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Republicans lead bipartisan efforts to fight porn, forcing industry to retreat in some states

At least seven states have passed legislation restricting pornography access and 16 more have introduced similar bills.

Published: August 13, 2023 11:23pm

Updated: August 14, 2023 1:15am

More than half a dozen Republican-led states have done what previously seemed impossible: Changing the multi-billion-dollar online porn industry through legislation and regulation that stop minors from accessing it.

Louisiana led the charge by becoming the first state to require online pornography users to show a government-issued ID to prove they are 18 or older before accessing pornography.

Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is no fan of the state's Republican super-majority in the legislature, signed the bill restricting pornography access one week after it hit his desk.

"I promise you he has no qualms about vetoing our bills," Republican state Rep. Laurie Schlegel told Politico last week about the pornography bill she sponsored in Louisiana.

Since the bill went into effect in January, traffic on Pornhub dropped 80% in Louisiana, according to Ethical Capital Partners, which owns the adult website. Putting that in perspective, Pornhub is the No. 1 adult website and the No. 12 website in the world, having received more than 2.5 billion visits last month, according to SimilarWeb.com, which monitors internet traffic.

Six other states – Arkansas, Montana, Mississippi, Utah, Virginia and Texas – passed laws restricting minors from accessing pornography since Louisiana passed its law last year. The laws were passed overwhelmingly in the state legislatures by both parties. At least 16 more states introduced similar legislation.

In Utah, Mississippi and Virginia, where porn regulations have been in effect for months, Pornhub simply stopped operating.

Schlegel said she was not motivated by religion or conservative ideology to sponsor a bill regulating pornography access, but it was actually The Howard Stern Show. 

Schlegel saw an article in December 2021 about popstar Billie Eilish’s appearance on the raunchy shock jock's show, when Eilish said: "I used to watch a lot of porn, to be honest. I started watching porn when I was like 11. ... I think it really destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn."

The Louisiana lawmaker is a sex addiction therapist, and she said after listening to Eilish's interview: "I just thought how courageous it was. … It just sort of re-emphasized to me what a problem this is, especially for our children." 

Pornography is widespread from a young age. More than half of teens (54%) said they first saw pornography by the time they reached the age of 13, with the average age that viewers see porn the first time being 12 years old, according to a Common Sense Media survey earlier this year.

The pornography industry is fighting the regulations through a group called the Free Speech Coalition, which has already sued Louisiana and Utah. A federal judge in Utah dismissed the coalition's lawsuit against the state earlier this month.

"I can’t stress enough that this is First Amendment protected speech," Free Speech Coalition Public Affairs Director Mike Stabile said. 

Additionally, the adult industry, which generates between $15 - $97 billion a year, argues that age restrictions can be bypassed by virtual private networks that make it appear as if users are in a different state.

Additionally, ACLU senior staff attorney Vera Eidelman said she thinks the laws are unconstitutional. 

"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," she said.

Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler, who sponsored his state's bill regulating porn access, said, "I understand that, if kids want to see porn, they’re going to see porn," but it will be significantly more difficult "for younger kids who don’t necessarily have access to a VPN."

Follow Madeleine Hubbard on Twitter or Instagram.

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