A wave of proposed legislation pushed by Republicans across the US at the state level is aimed at outlawing aspects of sexuality that could have a huge impact on Americans’ private lives and businesses.
Opponents to the laws before legislatures in various states say the planned new legislation could spawn prosecution of breast-pump companies in Texas for nipples on advertising, or a bookstore might be banned from selling romance novels in West Virginia, or South Carolina could imprison standup comics if a risque joke is heard by a young person.
The bills are part of a post-Roe nationwide strategy by the religious wing of the Republican party, now that federal abortion rights have fallen. They range from banning all businesses that sell sex-related goods to anti-drag queen bills. Tyler Dees, an Arkansas state senator who wrote an anti-porn bill said: “I would love to outlaw it all,” referring to porn.
The most prevalent bills relate to age verification of sex-related websites. Seventeen states drafted porn age-verification bills, many inspired by Louisiana’s law that went into effect in January. Louisiana’s law requires websites featuring 33.33% or more pornographic content to check government-issued ID to verify users are 18 and older. Websites that don’t comply face civil penalties. Parents can sue the site if kids access it.
In Texas, a new bill requiring age verification on websites with pornographic content defines images of the female breast “below the top of the areola” as porn, potentially hitting at business advertisements. In West Virginia, a bill outlawing all sexually oriented businesses is on the docket, with a definition that includes art studios with nude models and wrestling arenas. In South Carolina a bill would criminalize using “profane language” related to “sexual or excretory organs or activities” in front of minors during performances. The punishment? Up to a decade in prison.
Some bills define porn so broadly that anatomy textbooks or sex education websites would meet them.
“I don’t think such laws for the internet are constitutional,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor of Law at UCLA.
Laurie Schlegel, a Republican state senator who drafted the Louisiana law, is a sex-addiction therapist educated at Baptist seminary, who opposed transgender students from being on sports teams that align with their gender. Schlegel’s anti-LGBTQ+ views fit with the broader goal of the laws, according to Carolyn Bronstein, a professor of media studies at DePaul University.
“These laws are really not about controlling minors’ access to violent pornography … In the conservative world view, pornography is information about LGBTQ identity, abortion, gay marriage,” said Bronstein.
Eight states have justified their actions by saying that porn is “creating a public health crisis”. Louisiana’s bill claims that pornography “may lead to low self-esteem, body image disorders, an increase in problematic sexual activity at younger ages … impact brain development … shape deviant sexual arousal, and lead to difficulty in forming or maintaining positive, intimate relationships, as well as promoting problematic or harmful sexual behaviors and addiction.”
Historian Whitney Strub, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, doesn’t think these ideas are well-founded. “Framing pornography as a public health crisis is not driven by serious engagement with the social scientific literature,” he said. “They’ve even got fake peer-reviewed journals that give the imprimatur of scholarship … It’s been a very smart rebranding of evangelical Christian conservatism.”
Why are all these bills being proposed now? Strub thinks it’s partly because of the overturning of Roe v Wade. “Abortion gave a certain coherence to conservative politics in the United States. And it certainly still does … but they’re in the position of Ahab if he slayed the white whale … I mean, there’s no more Moby-Dick.”
There is hypocrisy on display also.
In many of the states where the anti-porn bills are being put forth, minors can legally have sex and get married. “In Louisiana, you can have sex when you’re 17 with a person in their 30s, but you can’t watch porn,” said Jason Kelley, associate director of digital strategy for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
In Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, the age of consent is 16. With parental permission, Mississippi allows 15-year-olds to marry, Louisiana 16-year-olds, Arkansas 17-year-olds, and West Virginia kids of any age.
Dees, who wrote Arkansas’s age verification bill, a copycat of Louisiana’s, said porn causes depression and anxiety, divorce and “permissive sexual attitudes” and infidelity. “When I think about the children … I want to protect their innocence,” Dees said.
Strub said this is an old trope: “The political figure of the innocent and imperiled child just has a never-ending purchase on American politics … [it] essentially shuts down debate because it immediately creates a binary in which anybody who disagrees with you is [a] perverted groomer.”
Dees is also the co-author of anti-drag queen legislation in Arkansas, that classifies drag performances as the same category as pornography. “It’s not really a meaningful distinction to [conservatives]. They’re both sexual degeneracy in its different guises,” Strub said.
Dees claimed that his porn verification law “doesn’t have anything to do with any political messaging. It has to do with exposure to material that is harmful, period … There’s a clear enemy in the smut-peddling garbage that’s online.”
But measures already exist to prevent children accessing porn. “There’s a really easy way to keep kids from accessing adult content. And that’s a device-level filter” on mobile phones that block adult websites that are registered as Restricted to Adults, said Mike Stabile of the Free Speech Coalition, which advocates for the rights of sex workers.
These laws, according to Stabile, aren’t going to stop kids from looking at porn. “Even if they were to block all sites, you’re still going to have adult content on Twitter and Reddit … kids will get VPNs,” he said.
Stabile thinks we’ll see up to two dozen age-verification bills introduced by the end of the year.
Dees hopes he is right and has eyes beyond the state level eventually. “My prayer is that enough states continue to push for this measure, and that we send a loud enough message where federal law can be put into place,” he said.
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