By David S. Prescott, LICSW
The US State of Louisiana passed a law in 2022 requiring users of pornography websites to upload state-issued identification materials to prove that they are 18 years old or older. Pornhub elected not to conduct further business in that state. More recently, Texas adopted a similar approach. The media attention has been eye-opening. Much of the coverage has noted that only a few pornography devotees have spoken out against these laws, although there have been some discussions of the free-speech implications.
From the outset, Pornhub and other websites that provide easy access to free pornography are not sympathetic players on the world’s stage; not many would rue their downfall. In the past, Pornhub has been the subject of investigations into child sexual abuse imagery and videos shared against the will of participants in them. It is understandable that these laws have met with enthusiasm. A concern remains, however: Are these laws really as effective as we would like to believe? What’s missing?
Virtually all professionals in our field are strongly aligned with not exposing children to sexually explicit materials. Speaking personally as a father, when my own children were growing up, I made considerable efforts to keep them safe from online risks; my heart goes out to parents today. We are so far removed from my generation’s occasional brush sexually explicit materials.
The articles prompt questions:
How will they keep all porn sites from operating in these states. There’s a lot of those websites out there, including related enterprises like OnlyFans, etc. There will be a number of legal issues involved over and above the usual free-speech arguments. It seems that Pornhub is also hiring lawyers and experts for future litigation.
Also, there is so much sexually explicit material in social media (one app actually advertises that it introduces strangers to one another), it’s reasonable to wonder about the intellectual honesty and long-term effectiveness of these laws. Pornhub will go elsewhere, but the issues will not. Much of the material will simply find another host. Are these laws closer to a bandage than a cure? Are our lawmakers doing the best that they can?
Further, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and similar end runs around technology allow users to mask their location. One implication of these technological loopholes is that while these laws may appear to restrict access, the question remains as to how well they actually protect children. Will we ignore the responsibility of adults to be aware of their children’s online activity? To what extent do these laws create a false sense of security? Will some kids simply borrow their parents’ ID?
There is a strangely amusing quality to the restriction. It’s not just any verification process, it’s uploading a government-issued ID… to a porn website! Anyone should think twice before uploading any government-issued ID anywhere, even to a governmental entity! The risks for identity theft are simply too great. Any reasonable person would be wondering who is monitoring my activity, even as we know that websites such as Facebook, Amazon, and numerous government agencies already possess frightening amounts of personal information. Who is storing this photo ID? Further, many government agencies actually discourage sharing government-issued identification online.
Given some recent activities, such as one state’s legislature’s subpoena of the medical records of transgender patients seen at a hospital, one has to wonder where all of this is headed. What sorts of over-reach into people’s private lives may result, including in the name of child safety? It’s not clear that there are any answers at this time.
Finally, if it’s really about the best interests of kids, perhaps legislatures should take other measures as well, such as funding abuse prevention, boosting child welfare agencies, improving education funding, ensuring the wellbeing of people who have abused, and making sure kids in their state have enough to eat.