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.

Betty, Jennifer, and musical

Pornography and tobacco, everyone can agree, have at least this in common: Both have been on the receiving end of public moralizing ever since their appearance in human society. During the past few decades, however, something particularly interesting has occurred. So far as public opprobrium is concerned, at least in America (and most of the rest of the West), the two substances have essentially changed places. To get a sense of just how drastically the social consensus about each has changed, let us invoke the imaginary examples of Betty, a 30-year-old housewife in 1958; and Jennifer, her 30-year-old granddaughter today.2

Like many of her friends, and also like her husband Barney, Betty smokes cigarettes. She does so unselfconsciously and throughout the day — in the kitchen and most other rooms of the house, during her housecleaning, on the front steps, around the children, in the car, at the movies and in restaurants, even walking down the sidewalk. It’s not the sort of thing she gives much thought to, though when she does she sometimes feels conflicted. For Betty, the issue of tobacco may raise certain questions of expediency (she worries about the money she spends on it). She also wonders from time to time about its possible effect on her health, as people by 1958 are starting to talk about that too.

On the other hand, despite these occasional personal misgivings, Betty does not see smoking as a moral issue in its own right. It is rather, she believes, a matter of individual taste.

Pornography and tobacco have been on the receiving end of public moralizing ever since their appearance in human society.

Now consider Betty’s view of a different substance that is as rare in her own life as cigarettes are plentiful — i.e., pornography. Compared to the generations about to follow her, she really hasn’t seen much of it. On the other hand, neither is she as ignorant of it as the generation before her. Playboy magazine is a few years old in 1958, for example, and the celebrities who take off their clothes in its pages make news whether Betty sees pictures of them or not. One thing she does know is that Barney is more familiar with this kind of material than she is. He and his friends have been known to joke about a couple of stag films they have seen; and Betty once found an issue of Modern Man, a Playboy-like magazine featuring nearly nude celebrities, in Barney’s briefcase. Though she suspects that Barney may harbor a different opinion than she does about it, in general the issue of dirty books or pictures does not worry Betty much. The Comstock Act banning the sending of obscene materials through the mails has just been upheld in a Supreme Court case called Roth v. United States — which fact among others means that in Betty’s world, unlike our own, such materials are still relatively hard to get.

In any event, what little Betty has seen of this material has left a firm impression. She thinks Playboy and its ilk are disgusting. She is, further, a Kantian about her opinion, and extends it to a general moral rule: Pornography, or what she would call “smut,” is morally wrong. She also believes that everyone should feel as she does about it, though obviously many people don’t.

Now consider the very different case of 30-year-old Jennifer today. Jennifer is vehemently opposed to smoking tobacco. The very idea of putting a foreign substance into her lungs disgusts her. She is further a Kantian about her opinion, and extends it to a general rule: Smoking is morally wrong. She also believes that everyone should feel as she does about it, though obviously many people don’t.

Interestingly, it does not occur to Jennifer to hold the rest of her body to the same strict standard as her lungs. Like many other women in her generation, she is both single and sexually experienced in ways that most women of Betty’s generation were not. As part of that experience, Jennifer knows far more than Betty could have about pornography.

Jennifer’s attitude toward pornography is complicated, and similar in some ways to Betty’s itinerant misgivings about tobacco. On the one hand, like Betty, she does not think that this particular substance — in Jennifer’s case, pornography — poses any genuine moral issue. On the other, again like Betty, when she does stop to think about it she feels conflicted. From time to time, her boyfriend Jason has persuaded Jennifer into watching some together on the internet. On the outside, Jennifer goes along with this gracefully enough. On the inside, though, she is not so sure she likes it — more precisely, that she likes Jason liking it. One thing she is certain of is that Jason knows more about pornography than she does. She has more than once caught him unawares while he was watching it, and she’s overheard allusions to it among his friends.

Jennifer’s attitude toward pornography is complicated, and similar to Betty’s itinerant misgivings about tobacco.

