Porn and Age Verification

As attention rightly turns to the current epidemic of violence against women in Australia, some people have decided that pornography is to blame. Eager to grab an ‘easy win’, the federal Government has already announced that $6.5 million will be committed to pilot age assurance technologies “to protect children from harmful content, like pornography”. This is despite the fact that in August 2023, the federal Government announced that it would not mandate age verification technology due to its noted privacy and digital security risks, lack of effectiveness, and issues with implementation.

Too many people have unquestioningly accepted and promoted the ideas that pornography directly leads to an increase in domestic and family violence against women, and that young people accessing pornography is inherently harmful, yet the research in these areas is far from conclusive. In fact, there is a significant and growing body of evidence that challenges these oft-repeated claims.

Family and domestic violence is a serious and urgent issue in Australia, and is deserving of evidence-based intervention, not anti-pornography moral panic.

Background

Sex workers have always been at the forefront of the development, early adoption and championing of new technologies. Porn performers and adult content creators are sex workers, and like other sex workers, use the internet to increase independence, maintain autonomy, reach diverse audiences and generate income. And yet, sex workers are the first to be excluded from online spaces, the first to have to fight for equal access, and often the first to express concern at reactionary rhetoric and resulting bad policy.

With every technological development, there has been an associated moral panic that there will be unprecedented access to ‘harmful’ content, particularly for young people. The 1963 documentary Perversion for Profit argued that erotic ‘pulp fiction’ books and centrefold magazines ‘corrupted’ readers, and claimed that it led to violence and ‘perversion’ (specifically, homosexuality) which would ultimately result in the US losing the Cold War. In the United Kingdom during the Thatcher era, prosecutors developed a list of over 150 ‘video nasties’ – banned VHS tapes (mostly direct-to-video horror movies) which were illegal to distribute or possess, which led to police raids of video retailers, rental outlets, bookshops, second-hand dealers and private homes. In the United States, Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center were concerned about audio cassettes and CDs, compiling ‘the filthy fifteen’ – a list of the 15 ‘worst’ pop songs which included Madonna’s ‘Dress You Up’, Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘She-Bop.’

As the internet developed, moral panic shifted online. A best-selling Time magazine article published on 3rd July 1995 titled Cyberporn claimed that the vast majority of images shared on internet message boards were pornographic, and that the sex depicted in online pornography was more extreme than what was available on video or in print. Within weeks, the article was completely debunked as being based on a single, flawed study concocted by an undergraduate student, which studied only descriptions of images from private message boards (rather than the images themselves) and was confined to messageboards specifically dedicated to adult content. Similar moral panic emerged upon the release of sites and apps like MySpace and SnapChat.

Moral panic about the internet has led to western democracies enacting laws that directly harm sex workers. These laws deliberately reduce sex workers’ visibility on and access to online platforms. Examples include the US Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (known as FOSTA-SESTA), the Online Safety Act 2023 (UK), the Eliminating Abuse and Rampant Neglect of Internet Technologies Act of 2020 (US) (known as ‘EARN IT’) and the Online Safety Act 2021 (Cth) in unceded Australia. Such legislation has led to increased marginalisation, as documented by many sex workers (see Survivors Against SESTA, Stardust et al 2023, Hacking//Hustling).

The reality is that depictions of sexuality are as old as human sexuality itself. Discussions around pornography and its regulation must not be based on sensationalism and moral panic, and must consider the diverse perspectives of performers, producers, consumers and activists. These discussions also must not contribute to the stigma and marginalisation of sex workers who produce and/or consume pornography. To improve online safety for all, sex worker voices must be listened to and taken seriously. Practical solutions and good policies come from real life, not ChatGPT

Is Porn Harmful?

The theory that porn, and in particular so-called ‘violent’ porn, leads to greater misogyny, male violence and/or sexual aggression is highly contested. There is reputable research showing no effect, and/or an inability to distinguish causation between pornography and non-consensual behaviour (for example see research by Ferguson and Hartley (2022); Byron et al (2021), Diamond (2010) and (2009)).

The studies instead found that pornography can have a positive impact on the development of healthy sexuality, and provides entertainment, representation and education on topics of sexuality excluded from curricula, particularly for LGBTQI+ people.

The idea that consumption of pornography leads to porn ‘addiction’ has also been widely criticised.

Porn and Young People

The rationale for the development of legislation and other regulatory measures (such as compulsory age-verification mechanisms or restricted access systems) is that young people especially may be harmed by the availability of pornography online.

The contention that young people are accessing more, are increasingly exposed to, or are specifically harmed by pornography is also widely disputed. Research on young people’s pornography consumption is severely limited by a lack of comparative data. We do not have data on the nature, rate and frequency of video or print media porn consumption by previous generations of young people, so while we can argue that technology has facilitated both distribution of and access to pornography (which is true of all information and media, and for people of all ages), we cannot know for certain whether these developments have actually changed porn consumption among any age demographic.

