A Simple Law Is Doing the Impossible. It’s Making the Online Porn Industry Retreat.


Partly because of the things she said, partly because of how she was saying them (she shushed us repeatedly), and partly because we were 16- and 17-year-old boys, neither I nor any of my friends took Dines all that seriously. She seemed completely out of touch.

By the time we were 14 (and many of us younger), we had started watching porn on the internet. Regularly. We had favorite porn stars and we argued over their merits just the way we talked about professional football players we had on our fantasy football teams. To us, it didn’t seem weird that we had seen videos of strangers having rough sex before we had our first kiss. But it was precisely our blasé attitude that alarmed Dines and others who have detailed the many ills that childhood exposure to porn may have wrought, including record numbers of young men having erectile dysfunction. Others have disagreed, disputing the causal link to porn, while not disputing the absurd rise in sexually dysfunctional young men.

Six years later though, while I still find Dines to be overzealous (the porn-to-rape argument feels like a stretch), it’s hard not to question whether the sexualization of everything and the proliferation of internet porn were good for us. Visit any number of massively populated internet forums (combined members 1.4 million) if you don’t understand what I mean; bask in the endless tapestry of loneliness, broken marriages and 20-something-year-old men who can’t get it up for women they’re in love with, but have no trouble when they’re watching videos of strangers.

An important consensus seems to have emerged that childhood exposure to pornography is one of many things negatively affecting the minds of Gen Z. Anxiety is mounting around the country over the devastating and humiliating mental health crisis afflicting my generation. Some blame social media; others chime in to add oversensitivity, overdiagnosis and a therapeutic culture. It hardly seems like a leap to throw limitless internet porn into the blame basket.

As the Louisiana law posits, “Pornography may also impact brain development and functioning, contribute to emotional and medical illnesses, shape deviant sexual arousal, and lead to difficulty in forming or maintaining positive, intimate relationships, as well as promoting problematic or harmful sexual behaviors and addiction.”

That language, though no doubt perfected over weeks, was influenced decisively by the events of Jan. 24, 2022, when Dines, at the behest of Schlegel, spoke on a Zoom call to dozens of Schlegel’s legislative colleagues. “She got, I think, an extra 30 sponsors for the bill after I’d spoken,” Dines bragged.

Maybe it was some young staffer with a sense of humor. On June 30, L. Louise Lucas, the 79-year-old president pro tempore of the Virginia State Senate, wrote on X (the website formerly known as Twitter): “Is anyone else’s Pornhub not working?”

The Democratic state senator, who voted for the age-verification bill, seemed to lament the fact that Pornhub had just ceased to operate in her state. Was it a joke or a sincere question? Lucas’ office wouldn’t clarify. But in a subsequent tweet, Lucas said she was miffed that the state hadn’t found a way to implement the law in a way that wouldn’t have caused Pornhub’s exit.

Lucas’ question could soon be on the lips of residents in the two states (Texas and Montana) in which laws have passed but not gone into effect yet.

To be clear, Pornhub verifies the age of the half a million people who upload content on its site, a policy it implemented following a Nicholas Kristof piece in the New York Times exposing how the website was repeatedly hosting videos of minors being raped, which inspired Visa and MasterCard to stop processing payments on the site. But the site does not verify the ages of the billions of people who use the site and with the exception of Louisiana, it doesn’t plan to start. Rather than ask users to upload their government-issued identification, Pornhub is simply choosing not to offer service at all, citing issues of unconstitutionality, ineffectiveness and privacy risks.

The Free Speech Coalition, the trade group for the adult industry, has already sued Louisiana and Utah, and the rest of the states might be next. “I can’t stress enough that this is First Amendment protected speech,” warned Mike Stabile, director of public affairs for the Free Speech Coalition. As Stabile theorizes, “the legislators have, you know, chosen this as a way to start being able to police the open internet and start to wall it off.”

Plus, the adult industry argues, the age restrictions aren’t effective because people can still use virtual private networks, which mask a computer or smartphone’s true location, or the users can just access non-compliant websites. Indeed, after Pornhub pulled out of Virginia, searches for VPNs spiked in the state. Pornhub also claims that traffic soared for its noncompliant competitors, but it did not respond to repeated requests to see the data.

Whether or not there are legitimate First Amendment issues at play will be a matter for the courts, but there’s no arguing with the effectiveness of the laws. As Stabile explained, age-verification laws make traffic to porn sites drop precipitously. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that nobody wants to upload their driver’s license or passport before watching porn. And, as Stabile added, at a cost to the operators of around 65 cents per verification, age verification is effectively “business-killing.”

To Schlegel, workarounds such as VPNs are like fake IDs. Sure, there are ways for under-21-year-olds to get their hands on liquor, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pass underage drinking laws. Stabile preferred a different analogy: “It’s creating sort of one bar that has all of these regulations and then there’s just alcohol everywhere else lying in the street.”

To state legislatures at least, Schlegel seems to have the more convincing argument. Not only have six states passed copycat legislation, but 16 more have introduced similar or nearly identical bills.

The public is also on her side. “You poll this, it’s like an 85-15 issue,” explained Jon Schweppe, the policy director for the socially conservative think tank American Principles Project. Age-verification for porn is not his think tank’s only priority, but when they poll it against other priorities in swing states, age-verification blows the rest out of the water, with 77 percent in support and 15 percent opposed. Since the popularity is there, Schweppe told me he’s “bullish we can get similar legislation passed in like 10 more states by the end of next year’s session.” They’re also working on getting the Republican presidential candidates to talk about age-verification.

While state legislators and the public seem to be in support, the laws do face at least one powerful, experienced enemy: the ACLU, which has so far said nothing publicly about the laws. Vera Eidelman, ACLU’s senior staff attorney on its Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told me she thinks the laws are obviously unconstitutional. She believes that the Supreme Court’s rulings in Reno v. ACLU (1997) and Ashcroft v. ACLU (2002 and 2004) have made it very clear “that what adults can access can’t be diminished to the level of what’s appropriate in a sandbox for kids.”

“The idea is that [these laws] will burden adults’ access to speech that is protected and they have every right to engage with and to access,” said Eidelman. Even laws that mandate age-verification at the device level (meaning you would just upload your ID or SSN into your phone and it would block adult sites if you were a minor), which Pornhub’s representatives told me they would be in favor of, would be clearly unconstitutional in Eidelman’s view.

So though the ACLU and the $100 billion porn industry are against the laws, they seem to be largely alone in that position. By Jan. 1, 2024 (when the Montana law goes into effect), around 54 million Americans will live in states where they are required to upload their identification to access pornography websites, if those pornography websites choose to operate there at all.





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