Even so, and despite her occasional misgivings, about pornography as such Jennifer has the standard-issue generational opinion of her time. She is not a Kantian about it. She has her own personal likes and dislikes; she assumes everyone else does too. In sum, she does not think that pornography, when made by and for consenting adults, is morally wrong. She thinks it is a matter of individual taste.

It’s important to understand just how complete the social turnaround on these two substances has been. Betty would never dream of putting even a few minutes of internet pornography as we now know it before her eyes. She would feel degraded, polluted, even sick. To the extent that she has ever even thought about it, she thinks that pornography is morally wrong, and that the people who create it are borderline evil.

Jennifer, on the other hand, may not greet pornography with quite the gusto that her boyfriend does. But she has no such passionate feelings about it as Betty would, let alone any Kantian impulse to make a sweeping moral claim about it. But Jennifer would never dream of putting a cigarette into her mouth. She would feel degraded, polluted, even sick. She thinks that tobacco is morally wrong, and that the people who create it are borderline evil.

The imaginary examples of Betty and Jennifer demonstrate the full turn society has taken in the past 50 years with regard to these two powerfully alluring substances, tobacco and pornography. 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.

I am not suggesting that this reversal has any causal link — that tobacco is any way “down” because pornography is “up,” or vice versa. Nor am I minimizing the moral dimension of pornography as such. But the examples of Betty and Jennifer show us something unexpected and telling: The public moral status of tobacco half a century ago is strikingly similar to that of pornography today.

Distinctions with a difference

Before any impatient readers overthink our central analogy and race to disagree, let us state the obvious here: The examples of Betty and Jennifer also help to illuminate some critical ways in which pornography is not like tobacco.

Most obviously, pornography excites sexual desire and tobacco does not. For that reason, pornography has been condemned as even tobacco has not by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike. As a corollary, because it excites desire, pornography is almost always consumed in private. This privacy requirement, though not exactly universal, is nonetheless a characteristic feature of pornography consumption, and of nearly all internet pornography consumption. Consider as proof the fact that individuals, even those most ardent in their defense of pornography, almost never watch it with someone else present unless that person is also participating in watching.

Equally obviously, of course, tobacco — unlike pornography — routinely causes physical harm. (This does not mean the harm of smoking was always and everywhere obvious; quite the contrary, as we’ll see below.) The question of whether pornography may cause indirect physical harm — via inciting some individuals to sexual assault, say, or giving other people ideas about unsafe sexual practices that they then imitate — remains hotly disputed by therapists and other experts, and seems unlikely to be settled any time soon. Even if it is, though, the obvious point remains that tobacco can literally and directly kill.

Third, the business of pornography differs in certain critical ways from the business of tobacco. In particular, Big Porn is far more diffuse than was Big Tobacco. The latter consisted in the main of publicly-traded companies marketing a single and easily identifiable product, cigarettes; whereas the pornography trade includes many amateur manufacturers (the equivalent of yesterday’s roll-your-own smokers, perhaps) as well as innumerable entrepreneurs of the mom-and-pop variety.

Fourth, tobacco yesterday and pornography today operate in different political environments. In particular, tobacco enjoyed political protection for centuries thanks to tobacco-growing states and their clout, whereas pornography has not yet achieved such entrenched political support. I say “yet” because that political picture may be changing; both pornographers and those who defend the industry appear to be in the ascendant now, not only socially but also politically as obscenity laws have become progressively harder to prosecute. Even so, pornography will have a harder time garnering public support from the likes of Congress than tobacco ever did. Even in our “pornified” time, many millions of Americans continue to oppose pornography for moral and religious reasons.

The news is not that pornography and tobacco are different substances; we can all think of ways in which that much is true. The news is rather that two substances that do differ so much can play such similar social roles.

The question of “harm”

Consider, for example, the question of harm. Today, of course, there is no disputing that smoking can be harmful to one’s health. Yet to point to the consensus of today is to obscure the bitter debate that preceded it. The question of whether smoking does cause harm was disputed by many people, and especially by the tobacco industry, throughout much of the 20th century.

Moreover, although the companies had an obvious economic interest in contesting the claim of harm, they were hardly the sole interested parties. Plainly, one reason the issue of harm took so long to settle is that a great many people — especially smokers — had reasons of their own for resisting the empirical evidence: Because of their desire to continue consuming cigarettes, many denied or minimized tobacco’s risks.

