‘The Whole World Is Waking Up’: Anti-Porn Age Verification Laws See Sweeping Success Nationwide

Legislators are acknowledging how much American youth have been harmed by the scourge of online exposure to pornography.

Several states that passed the bills last year will start enforcing them in just a few weeks — Kansas, Indiana, and Idaho’s laws will take effect on July 1.
Several states that passed the bills last year will start enforcing them in just a few weeks — Kansas, Indiana, and Idaho’s laws will take effect on July 1. (photo: MooreMedia / Shutterstock)

Pop music star Billie Eilish made headlines in 2019 when she revealed that she was exposed to pornography at a young age.

“I think porn is a disgrace. I used to watch a lot of porn, to be honest. I started watching porn when I was, like, 11,” she said. “I think it really destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn.”

For many, Eilish’s disclosure was the first time they realized that exposure to pornography affects children as young as grade school. But many lawmakers and policy analysts thought there wasn’t anything the government could do about it.

“The data is clear: This is something that is a problem for America's children,” Michael Toscano, executive director of the Institute for Family Studies, told the Register. “What we were finding was so disastrous that we thought, ‘We have to do something about it.’”

Fast forward five years and dozens of states have passed strict age verification laws for websites that publish adult content with sweeping bipartisan support. More are considering similar legislation, and courts across the nation have upheld these laws against the onslaught of lawsuits from pornography companies. Pornhub, the largest distributor of adult content, has blocked access to its own site out of protest in many states where these laws have taken effect.


What Are Age Verification Laws?

Age verification bills require that companies that sell or promote goods and services that minors are banned from purchasing confirm the customer’s age by checking a government-issued ID. Some also utilize biometrics and facial recognition to confirm that the person logging on is who they claim to be.

“The goal is to replicate that experience of walking into a brick-and-mortar store, where an employee has to determine if the person is of age, and they get really close with the ID scan,” National Decency Coalition Executive Director Ricky Darr told the Register.

Darr’s organization helps legislators enact age verification laws, and tracks bills around the country. He said many websites that sell nicotine products or alcohol use age verification, and now online pornography retailers should be subject to the same rules as their physical counterparts.

“It’s just that pornography has been last on the list to comply,” Darr said.

So far 19 states have passed age verification laws, and 14 more are considering legislation. Pornhub blocked users in eight states in protest: Utah, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia.


Why It’s Important

Toscano and his team at the Institute for Family Studies were among the first to look for a legal solution to issues with online dependence — porn related and otherwise — they saw afflicting families. He recalled a 2019 talk he gave in Virginia about the importance of instilling in children respect and desire for marriage.

“Afterward, we were surrounded by about 10 or 12 moms and they said, ‘Well, thank you for your message — it’s very, very important, and we agree. But my kids are addicted to their phones,’ or, ‘My son has a pornography problem,’ or, ‘My son can’t get off of social media. My daughter is depressed because she’s on Instagram all day. Can you help us?” Toscano recalled.

According to statistics compiled by Covenant Eyes, an online accountability software, 51% of male students and 32% of female students first viewed pornography before their teenage years. The average age of exposure for males was 12 years old. The American College of Pediatricians links early exposure to pornography to poor mental health, low self-esteem and a distorted view of the opposite sex.


State of Play 

Louisiana was the first state to pass an age verification law for pornography distributors in 2022. After it took effect in January 2023, Pornhub’s parent company, Aylo, released a statement that said the site’s traffic took a massive hit.

Many states have copied Louisiana’s legislation, with a few like Texas and Tennessee adding stricter enforcement. Several states that passed the bills last year will start enforcing them in just a few weeks — Kansas, Indiana, and Idaho’s laws will take effect on July 1. 

This storm of legislation is spurred by the fact that these bills are popular and successful, and state lawmakers are eager to pass a bill that can break through the bureaucracy. Each bill has passed with broad bipartisan support, and even deep blue states like California are considering their own age verification bills. 

“It has become a bipartisan issue,” Toscano said. “Blue states are also pursuing regulations on this issue at the same time as places like Utah, Texas, Florida. What’s happening right now is the whole world is waking up to something that I think we all knew in the back of our minds.” 

