Sir: Our attitudes towards sex and marriage may well have changed over time, as Professor Carol Smart suggests ("Has adultery become a spurious issue?" 22 May), but the current stance taken by the popular media in its reporting of adultery is no recent development.
From the late 17th century, notorious court cases involving sexual scandal were the subject of cheap pamphlets which seem to have sold in considerable numbers. Their publishers, like today's newspaper editors, would employ hacks to expose adulterous affairs through voyeuristic eyewitness reports and incriminating letters: the more explicit the better. By the 18th century, this form of journalism frequently verged on the pornographic, making today's tabloids seem prudish in comparison. Yet, as in the popular press today, such salacious detail was interspersed with condemnatory moralising. The exposure of the adulterers and their shameful acts was sometimes held up as the working of divine providence while also serving as a warning to readers not to fall into such depraved habits themselves.
The rhetoric of today's popular media has changed, but its blending of titillation with moral righteousness draws on a tradition dating back at least 300 years.
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