This harm-minimizing synergy between producer and consumer is one more factor suggesting that internet pornography may stand in the same situation today as tobacco in the decades before the surgeon general’s report. That is to say, producers in the pornography industry have a vested interest in denying that their product causes harm, and they are aided in this effort, however unwittingly, by consumers who have reasons of their own for wanting this to be true.

Despite that synergy, however, there is evidence that pornography does cause harm to at least some people. Consider, for example, its apparent widespread interference in the workplace. According to a 2007 survey by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Journal, 65 percent of corporations now use pornography-detecting software, up from 40 percent in 2001. According to that same study, fully 84 percent of the 30 percent of bosses who said they fired someone for internet misuse cited pornography as the reason why. These facts alone strongly suggests that pornography consumption is both compromising at least some office work on a large scale, and also becoming a risk factor for at least some employees in job loss.

Indirect evidence from other sources, such as divorce cases and reports by clergy and therapists, also suggest that pornography can cause harm. Consider the increasing role played by internet pornography in divorce proceedings. According to a meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, for example, 62 percent of the 350 attendees said that the internet had been a significant factor in cases handled that year — and that was in 2002, well behind today’s levels of pornography consumption. Numerous pastors and priests and ministers and therapists have reported that pornography use is now the leading cause of marital trouble and breakup they encounter as counselors.3  If we accept that marital breakup itself causes distress to both parties as well as to any children involved, then pornography’s potential cast of victims appears to widen significantly by virtue of that fact alone.

Some will go out of their way to avoid encountering pornography, including by paying for software that blocks it.

Third, the claim that pornography causes harm to at least some users can be also be inferred from the fact that some people will go out of their way to avoid encountering pornography, including by paying for software that blocks it. In this way at least some potential consumers signal tacitly their own decision that pornography is potentially injurious — much the same way as the millions who have joined programs to quit smoking, often at their own expense, have signaled their own consumer view that the substance they want to avoid is injurious.

Fourth, it is important to understand that the debate over “harm” is shaped by interested corporate parties and others. Pornography interests today, like tobacco interests, actively enlist the testimony of “experts” who defend their product by arguing a familiar line: that no one has definitively proven that their products can cause “harm.”

This was, of course, exactly the petard on which Big Tobacco was eventually hoist — but only after many years and many dollars went into subsidizing experts demanding an ever-higher standard of causal proof of harm. A similar strategy appears to be the pornography industry’s today. The website of the Free Speech Coalition, for example — the main lobbying arm of the pornography industry — features under “Resources” a number of documents disputing the critics of pornography on the same kinds of grounds that tobacco lobbyists invoked yesterday: i.e., that it hasn’t been definitively “proven” that the product causes harm. Consider this sample, from a paper by a psychologist disputing “The Science Behind Pornography Addiction”:

In summary, before rushing to the judgment that pornography is addicting, we must take note of the following: So-called sexual addiction may be nothing more than learned behavior that can be unlearned; labels such as “sex addict” may tell us more about society’s prejudices and the therapist doing the labeling than the client; scientists who have undertaken scientifically rigorous studies of exposure to sex materials report that despite high levels of exposure to pornography in venues such as the Internet, few negative effects are observed.4

Substitute the word “nicotine” for the sexual ones, and there stands an iconic distillation of the cigarette industry’s argument on its own behalf — an argument, to repeat again a point worth remembering, that Big Tobacco finally lost in the public square.

The Free Speech Coalition website abounds in other ways with language reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s defense of itself half a century ago. It includes the same kind of references to constitutional freedom, the same insistence that addiction to its product is a “myth,” and the same expressed concern about the necessity of keeping its product away from youth (though the reason why is never explained). In these representative ways, pornography as an object of dispute in the public square can be argued once more to closely resemble tobacco 50 years ago.

The consumer perspective

Now let us turn from the debate over harm to the reality of consumption. As products intended for the mass market, tobacco and internet pornography share some interesting features. Both are cheap to produce in volume and relatively easy to export, including globally. Both also share a bundle of features having to do with their related consumer psychologies.

