07/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Like Big Tobacco, Big Porn Peddles Poison to Children

The first time I watched anonymous, naked bodies entangled in sweaty sex was during my junior year of college. My flushed-face was riveted to the screen. The psychology course called "Human Sexuality" was so popular at Virginia Commonwealth University I'd taken the class during summer break. Fall and spring semesters filled too fast. No surprise. Porn flicks were a feature of the curriculum. I had perfect attendance.

This was the 1980s. The internet as we know it was only a figment of Al Gore's genius. But with today's broadband you don't have to go to a lecture hall or a seedy theater on Richmond's West Grace Street to see three-ways, four-ways or other sexually explicit forays. Neither do our kids. Any 14-year-old knows this. With Wi-Fi capable Xbox 360s, PSPs, iPhones, laptops, desktops, whatever, hardcore porn doesn't require college accreditation, cellophane wrapping or proof of age. No credit card, Paypal account or adolescent embarrassment is necessary. Just click the little box on the website that says you're 18 or older (You double promise? I double do) and you're granted instant access. Any time you feel bored, anxious, insecure or lonely (staples of youth) come back for a quick fix. Like the rush? The red light is on 24/7.

Web filters? Sure, they make us parents feel better. But children know enough about search engines, tags, cookies, security overrides and unprotected Wi-Fi hotspots to turn "parental controls" into a misnomer. If your kid doesn't, you can bet (s)he has a friend or a friend of a friend who does. So it's a good chance that before kids have a chance to fully grasp the difference between lust and love and negotiate the impulses of puberty, they're being exposed to sex as defined by its internet acronyms, e.g., BDSM, MILF, BBW, GILF.

Don't know what those mean? Paste any or all into Google. If you want, cut and paste the entire string using Google's strictest "SafeSearch" filter, the setting that declares without a doubt that it will block "web pages containing explicit sexual content."

I'll wait.


Yeah, now you know.

Last Monday President Obama signed into law landmark legislation that gives the feds all power to regulate the marketing of tobacco products. In a Rose Garden event decorated with children, Obama told us why the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was better late than never. "One out of every five children in our country are now current smokers by the time they leave high school," he said. "Each day, one thousand young people under age eighteen become new, regular, daily smokers. ... I was one of these teenagers, and so I know how difficult it can be to break this habit."

By all accounts, Big Tobacco crossed the line decades ago when it went after our children with what Obama called "a constant and insidious barrage" of advertising. The nicotine capitalists knew effective marketing. If they could hook us early our lungs (and wallets) might be stained for life. However long and diminished that life might be.

By contrast, internet porn dwarfs tobacco in scope, availability and constant, insidious advertising. Its reach is so broad it cannot be quantified. Riding radio waves through countries that attempt to block it with various filters (e.g., India, China, Cuba, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.) and those that defer to free speech and the ACLU, it jumps around like live electrical wiring. Any attempt to track it is futile. A YouTube video with 7.7 million views appears to reveal hard facts about it (e.g., every second 28,258 internet users are viewing porn; every second $89 is spent on internet porn; every day 266 new porn sites appear online; 35 percent of internet downloads are porn), but its calculations are drawn from data circa 2005-2007. In the Wild West of the internet that's a generation ago. More telling, the video is a marriage of legit mainstream U.S. media (GOOD Magazine, nominated for two 2008 National Magazine Awards) and a British porn star (Kelle Marie, nominated for the 2009 Adult Video News Best All-Girl Sex Scene).

The best evidence of porn' reach is maybe anecdotal and live. As I type this sentence on Thursday, June 25 at 4:25 p.m. EDT, there are 31,709 viewers spread among the 1,056 webcams of a single, unremarkable website. Most of the webcams are transmitting free, live sex acts (solo, couple, group, straight, gay, shemale) from the homes of the United States, Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Thailand and beyond. With a web domain listed in Florida, an IP address in Toronto and its owner registration in Amsterdam, the website is an example of modern globalization. And to view it I didn't have to log in, give my name, age, e-mail, phone, credit card, nothing. That's one porn website, not even a highly ranked one when scored by Amazon's internet traffic counter (No, I will not give you the website's URL. Ask your kid to Google the information I just provided.)

We need not argue about what constitutes "porn" or "addiction." Both are moot points here. Every hour and day that children spend engrossed in the "mature" websites yielded by Google "SafeSearch" is one more habit-forming hour or day. In the short term, grades, athletics, friendships and talents are diminished. Long term, it could be their family life, careers and overall potential.

In the April/May issue of Policy Review, Hoover Institution fellow Mary Eberstadt compares today's general ambivalence toward porn to our long-ago indifference to tobacco. Different products, stark similarities. Consumers of pornography like consumers of tobacco, she points out, explain their habits with near-identical, flawed rationalization:

"Everybody does it." "At least I'm not consuming something worse." "I'm not affecting anyone but myself."

Eberstadt writes, "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."

When the naked greed of Big Tobacco was belatedly called to task by Capitol Hill in the 1990s its CEOs flaunted corporate wealth. As Obama said last Monday, they spent "millions upon millions" to lobby Congress and attempt to polish tobacco's public image. In ads and testimony the lies and denials were emphatic. Heavens no, children were not a target of tobacco marketing. No, nicotine is not addictive. Oh, it is? No, we did not know it was addictive. On and on. The root of all evil knows no shame.

Today, like R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris before it, Big Porn peddles more than product. It wields influence. Corporate heavyweights such as General Motors, AT&T, AOL Time-Warner, Comcast Cable, and hotel chains Marriott, Sheraton and the Hilton have in the past or do now get their cut of porn's mind-boggling profits. By extension, so do stockholders.

Federal legislation intended to shorten porn's internet reach has been repeatedly knocked down on constitutional grounds. Billed as a tool to keep minors from being exposed to explicit sexuality, the failed Child Online Protection Act would've made it illegal for anyone to display or broadcast porn on a website that didn't require an access code or proof of age. Supreme Court justices thought the law overreached and that the same objective could be accomplished by good parenting and web filters. The ACLU argued that the law would be useless anyhow. It didn't have the authority to regulate the content of foreign-based websites. So eleven years after President Clinton championed it and President Bush attempted to resurrect it, the law has never been enforced. In January it died when the Supreme Court refused to hear further appeals.

Eberstadt, for one, is not hopeful that Obama will pick up the sword. Obama's deputy attorney general is David Ogden, a fellow Harvard Law School alum who has won censorship cases in favor of Big Porn and who unsuccessfully argued against the web filters required by law for computers in public schools and libraries.

Of the poison that Big Tobacco peddled unchecked to our kids, Obama said on Monday, "We've known about this for decades, but despite the best efforts and good progress made by so many leaders and advocates ... the tobacco industry and its special interest lobbying have generally won the day up on the Hill."

Finally, the Hill has fought back.

Heaven help us if it takes as long to defeat Big Porn.