In the following excerpt from the book Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, author Mary Eberstadt compares public attitudes towards tobacco and pornography.
To get a sense of just how drastically the social consensus about each has changed, let us invoke the imaginary exam- ples of Betty, a thirty-year-old housewife in 1958; and Jennifer, her thirty-year-old granddaughter today. Like many of her friends, and also like her husband, Barney, Betty smokes cigarettes. She does so unself-consciously 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 expedi- ency (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.
Now consider Betty's view of a different substance that is as rare in her own life as cigarettes are plentiful— pornography. Compared to the generations about to follow her, she really has not 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. In general, though, 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— this 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 that Playboy and all it stands for 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 do not.
Now consider the very different case of thirty-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 mor- ally wrong. She also believes that everyone should feel as she does about it, though obviously many people do not.
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 would not have thought possible. As part of that experience, Jennifer knows far more than Betty could have about pornography.
Jennifer's attitude toward this substance 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, "as a couple". On the outside, Jennifer goes along with this gracefully enough. On the inside, though, she is not so sure she likes this stuff—more precisely, that she likes Jason liking it. One thing she is certain of, though, is that Jason knows far more about pornography than she does.
Even so, and despite her occasional misgivings, 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. On the other hand, Jennifer would never dream of put- ting 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.
Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution is available from Ignatius Press