For one thing, both tobacco and internet pornography exert similar influences over the chronic consumer. Most notably, both can lead to dependence and — some therapists say — outright addiction.5

As noted earlier, practically no one today would dispute that cigarette smoking can be addictive, at least for some people. By contrast and as noted already, the idea that internet pornography might also cause dependence and addiction is passionately disputed, at least by the pornography industry. Yet surely the addictive character of pornography is suggested by at least this much: Consumers of pornography and consumers of tobacco explain their consumption in similar ways. Both typically develop rationalizations of their habits, or what psychologists call “permission-giving beliefs.”

Thus, for example, “everybody does it” is one such belief common to tobacco users yesterday and to pornography consumers today, and common too among those who justify pornography in the public square. “At least I’m not consuming something worse” is another such permission-giving behavior tobacco and pornography have in common. According to Pamela Paul, who interviewed 250 pornography consumers for her 2005 book Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, the idea that pornography is just pictures and not “real” sex was a commonly cited rationalization for their consumption — much as many smokers of yesteryear claimed that at least their drug of choice, unlike alcohol or marijuana, didn’t interfere with their minds or personal lives.

Yet another similar permission-giving belief common to the consumption of both substances is that “using this substance [cigarettes, pornography] keeps me from doing something worse.” In the case of cigarettes, for example, many people justified their use by reference to nicotine’s calming effect; and tobacco companies likewise encouraged that defense. As an executive of Philip Morris once remarked,

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.6

Many people today defend pornography along similar lines. Consider the argument arising from time to time that sex crimes in some places have apparently decreased alongside the rise in internet pornography use. Consider also the resort in both cases to the permission-giving idea that “I’m not affecting anyone but myself.”

Finally, just as pornography and tobacco are both explained by users at the “micro” level with nearly identical rationales, so have both been defended in the public square on nearly identical “macro” grounds: consumer rights.

For example, when advocate Wendy McElroy — author of XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography — says, “The issue at stake in the pornography debate is nothing less than the age-old conflict between individual freedom and social control,” she is framing the issue of pornography consumption in exactly the way smoking was framed by those who defended it — not as an aesthetic, moral, psychological, or social issue, but as a question of individual right.

On the flip side of the consumer coin, the denial that the product in question causes harm is also nearly identical. A spokesman for the British Libertarian Alliance, for example, argues on behalf of pornography consumption thus: “There is no proven connection between pornography and sexual violence. There have been dozens of reputable studies. Not one has shown any connection.” Substitute the words “smoking and lung cancer” in this frequently reiterated defense, of course, and there stands the core argument wielded by the tobacco industry over the decades.

Big Porn and Big Tobacco

This mention of the industry brings us to one more set of similarities: the corporate ones, among them consumer recruitment techniques, consumer psychology, philosophical defenses of the product, and corporate philanthropy and influence-peddling.

First, both industries operate in a similar fashion. To quote Pamela Paul once more, “porn may be the ultimate capitalist enterprise: low costs; large profit margins; a cheap labor force, readily available abroad if the home supply fails to satisfy; a broad-based market with easily identifiable target niches; multiple channels of distribution.” Substitute “tobacco” for “porn,” and the sentence works pretty well as a description of the tobacco industry (for “a cheap labor force,” substitute “an abundant supply of raw material”).

Second, both industries have faced similar demographic challenges and opportunities. Most significant and intriguing, both have had to confront a market imbalance in a crucial demographic — women — and have devised similar strategies for addressing it.

Up until the 1950s, cigarette consumption was far higher among men than among women. The industry’s desire to capture the underdeveloped female market led to several imaginative campaigns to increase the level of smoking via new graphics and colors and above all via pitches tailored to a female consumer. There followed a series of industry marketing triumphs, among them the breakthrough of Lucky Brand — the first cigarettes targeted for the female audience, in the 1920s — and the later success of Marlboro, which was initially pitched to the female market because its colors matched the red then popular as a nail color. Later campaigns included Philip Morris’s in the 1960s with Virginia Slims, marketed with the slogans, “You’ve come a long way baby” and “it’s a woman thing.” Finally, in addition to trying to lure women to “female” brands, the industry also recognized “dual brand” loyalty, or loyalty to brands (like Marlboro) smoked by men as well as women, particularly in the younger demographic.

