At the start of the year, a new law went into effect in Louisiana that requires online publishers to conduct age verification checks if their site's content is more than 33.3% pornography.
In accordance with this law, Pornhub now requires visitors to verify their age with the LA Wallet app, a digital wallet for Louisiana state driver's licenses. Other popular adult websites haven't instituted age checks yet, according to Motherboard. But per the new law, porn sites can be sued for damages that result from a minor's access to such content. TechCrunch reached out to Pornhub for comment.
"Due to advances in technology, the universal availability of the internet, and limited age verification requirements, minors are exposed to pornography earlier in age," the legislation says. "Pornography contributes to the hyper-sexualization of teens and prepubescent children and may lead to low self-esteem, body image disorders, an increase in problematic sexual activity at younger ages, and increased desire among adolescents to engage in risky sexual behavior."
This legislation was authored by Representative Laurie Schlegel (R-LA), who also advocated for legislation that made it illegal for transgender teens to participate in school sports in accordance with their gender identity. Before taking office in 2021, Schlegel worked as a sex addiction counselor.
A sex worker, professor, and research fellow at UCLA's Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, Olivia Snow describes these age verification checks as part of a "sex panic." Even though this legislation states that sites that conduct age verification cannot retain identifying information, Snow believes that porn consumers may still fear data breaches, which is a very valid concern.
Websites like Pornhub and OnlyFans require performers to prove their age and identity as a way of cracking down on nonconsensual content and child sexual abuse material (CSAM). But if consumers are required to hand over legal documents in order to watch porn, they might seek out other sites, where the content might not be as well-vetted.
"It's really just further marginalizing sex workers, which I think is going to be the primary effect," Snow told TechCrunch. "I imagine this means that there will be an increased black market of premium content that's non-consensually disseminated."
Legislation like Louisiana's Act 440, as well as SESTA/FOSTA, are positioned as advocating for children's safety. But in practice, this legislation usually just makes it more difficult for sex workers to do their jobs safely. Plus, in some cases, these laws have actually made it more difficult for law enforcement to curb sex trafficking.
In 2018, the Department of Justice's seized Backpage.com, which sex workers used as a tool to help them vet in-person clients. When the site was shut down for money laundering and sex trafficking, Indiana police said that it became more difficult for them to catch people running sex trafficking operations.
Snow says Act 440 "is likely to also have an effect similar to that of Backpage coming down, which is, you know, just sex workers losing another stream of income and having to resort to less protected avenues."
In 2020, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proposed to the Senate a study on the secondary effects of SESTA/FOSTA on sex workers.
"Sex workers have reported a reduced ability to screen potential clients for safety, and negotiate for boundaries such as condom use, resulting in reports of physical and sexual violence," the bill says. "Many sex workers have turned to street-based work, which has historically involved higher rates of violence than other forms of transactional sex."
Snow describes the act of requiring people to upload their ID to watch porn as surveillance. In the most extreme cases, she says this kind of surveillance can harm LGBTQ populations.
"As homophobia and transphobia -- especially homophobia in the context of porn -- is rising, I could totally see the state zeroing in on people consuming gay porn, or lesbian porn, and either surveilling them further or criminalizing that," she said. In the text of Act 440, the bill warns that pornography can inspire "deviant sexual arousal" but does not define what "deviant" means.
"Trans women are disproportionately represented in sex work," said Snow. "I don't know if that's a conscious decision for lawmakers, or if that's just circumstantial, but I think trans women sex workers, as usual, will be the most affected."
For years, the U.K. government has been working on an online safety bill, which has been in limbo due to continual leadership changes. As it stands, the bill could institute similar age checks that would require users to verify their age before accessing sexually explicit content.
In the past, the U.K. government has tried to enforce age checks on porn sites, but dropped the plan in 2019 due to concerns about the technical and regulatory challenges of mandating age verification, as well as privacy concerns. Now, age checks in the U.K. are up for consideration once again.
In any case, we won't be surprised if a bunch of Louisiana residents suddenly express interest in learning how to use a VPN.