While age verification is a successful legislation topic, there are still states where it has failed. Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbes vetoed an age verification law after it was passed by the state Legislature over privacy concerns. Alaska, Minnesota, West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire and others all either rejected the bills or let them expire with the legislative session.


Enforcement Measures

As age-verification laws are introduced in dozens of state houses, few states have tacked on stricter enforcement. Most states are relying on private lawsuits and fines to keep pornography distributors accountable, but violating Tennessee’s law can result in criminal charges.

Emboldened by the success of the laws, Texas has taken it a step further and gone on the offensive against violators. Attorney General Ken Paxton has a task force dedicated to compliance investigations and suing violators.

Jonathan Covey, policy director at Texas Values, helped to advise the government on this strategy.

“The attorney general’s office has done a good job about being proactive, to follow up and make sure that these companies are in compliance, because a lot of them won’t do it without some sort of investigation,” Covey told the Register.

If online pornography sites are found in violation of the law as a result of the attorney general’s probe, they can face $10,000 per violation — a crippling amount of money for websites with hundreds of thousands of users. This differs from other states which are relying on private lawsuits for enforcement.

Texas won a groundbreaking victory in a Fifth Circuit court of appeals decision in March in a lawsuit brought by the Free Speech Coalition (the name of the trade association of pornography sites). The court applied a standard of rational basis rather than strict scrutiny, under which other age verification laws had been deemed unconstitutional. 

 “Applying rational-basis review, the age-verification requirement is rationally related to the government’s legitimate interest in preventing minors’ access to pornography,” the court explained. “Therefore, the age-verification requirement does not violate the First Amendment.”

In April, the Supreme Court denied the Free Speech Coalition’s appeal to block the law and upheld the Fifth Circuit’s decision.


Free Speech?

The pornography lobby’s defense relies on two arguments: free speech and privacy. 

The Free Speech Coalition claims age verification laws are “ineffective, unconstitutional, and dangerous.” “Ineffective” because they allegedly won’t prevent minors from accessing sexually graphic content, which they often encounter on regular social media or can bypass the checks with a virtual private network. 

It’s “unconstitutional” because it says even content harmnful to minors counts as free speech, and “dangerous” because minors instead access shadier websites that “are not bound by U.S. law.”

But those who spoke to Register said the free speech defense is flimsy, especially with the Supreme Court upholding the Fifth Circuit’s rational basis legal test. Obscenity is one of the few forms of speech not protected by the First Amendment, and the rational basis standard would classify hardcore pornography as obscenity. 

“They don’t have a free speech right to addict children to their pornography,” Toscano said. “And we should remember that their aims are not out of a belief and in the right of these kids to access pornography — the purpose is to secure time on the platform.”

As for privacy concerns, Toscano said the third-party age-verification platforms have improved dramatically in recent years. They erase data as soon as the age is verified


Social Media Platforms

While age-verification laws have mainly focused on pornography sites, there’s a movement to introduce them to social media platforms, as well. With studies and common sense linking social media consumption to depression and anxiety in teens and tweens, some, including psychologist and author Jonathan Heidt, have floated the idea of banning children under the age of 16 from platforms like Instagram.

The Free Speech Coalition points out that 18% of teenagers are exposed to adult content on social media.

To combat this, Utah is considering a law that would require obscenity filters to be automatically switched on for minors’ social media accounts, and be difficult to turn off without parental consent.

But parents, communities, and the Catholic Church need to remain vigilant, and take the lead on educating and protecting children from pornography, Toscano said.

“I hope that the Church will start speaking on behalf of the rights of families to not be enslaved to these technologies,” Toscano said. “The Church should be exhorting their congregants, not only to not give their kids this stuff. But this is going to be more radical. The Church should start exhorting its members to not invest and profit off of the addiction and enslavement of kids to these devices. 

“But all that to say there is no silver bullet,” he said. “We need the Church. We need families. The situation is so dire.”

This story was updated after posting to clarify American College of Pediatricians statement.