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Monday, May 27, 2024 — Houston, TX

Decoding the Texas Pornhub ban

Ndidi Nwosu / Thresher

By Amelia Davis     4/16/24 10:24pm

Pornhub sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to block the enforcement of a state law that requires commercial websites publishing pornography “harmful to minors” online establish age verification measures and show health warnings on their webpages in 2023. 

On March 7, 2024, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the portion of the law commanding the institution of age verification systems (though abandoning the requirement for health warnings because of their status as unconstitutionally compelled speech), creating H.B. 1181. In response to that decision, Pornhub has pulled out of Texas and is currently inaccessible to users in the state. 

Pornhub and other adult entertainment sites are facing legal challenges after years of various misconduct allegations. Since 2020, over 2.3 million people have signed a petition to shut down Pornhub over sex trafficking and other criminal concerns. 

Sarah Sowell, who is studying political science and social policy analysis, has worked for the anti-trafficking groups Allies Against Slavery and Demand Disruption. Sowell said she believed that porn’s harmful association with trafficking and child endangerment has not been confronted enough in the legislature.

“It makes me wonder how much of Pornhub's revenue is coming from children if it's so important to them that they not have [...] an arduous age verification process, [that] they'll just pull out,” Sowell, a Jones College senior, said.

Pornhub cited the “ineffective, haphazard and dangerous” Texas law for age verification as their reason for leaving Texas. 

After Pornhub’s retreat, Paxton initiated legal proceedings against the owners of two other pornography websites, Chaturbate and xHamster, for alleged violations of H.B. 1181. They may now face millions of dollars in civil penalties of “up to $10,000 per day, an additional $10,000 per day if the corporation illegally retains identifying information, and $250,000 if a child is exposed to pornographic content due to not properly verifying a user’s age.” 

However, even this reason brings into question what legal policies can and should be implemented to hold explicit websites accountable without infringing on rights of both companies and consumers, something that Sowell touched on. 

“I think it's good to talk about these things and to really ask ourselves [about how] easily accessible video pornography has been around for at least 20 years, and I don't think there's been as much of a policy reckoning as there should be about its normativity,” Sowell said. 

Harm to actors in the porn industry or those outside the industry who have videos of themselves nonconsensually posted has been a motivator of the backlash against Pornhub and similar websites in previous years, in addition to the newer concern around the issue of minors’ access to the sites. Previously, in 2021, Pornhub was forced into expanding moderatoration and adding safety measures including a third party system to verify identity of uploaders after controversy over allegations of monetizing rape, revenge porn and content of children. 

The 2023-2024 co-director of the Rice Women’s Resource Center, Gillian Gravatt, said she felt that mainstream porn often does not have women’s wellbeing in mind. 

“Young people, regardless of gender, getting their information about sex via this type of porn is really damaging because it's not what sex is like, and it's not what sex should be like,” Gravatt, a Martel College junior, said. “I think there's a big gap in terms of this — it could be an opportunity for someone to fill in this gap and introduce sex and sexual health to minors in a more productive way in terms of [sexual education] curriculums that are more comprehensive and inclusive, but that’s not going to happen.”

Gravatt said comprehensive sexual education will not likely occur due to the political motivations behind H.B. 1181. 

“There's this broader political thing that Republicans in Texas are doing with this idea of obscenity and what children are allowed to see. And it's a lot of similar reasoning that they're using to prevent children from being exposed to queer education and drag shows and things that don't [fall] under my definition of obscenity,” Gravatt said. “So it's difficult, because I have to look at this decision in light of that broader context, but I also don't think that minors should have access to pornography necessarily, but for different reasons than why this law was passed.” 

“I think it's a very fine line [between censorship for safety and health and censorship that impinges on freedom of speech],” Gravatt continued.

The case cited in the Appeals Court’s decision is Ginsberg v. New York, which itself upheld a New York statute forbidding the sale of obscene magazines to minors — thus providing a legal precedent to use for constitutionally denying minors access to any material that could be deemed “harmful to minors.” 

However, ethical and legal discussion aside, motivated people will always find a loophole: Google searches for ‘Texas VPNs’ rose by more than 1,700% in the days following Pornhub’s withdrawal. 

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