A similar market gender imbalance faces internet pornographers today, and the industry is addressing it with much the same set of strategies. Contemplating the far higher levels of pornography consumption among men, marketers now aggressively target female consumers with gender-tailored bait ranging from softer-core “erotica” focus-tested on women to corporate deals involving new websites, chat rooms, and other media outreach targeting the women.

Most important, and also like tobacco yesterday, Big Porn today further explicitly links its product pitch to the image of the modern, liberated, cool woman. In The Cigarette Century, a Pulitzer-Prize winning history of tobacco cited earlier, Allan M. Brandt summarizes the campaigns to create female smokers as follows:

Smoking for women, in this crucial phase of successful recruitment, became part and parcel of the good life as conceived by the American consumer culture and explicitly represented in advertising campaigns. The effectiveness of these campaigns was heightened and reinforced by public relations efforts to create a positive environment for the new images. Together, the ad campaigns and the pr promoted a product and a behavior that now possessed specific and appealing social meanings of glamour, beauty, autonomy, and equality.

Similar invocations of “autonomy” and “equality” are pitched to today’s women by marketers of pornography. In fact, even before the birth of the internet, a previous generation of industry entrepreneurs was already trying to break into the female market using “equality” and “liberation” as lures. Thus Playgirl magazine, which debuted in 1973 as the first magazine for women showing full frontal male nudity, pitched itself to “today’s liberated, independent, self-aware, sensual woman.” Similarly, as a pornographic film producer told span class="italics">Time magazine in 1987, her movies “stressed equality and the idea that sex was for both women and men, not just men having sex with women.”

In sum, women’s liberation has been used in the attempt to sell women on pornography in much the same fashion as it was used to sell women on cigarettes beginning almost a century ago. Feminists often echo this theme themselves in their roaming defenses of the newer product. No less an authority than Betty Friedan, for example, endorsed the book Defending Pornography by aclu President Nadine Strossen — with the notion that “free expression is an essential foundation for women’s liberty, equality and security.”

Pornography also shares another strategy with tobacco for selling to women: i.e., by involving men. In an interview in 2007, for example, Playboy’s editorial director, when asked whether the magazine “see[s] women as a potential area of growth for more tv ventures,” said, “I love the whole modern sense of female sexiness. . . . yes, women are ready for explicit language and depictions of sex — but we feel we’re best at crafting that material in the context of a shared experience.” Getting the boyfriend to get the girlfriend to experience the product, in the hopes of inducing a shared brand loyalty: This is how some female consumers of tobacco were brought into a market imbalanced by gender, in a process dubbed “dual branding” by the companies.

Third, Big Porn’s forays into philanthropy track those of Big Tobacco in several interesting respects. For many years, as is widely known today, tobacco companies sought to win public favor and offset public opprobrium by high-profile donations — the arts, education, and youth programs especially. Over time, however, these efforts went from being unremarked upon to being cynically viewed by a public that increasingly saw them for what they were: self-interested philanthropy designed to offset a problematic product.

Today’s corporate giving by companies that earn their bread through pornography is almost wholly unremarked upon, just as Big Tobacco’s was yesterday. Yet if there was an irony involved in spending money on education programs while purveying an arguably problematic product — as the public largely decided there was in the case of tobacco — there is surely at least as much irony in some of the charities for which Big Porn today goes unnoticed.

Pornography also shares another strategy with tobacco for selling to women: i.e., by involving men.

One worldwide purveyor of “adult products,” for example, boasts of having provided “millions of men and women with family health and hiv/aids prevention programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America” and promises customers that their “purchases help people in Africa, Asia and Latin America create a better life.” A different charity called Eddie’s Kids, run by a major pornography distributor (and convicted felon), gives sports tickets to poor children and boasts of having worked with “the Salvation Army, the Campfire Boys and Girls of America, the L.A. Boys and Girls Clubs,” and a number of Christian organizations, including Catholic Charities.

