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Sen. Mike Lee introduces legislation to protect kids from the ravages of pornography
Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Sen. Mike Lee introduces legislation to protect kids from the ravages of pornography

Republican Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) has introduced a bill that would require porn websites to confirm the ages of users, thereby sparing more children from the psychological ravages proven to result from the consumption of sexually graphic and obscene content.

Whereas past efforts to limit access to pornography failed, having been deemed contraventions of First Amendment rights, Lee's may survive such scrutiny.

What are the details?

Lee introduced the "Shielding Children's Retinas from Egregious Exposure on the Net" (SCREEN) Act on Dec. 13, which would direct the Federal Communications Commission to require all commercial pornographic websites to adopt age verification technology to ensure that kids cannot access pornographic content.

The text of the bill notes that "the Supreme Court of the United States has struck down the previous efforts of Congress to shield children from pornographic content, finding that such legislation constituted a 'compelling government interest' but that it was not the least restrictive means to achieve such interest."

Once thought a potential remedy, blocking and filtering software has reportedly proven ineffective in protecting minors.

Oxford Internet Institute researchers found that "filters might have small protective effects, but evidence derived from a more stringent and robust empirical approach indicated that they are entirely ineffective."

The SCREEN Act referenced a Kaiser Family Foundation report that found that "filters do not work on 1 in 10 pornography sites accessed intentionally and 1 in 3 pornography sites that are accessed unintentionally."

Technically savvy kids in particular are readily able to bypass filtering software.

Lee reckons that an alternate and workable remedy that would satisfy the least restrictive means requirement would be the required adoption of age-verification tools.

After all, stated Lee, "We require age verification at brick-and-mortar shops. Why shouldn't we require it online?"

Accordingly, the FCC would set a "'more likely than not' verification standard for pornographic websites for the purposes of determining whether the user of a pornographic website is a child or not."

To ensure compliance, an audit process would be established. Identifiable user data would not be shared with the federal government.

Noncompliant websites that ignore warnings would face enforcement action.

A public health crisis

Seventeen U.S. states — including Utah, Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and South Dakota — have declared pornography a public health crisis.

Sen. Lee's home state of Utah was the first to declare pornography a public health hazard, noting that it:

  • "perpetuates a sexually toxic environment";
  • "is contributing to the hypersexualization of teens, and even prepubescent children, in our society";
  • leads, after early exposure, "to low self-esteem and body image disorders, an increase in problematic sexual activity at younger ages, and an increased desire among adolescents to engage in risky sexual behavior";
  • negatively shapes children's "sexual templates";
  • "normalizes abuse of women and children";
  • "treats women and children as objects and often depicts rape and abuse as if they are harmless"; and
  • is responsible for a variety of other destructive and dehumanizing effects.

Feminist sociology professor Gail Dines noted in the Washington Post that scientific research points to porn exposure threatening "the social, emotional and physical health of individuals, families and communities."

One study published in the Journal of Treatment & Prevention indicated that men who reported watching pornography were more likely to say they would commit rape or sexual assault than their clear-eyed counterparts.

Another study published in the esteemed scientific journal Pediatrics found that porn consumption among adolescents may hasten sexual initiation and that "reducing adolescent exposure to this content, or increasing references to and depictions of possible negative consequences of sexual activity could appreciably delay the initiation of coital and noncoital activities."

German researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development found that "gray matter volume of the right caudate of the striatum is smaller with higher pornography use." In other words, porn adversely impacted viewers' brains.

A review of various studies published in the Journal of Sex Research showed:

  • "adolescents' use of pornography is related to stronger permissive sexual attitudes";
  • "adolescents’ use of Internet pornography is related to greater sexual uncertainty, that is, the extent to which adolescents are unclear about their sexual beliefs and values";
  • pornography use is related to sexual obsession; and
  • "use of violent pornography was related to the perpetration of sexual assault."

Lee said in a statement, "Every day, we're learning more about the negative psychological effects pornography has on minors. Given the alarming rate of teenage exposure to pornography, I believe the government must act quickly to enact protections that have a real chance of surviving First Amendment scrutiny."

The Utah senator has also introduced the "Interstate Obscenity Definition Act," which would establish a national definition of obscenity and strip porn of First Amendment protections.

Obscenity would be defined as content that:

  • "taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in nudity, sex, or excretion";
  • "depicts, describes or represents actual or simulated sexual acts with the objective intent to arouse, titillate, or gratify the sexual desires of a person"; and
  • "taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
This definition would, were the bill made law, apply to obscene content on the internet (i.e., transmitted via interstate or foreign communications).

A 2018 Gallup Poll revealed that only 43% of Americans think pornography is morally acceptable. Whereas 53% of Democrats thought it was morally acceptable, only 27% of Republicans thought so.

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