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How Age Verification Laws Protect Young People from Online Pornography

In 2023, Louisiana became the first state in the U.S. to pass an age verification law restricting access to pornography websites by users under 18 years of age. The goal is to prevent children and teenagers from viewing explicit and potentially harmful sexual content. To date, 15 other states have followed suit, while dozens of others have introduced similar bills.

Aylo, the parent company of Pornhub, the leading adult content site in the world, argues the legislation goes against the First Amendment and therefore refuses to introduce the required age verification tools. To avoid potential liability, Aylo has chosen to block access to Pornhub entirely in the majority of states that have passed legislation.

“The porn industry has hijacked the lives of our young people, and before age verification legislation, it operated in a virtually unregulated space,” said Gail Dines, Founder & CEO of Culture Reframed. “Culture Reframed and age verification laws share the same goal of bringing to the forefront a science-based, nuanced, and deeper understanding of why it is time to advocate for a porn-free world for our young people.”

Dines played a pivotal role in driving support for the legislation passed in Louisiana, sharing with lawmakers the harrowing facts about pornography’s impact on young people that Culture Reframed has been gathering and presenting for nearly a decade. In this interview, she discusses the importance of age verification legislation, responds to its criticisms, and highlights why we need to take action to address the harms of pornography to young people.

How were you involved in the age verification law passed in Louisiana in 2023?

Gail Dines: In 2021, I got a call from Louisiana State Representative Laurie Schlegel to discuss the ways legislators could advocate for an age verification law to prevent minors from accessing mainstream hardcore porn sites. Such laws were being proposed across Europe, and representative Schlegel, a certified sex therapist, was seeing the negative impact of pornography in her practice. She was particularly concerned about children viewing such material because research shows it can be especially destructive to young people.

After seeing my TEDx talk and reading some of my articles, Schlegel asked if I would give a presentation to help build awareness among her colleagues. In January 2022, I spoke via Zoom to the bipartisan Louisiana Women’s Caucus. I discussed the content of mainstream porn on sites such as Pornhub and the research findings on how porn undermines the healthy social, emotional, cognitive, and sexual development of young people.

According to Representative Schlegel, the audience was shocked at just how hardcore today’s porn had become and how easy it was for young people to access such material. After my presentation, a substantial number of Schlegel’s colleagues offered support, and the age verification law was enacted in January 2023. To date, at least 15 other states have passed a similar law. Representative Schlegel has been a trailblazer in helping make the Internet safer for young people. I am delighted that Culture Reframed was a part of this much-needed shift in how we think about regulating the porn industry.

Is age verification legislation an effective means of reducing young people’s access to pornography? Why or why not?

Gail Dines: Our best assessment is that these legislative bills will go a long way toward reducing children’s access to online pornography. That is what we need: Efforts to decrease their exposure to violent sexual content and, therefore, to the harms children would otherwise incur. We can’t determine the effectiveness until at least a few years have passed and, more importantly, until we have access to credible data on the ages of pornographic viewership.

There is existing evidence to suggest that well-designed age verification tools will prove effective. Many products and services available to adults today — including some that are scientifically proven to be harmful to minors — require proof of age before purchase or access, such as alcohol, firearms, tobacco, fireworks, lottery tickets, and more. Minors are not allowed entrance into bars or casinos. Nor can they cast votes, serve on juries, rent apartments, open bank accounts, change their names, obtain credit cards, and more. Outlets that sell or provide these products, many of which are online, all have age verification systems. They are largely effective when — and this is crucial — the laws are enforced and the systems regularly tested by authorities.

People who oppose these laws argue that age verification systems are not foolproof. What is your response to the criticism?

Gail Dines: A common response to these laws is that computer-savvy kids will devote considerable efforts to finding a way around age verification. Doubtless, some will succeed, just as some minors and adults have hacked or spoofed their way through all manner of protected systems. No system is entirely foolproof, so it is illogical to argue from the possibility of a few breaches that these systems are inherently flawed and, thus, ultimately ineffective.

These laws do not specify any particular type of age gate, just that pornographic websites put one in place. There is a booming industry of tech firms developing sophisticated and reliable software. It takes some of these systems only a few seconds to verify the age of a person who takes and uploads a live selfie while holding an official ID. The technology will evolve, and a changing ecosystem that seeks to block minors from accessing porn is more effective than no system at all.

What is Culture Reframed’s view on the argument that this legislation goes against the First Amendment?

Gail Dines: Culture Reframed does not endorse or promote censorship. Age verification laws do not seek to ban pornography or make it illegal. These laws aim only to prevent children from gaining access. And although the pornography industry would have you believe that Culture Reframed is an organization of fundamentalist “anti-sex” zealots, nothing could be further from the truth. Culture Reframed is a secular organization whose work is at all times anchored to peer-reviewed scientific knowledge and publications. It is pornography that we oppose, not sex. Culture Reframed strongly promotes the mandatory teaching of age-appropriate, gender-inclusive, racially and ethnically diverse, scientifically-based sexual education across the curriculum in all schools.

How does the age verification legislation in the U.S. align with Culture Reframed’s mission?

Gail Dines: The age verification legislation mirrors our mission by preventing emotional, behavioral, and sexual harm from pornography to children and youth. As a science-based organization, we aim to raise awareness among parents and professionals about these documented harms and provide presentations, training, and consultation to a host of governmental and non-governmental organizations.

There are numerous ways to raise awareness, and legislation is one powerful way. It alerts lawmakers to the ways that mainstream pornography has become more violent, cruel, and debasing. The media follow-up from these laws has reached millions and has helped shift the narrative on porn, highlighting its destructive impact rather than just being seen as harmless fun.

Similar to the response in Louisiana, many of the groups we present to are shocked by the degree to which these hardcore images have become the wallpaper of young people’s digital lives and the ways a predatory industry is shaping their sexual template. Following our presentations, many of the audience members feel compelled to take action to address these harms. What happened in Louisiana is a stellar example of how the work of Culture Reframed moves people to action.

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