Helping kids is a common refrain. In 2007, the Playboy Mansion hosted a charity fundraiser boasting numerous stars and athletes to benefit the Maddbacker Foundation, whose mission is “to enrich young people’s lives by instilling in them the importance of education, while also bringing them outstanding role-models in sports and entertainment to inspire and motivate them to be their best.” It also raised money for the Hunter care Foundation, which was founded by a pornography performer to “provide psychological and financial support to families of adult entertainers in the event of severe and catastrophic illness and the associated medical bills.”

Like Big Tobacco, Big Porn obviously seeks several purposes through such philanthropy: to reform its public image from smut to something more wholesome; to associate pornography in the public mind — somehow — with the idea of benefiting the young; and, of course, to engage in what might be called surreptitious advertising, as did the cigarette makers of yesterday with their own largess.

Also like those cigarette makers, pornographers seek to subsidize public ideas that will make the world safer for their product. The money flowing to various libertarian organizations from the X-rated industry is a matter of public record. This is not to suggest anything nefarious — though it is interesting to note that in retrospect, a great many people think of Big Tobacco’s philanthropy as just that. But the lack of comment on such associations involving pornography does underline that society is currently adopting a different conflict-of-interest standard for the pornography industry than it does for cigarette makers.

The Playboy Foundation seeks similarly to influence the climate of ideas via philanthropy. One of its avenues is grants to non-profits involved in “fighting censorship” and “researching sexuality.” It also bestows $10,000 “Hefner First Amendment Awards” under a distinguished panel of judges drawn from the highest reaches of academia and public organizations.7 In 2008 the foundation also announced the creation of an annual $25,000 “Freedom of Expression Award.” Since 1965, according to the foundation’s director, it has disbursed $20 million in grants and in-kind contributions “to organizations concerned with First Amendment freedoms, civil liberties and social justice.”

In all these ways, pornography purveyors seem to follow the philanthropic trail of yesterday’s tobacco industry. As Richard Kluger noted in another recent history called Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris, the tobacco industry

counterattacked [its critics] broadly by declaring smoking to be a civil and human right that the cigarette-haters were out to crush. . . . the industry called out for tolerance of their customers’ lifestyle preferences and “individual choice” — a thinly coded pitch to ally smokers with other abused minorities and casting smoking control advocates as bullies, not just busybodies and killjoys.8

Also like tobacco before it, the pornography industry makes inroads into one specific and perhaps problematic demographic: kids. mtv, for example, recently announced the launch of a Stan Lee-Hugh Hefner collaboration called Hef’s Superbunnies, a cartoon featuring Playboy bunnies. Numerous games available on xbox and PlayStation feature pornographic themes, including those that lack an “Adult” rating.

There are also the forays that the pornography industry enjoys into the hip-hop culture, another genre popular among some adolescents and recognized by many children. In 2001 Snoop Dogg became the first major hip-hop entertainer to preside over a feature-length commercial pornography video. Many related ventures have hit the market since. “The fresh music,” in the words of the president of Video Team, which released a video called “Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz American Sex Series,” “brings people who are primarily fans of hip-hop to the adult genre. We get a lot of customers that we might not otherwise get.”9

These and other ventures into the youth market are among the ways in which Big Porn seems to be following, unbidden, some of Big Tobacco’s historical scripts. When the industry piously denounces child pornography, one hears echoes of the many tobacco company avowals against teenage smoking. When it drapes its product in the First Amendment, similar echoes from yesterday about a constitutional “right” to smoke abound. When it depicts its foes as simple-minded Puritans intent on depriving the rest of the world of innocent pleasure, the pornography industry sounds exactly like cigarette executives of yesterday.

Whether in its philanthropy or its edgy marketing to juveniles, its use of celebrities or its march beneath the banner of the First Amendment, the pornography industry’s corporate hope seems identical to what tobacco’s was yesterday: to influence public opinion toward the normalization and social acceptance of its product.

Politics gone wild?

