Politics & Policy

Smoking Is Out, Porn Is In

A change in the public perception of pornography would be welcome.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact Carmen Puello at cpuello@unitedmedia.com.

While looking for a good teen magazine (“good” being the ones without hook-up tips) for her daughter, one reader stumbled on an outdated link on National Review Online. The link was embedded in an old article. But instead of the family-friendly information it originally went to, the link led to a porn site. The reader’s husband called us, not because he was angry with NRO, but because he wanted to spare the next person who clicked the link. He wasn’t surprised about the accidental link change since porn is legion on the Internet.

Access to porn is probably in your e-mail account’s inbox right now. You’re probably used to just manually erasing it as spam or setting up automated filters to block it out, but you know it’s out there in a big way. What are you going to do?

The Hoover Institution’s Mary Eberstadt calls it the new tobacco. The heights to which porn has been accepted in the mainstream represents “widespread tolerance, tinged with resignation about the notion that things could ever be otherwise.” We’ve taken a “full turn” in the last century in regard to tobacco and porn. “Yesterday, smoking was considered unremarkable in a moral sense, whereas pornography was widely considered disgusting and wrong — including even by people who consumed it. Today, as a general rule, just the reverse is true. Now it is pornography that is widely (though not universally) said to be value-free, whereas smoking is widely considered disgusting and wrong — including even by many smokers.”

In making the comparison, Eberstadt observes that many people say “consumers have a ‘right’ to pornography — possibly even a constitutional right. . . . Given the social and political circumstances arrayed in its favor, what would be the point of objecting?”

As horrific as it sounds, the fact is, she’s right. It is, sadly, no surprise that porn is the most searched for and most profitable product on the Internet. But unless it violates the sensitivities of even the most desensitized (child porn, simulated rape, things you’d rather me not write here), pornography is too widespread for many to bother to do anything but shrug, or perhaps even try to play along.

As with tobacco, this is not going to change overnight. But, as with tobacco, a change in perception wouldn’t be bad for our health.

Even those who smoke don’t pretend there’s nothing harmful about smoking now. But it wasn’t long ago that tobacco companies brought their experts in to make the case that tobacco “addiction” might just be learned behavior. Chillingly, in her piece in the latest issue of Policy Review, Eberstadt reminds readers that a Philip Morris executive once asked, “What do you think smokers would do if they didn’t smoke? You get some pleasure from it, and you also get some other beneficial things, such as stress relief. Nobody knows what you’d turn to if you didn’t smoke. Maybe you’d beat your wife. Maybe you’d drive cars fast. Who knows what the hell you’d do.”

And so I should shrug because there’s not widespread rape in American offices?

People seem to recognize that there is a problem. For her 2005 book Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families, Pamela Paul commissioned a Harris poll and found that “Despite widespread denial and the pervasiveness of outdated rationalizations, many Americans have a problem with the rampant spread of pornography.” She found that, whether they were liberal or conservative, people were not widely opposed to the government’s doing something: “42 percent of Americans said the government should regulate Internet pornography specifically so that children cannot access X-rated material online, and 13 percent said the government should regulate pornography in a way similar to cigarettes — with warning labels and restrictions to minimize harm.”

The question about the government is revealing. Pornographers can dismiss this, but corporations know there is harm done by porn, even if it’s just to productivity. According to one 2007 survey, 65 percent of corporations use porn-detecting software. Divorce lawyers, clergy, and therapists can tell you the damaging role it’s playing in the married and unmarried lives of American couples.

The question about government is also, of course, alarming — to anyone who cares about freedom and the future of the Internet. Furthermore, as it affects our children and our families, it is a cultural copout of a solution.

Thinking about my caller and his wife and daughter, I’ve been flashing back to something Traci Lords once said: “I have to thank Ed Meese for saving my life.” At 18, her career as a porn star ended in a federal raid. How many Tracis are on a computer near you today? And who else is porn harming? It’s a question that our society — which in its rhetoric and culture says it cares about women and children and lives and love — needs to grapple with. If Eberstadt’s comparison is right, the time coming. The shrugs will cease. Yet I hope the turnaround comes, not because the government has made porn highly inconvenient, but because we have decided we want something better.

 Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online. 

© 2009, Kathryn Jean Lopez. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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