This doesn’t mean that all pornography is ‘good’, or that young people should view adult content. However, it does mean that alongside comprehensive consent education, informed education on media literacy and age-appropriate parental supervision, the mere existence of adult content online simply does not justify policy or legislative measures that hinder the sexual expression, livelihoods, safety and community-building of sex workers in online or real-world spaces.

The showing of porn by adults to young people is widely acknowledged as grooming and is understood as abuse. Age verification or age assurance strategies are not preventative measures against grooming or abuse, as the abuser is able to easily circumvent these technologies. 

10 Reasons to Oppose Age Verification Laws

1. All content platforms will have to pay to implement age verification technology, regardless of whether they are a single independent performer-producer, or a huge site like Pornhub. The costs will likely put smaller, independent producer-owned platforms out of business, and favour platforms that already have a virtual monopoly.

2. The laws may lead to overcapture – for example, applying to in-person sex worker advertising directories or websites, or to educational content around sex and sexuality.

3. These laws will still have loopholes, and will not apply to some websites or apps where adult content is permitted alongside other content (e.g. social media platforms that permit adult content).

4. Free websites that host stolen content downloaded from other sites theoretically required to implement ‘age verification’ or ‘age assurance’ will most likely be nimble enough to avoid regulation in a game of whack-a-mole.

5. The laws may end up funnelling people from ‘mainstream’ websites that comply with the legislation (or those that don’t and are blocked) to sites that steal the paid content of sex workers.

6. These laws will not impact porn distributed via torrents or other file sharing platforms. Age verification technology doesn’t prevent young people from sharing clips among themselves,

7. Age verification laws only apply in the country where they were made, and are therefore easily bypassable using VPN technologies. Young audiences understand how that works, and are able to easily avoid verification.

8. Age verification mechanisms all present technological risks and flaws: 

a) The mechanisms require consumers to share their personal data, and adult content platforms may not have the resources to guarantee security of that data. Data leaks and hacks are a common occurrence, and the more information platforms are required to collect and store (credit card information, photo ID, etc) the higher the risk of data breaches generating real-world consequences for consumers.

b) Age verification mechanisms based on credit card information restrict adults without credit cards from accessing the content, but don’t stop young people from using an adult’s credit card to bypass the mechanism.

c) Age verification mechanisms that purport to use AI to detect a person’s face from an uploaded ‘selfie’ are simply inaccurate – AI technology cannot yet accurately detect the age of an individual person.

9. Rather than attempt to comply with complex laws and regulatory frameworks requiring ‘age verification’ or ‘promoting online safety’, platforms will attempt to avoid the problem altogether by mass removal of adult content and adult content accounts. This means that sex workers and sex worker organisations are at risk of being excluded from online spaces and technologies altogether. This will prevent us from earning a living, staying connected to our communities and limit our ability to share health and safety information with each other.

10. Young people will figure out ways to get around age verification mechanisms. Let’s face it, the mechanisms are not really about stopping young people from accessing porn, they are about placating adult fears about youth sexuality. This is not a sound or reasonable approach to combating domestic and family violence against women.

Conclusion

Anti-pornography activism and regulations are part of a long-standing history of throwing sex workers under the bus, and an attempt to place the blame on sex workers and the sex industry for the attitudes and behaviours of (mostly male) perpetrators. Repeated efforts to prevent young people from accessing pornography are based on misinformation and moral panic, not evidence of actual harm. Age verification does not work, and attempts to implement it harms sex workers and internet users as a whole.

Further Reading

Pornography

The Government Is Making Porn a Scapegoat for Rising Violence against Women Vice (2 May 2024)

‘Harder and Harder’? Is Mainstream Pornography Becoming Increasingly Violent and Do Viewers Prefer Violent Content? The Journal of Sex Research (2019)

Asking whether porn causes sexual violence is the wrong question – here’s why The Conversation (1 December 2015)

Reading for realness: porn literacies, digital media, and young people Sexuality and Culture (2021)

Pornography, public acceptance and sex related crime: A review International Journal of Law and Psychiatry (2009)

Corrigendum to “Pornography, public acceptance and sex related crime: A review” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry (2010)

Pornography and sexual aggression: can meta-analysis find a link? Violence, Trauma and Abuse (January 2022)

Porn does Not Incite Violence Woodhull Freedom Foundation (13 January 2024)

Minors Are Not Accessing Porn at Unprecedented Levels Woodhull Freedom Foundation (18 April 2024)

The Emperor Has No Clothes: A Review of the ‘Pornography Addiction’ Model Current Sexual Health Reports (January 2013)

Pornography use and sexting amongst children and young people: A systematic overview of reviews Systematic Reviews (December 2020)

Who Watches the Watchwomen?: Feminists against Censorship Feminist Review (1990)

Performer-Centred Pornography as Sex Worker Rights: Developing Labour Standards in a Criminal Context Research for Sex Work (2016)

Porn not to blame for public health issues The Conversation (1 November 2017)

Censorship and regulation