The real wild card in comparing pornography today and tobacco yesterday can be summarized in a single word: politics.

Unlike tobacco, which was traditionally defended by a coalition of libertarians and politicians from conservative tobacco-growing Southern states, pornography’s most prominent defenders in the public sphere — including its industry spokesmen —  associate themselves with the progressive wing of Democratic Party politics. It is hard to imagine Henry Waxman, for example — one of the most voracious elected officials in pursuit of the tobacco companies — adopting any similar animus toward Big Pornography. It is equally hard to imagine the Obama administration taking much of an interest in prosecuting obscenity — if indeed its members even believe that obscenity as such can exist. The recent ascension to the No. 2 slot in the Justice Department of a lawyer who in private practice had numerous times defended Playboy, Penthouse, the largest distributor of pornographic videos, and other pornographers just emphasizes the point.

Even so, the current ideological consensus binding liberal Democrats and feminists to civil libertarians and pornography money may prove in retrospect to be more tenuous than its current partners understand. In particular, the libertarian defense of internet pornography that has been ratified by some leading feminists would appear to be on a collision course with the empirical reality of pornography’s harms. Just as secondhand smoke finally shattered the “so-what?” social consensus about tobacco, so might the potential harms to others — marriages, jobs, and relationships disrupted; loved ones and children inadvertently exposed — ultimately threaten to deep-six the current “so-what?” consensus about pornography.

Almost everyone today thinks that the public-health campaign against smoking was worth it. This includes many who resented it at the time, and even some people who still smoke. That is the real, and deepest, measure of the victory of the anti-smoking campaign. Whatever their personal feelings about that campaign yesterday, just about everyone today would agree that tomorrow’s generation of kids — at least, of American kids — will be better off for not smoking at the same rates that many of their parents and grandparents did.

For similar reasons, what seems unremarkable today — accepting pornography industry money for one’s charity, say, or serving as judges on Big Porn’s award committees, or as “experts” on behalf of its claim that the product does not create addiction or dependency — may seem unreal, and perhaps even noxious, tomorrow. As a corollary, the psychologists and other experts on whom Big Porn depends today may yet live to see their efforts reviled by a future public — just as many people who once aided the tobacco industry, whether paid or not, are viewed unfavorably through contemporary eyes. Such a turnaround consensus against internet pornography may seem a long way off in 2009. But then again, so did our own “neo-puritanical” anti-tobacco world to the smokers of 1964.

None of this is to say that much will happen overnight to current levels of internet pornography consumption, or even that such consumption has reached its peak. The stigmatization, de-stigmatization, and re-stigmatization of behaviors moves slowly compared to the rhythms of any individual, even any given chain of generations. Even so, and despite today’s sophisticated consensus about the harmlessness of internet pornography, it is not hard to imagine a future consensus that casts a far colder eye on that substance than does our own — including for reasons that we in 2009 are only just beginning to understand.

1  Time magazine reporter Pamela Paul, in her 2005 book Pornified, writes that our culture has become just that.

2   For more on Betty and Jennifer, see “Is Food the New Sex?,” Policy Review153 (February & March 2009).

3  See particularly the writings of Albert C. Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, emphasizing the importance of pornography in today’s pastoral care, available at (this and subsequent online references accessed March 17, 2009).


5   See, for example, Norman Doidge, a psychoanalyst from Columbia University who treats addicted patients and argues that internet pornography creates a “neo-sexuality”: “Acquiring Tastes and Loves: What Neurolasticity Teaches Us About Sexual Attraction and Love,” in a forthcoming volume from the Witherspoon Institute following its December 2008 conference on “The Social Costs of Pornography.”

6   Quoted in Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America (Basic Books, 2007), 430.

7  Last year, for example, these included David M. Rubin, Dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University; Geoffrey Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at University of Chicago Law School; and Nadine Strossen, President of the American Civil Liberties Union and Professor of Law at New York Law School.

8   Richard Kluger, Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris (Random House, 1997), 681.

9   Martin Edlund, “Music: Hip-hop’s Crossover to The Adult Aisle,” New York Times (March 7, 2004).

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