We should destroy ALL pornographic material! For instance, I read this story about how these daughters got their father intoxicated and then fornicated with him. Disgusting I say. Burn it all!!

  2. Luke,

    A provocative piece; thanks for mentioning it.
    i like the excerpt you published here on Breaking Free because it provides another way for us to think of the sexualized culture in which we live.
    i agree with you that when you think more broadly than hardcore material, there is a pornographic culture which seeps in and around us seamlessly. Think of the magazine covers you see when you stand in the grocery store check out line. And the growing acceptance of such material is extremely noticeable to me; it’s a major shift from even 15 years ago.
    i agree that there are notable differences between porn and tobacco, but Eberstadt’s approach has value in that it focuses on the commonality of porn in our age.

  3. W T Patton

    I know, lets get an angle to kill all the first born male children in the country. That’ll teach em.

  4. Josh

    The problem with that analogy is the part where tobacco, you know, CAUSES CANCER and KILLS PEOPLE.

    The social and emotional (and even physical) problems associated with porn are much more subtle and harder to clinically prove.

  5. Dr. Eberstatdt’s assumption presents a false and broken analogy for four reasons: 1) tobacco use was and is an addiction which is partaken of in public; porn addiction is partaken of anonymously; 2) porn addiction causes widespread emotional, physical and spiritual harm to the person partaking of it and is frequently symptomatic of deeply-rooted problems with which the partaker is struggling; tobacco users rarely, if ever, experience these types of problems, notwithstanding the physical problems associated with tobacco use; 3) porn addiction leads to a betrayal of the heart, mind and soul (especially in marriages), and it alienates and destroys all types of relationships; tobacco use, on the other hand, is infrequently the cause of this type of ‘betrayal,’ and while while smoking or chewing tobacco may alienate people in relationships, you rarely see it break up a marriage or any other type of relationship; and 4) while smoking and chewing tobacco used to be widely accepted in many circles of influence, such is not the case today (there is a stigma attached to tobacco use and addiction); porn user is widely criticized and stigmatized now.

    It doesn’t follow that that which is stigmatized now would become accepted in the future because something which was not stigmatized in the past is now stigmatized…this is an appeal to tradition–and a broken one at that.

    It is Dr. Eberstatdt’s opinion that we all continue to regard porn use with “relative equanimity.” Go tell that to the spouse who has been betrayed by porn addiction and it’s consequences; does s/he look at his/her partner’s porn addiction with mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper in a difficult situation?

    • @Donald – Good observations, ones that I’m fairly sure Dr. Eberstadt would agree with (at least, based on her article).

      It is helpful, I think, to remember that when she is using the term “pornography,” she is not limiting this term to blatant pornographic material but any sensual media at all, which is far more ubiquitous and more common that hardcore pornography. Hardcore porn is more of the peak of a very large iceberg. So when she gives the example of a woman who regards porn with “relative equanimity,” she is speaking of someone’s general ease being surrounded by sexualized media (something that probably does describe the average American woman).

      She fully agrees with many of the differences between tobacco use vs. porn use and even enumerates them in her article (sexual drive vs. physical craving, private consumption vs. public, emotional harms vs. physical, different political environments between the 60s and today). The similarities she draws have more to do with the “consumerism” behind both Big Tobacco and Big Porn. She is not saying that porn will be stigmatized more in 50 years, only to show something that is widely accepted (prevalent sexualized media) can be later stigmatized.

  6. I completely agree. There is so much similarity to them. And yet, we as men, don’t feel it is as dangerous, because it is not a health risk, like tobacco use is. In reality, it is much more dangerous, and much more life threatening.

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