The Pornography Divide

Joseph Backholm is senior fellow for Biblical worldview and strategic engagement at the Family Research Council. This article appeared in WORLD Magazine on January 11, 2024.

Will age-verification laws define the division between red and blue states?

Laws adopted in several states have done something once thought impossible. They’re causing the pornography industry to retreat. On Jan. 1, North Carolina and Montana joined six other states (Texas, Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Utah, and Mississippi) as age-verification laws went into effect that require proof of age before someone can access online pornography.

Pornhub, one of the world’s largest providers of online smut, responded to the news by shutting off access in those states, citing privacy concerns. Of course, supporters of the law will see Pornhub’s decision as an incentive. It’s no small irony that Pornhub is unwilling to risk the privacy of users by requiring identification while its parent company, MindGeek, faces eight individual and class-action lawsuits for profiting from, among other things, sex-trafficking and rape. While the privacy of those who pay them is apparently very important, the privacy of those they exploit in their content is not.

In addition, Pornhub’s decision to pull out of North Carolina and Montana could also be affected by the fact that when Louisiana passed an age-verification law, total traffic to their website decreased 80 percent. This isn’t because 80 percent of the traffic was from minors but because most adult pornography users don’t want their porn habits connected to their driver’s license.

It is overly simplistic to suggest that a single piece of legislation will solve America’s pornography problem. Those who really want pornography are going to find it, and when it comes to protecting children from human or algorithmic predators online, even the advocates of age-verification laws recognize this is only a first step. But it appears better is possible.

Also encouraging is the fact that limiting access to filth online is a bipartisan issue. In North Carolina, all but eight members of the legislature voted for their new law, and in Virginia, the most purple of the age-verification states, there were only six votes in opposition.

In an increasingly insane world, shreds of sanity remain, perhaps because the harms of early exposure to pornography are so well documented. Pornography makes children more vulnerable to being sexually abused and has been connected to a dramatic increase in children abusing other children. When children are themselves abused, it puts them at greater risk of low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, substance abuse, eating disorders, a lack of trust in adults, and much more.

The documented harms of pornography and the realization that policy could play an important role in preserving childhood innocence raises an interesting question. What happens if some states try, and others don’t? After all, despite the bipartisan support that age-verification bills have received to date, only red states have brought them to a vote. The sexual revolutionaries tend to fluctuate between ambivalent and enthusiastic when it comes to pornography so they shouldn’t be expected to do anything about where they hold power. Which means pornography could become another fault line issue in our ongoing national division.

We know issues like abortion and school choice are setting states on very different paths, but it’s possible that pornography laws will make the greatest difference of all. Just imagine the difference if a generation of children in one state has little to no access to online pornography while children in another state have unrestricted access. Though it’s difficult to know the full impact of this difference over time, it is not difficult to know which environment will be better. Throw in universal school choice and it is also easy to imagine families with young children moving from one place to another for a markedly better life.

So, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, there are common sense things we can do to protect our children and if we do them the smut industry may help our cause by walking away. The bad news is, some states may not care if children are constantly exposed to pornography—which means the rest of us will have to decide if we want to live in a porn state or choose a better option.