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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 1, 2024

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The right wing has seemed to gain some ground on the porn-being-viewable-by-children issue. North Carolina has passed some legislation requiring age verification for adult sites. I remember Matt Walsh at least advocating for this quite strongly. Not only that, but it's not the first state to do this; laws in Louisiana, Virginia, Utah and Montana also require age verification. Pornhub's response is to block access to its website in these states, stating the following:

“As you may know, your elected officials in North Carolina are requiring us to verify your age before allowing you access to our website,” adult entertainer Cherie DeVille said in a video message that pops up when users attempt to access the website. “While safety and compliance are at the forefront of our mission, giving your ID card every time you want to visit an adult platform is not the most effective solution for protecting our users, and in fact, will put children and your privacy at risk.”

“The safety of our users is one of our biggest concerns. We believe that the best and most effective solution for protecting children and adults alike is to identify users by their device and allow access to age-restricted materials and websites based on that identification. Until a real solution is offered, we have made the difficult decision to completely disable access to our website in North Carolina.”

That statement by itself actually boosts my opinion somewhat of Pornhub; a device level safe search would probably be the best approach to this. Parents could set the birthday of the child in question, a password locked setting, and the phone could then block access to many of these sites. There probably exists some amount of parental options like this, right? I have no knowledge of them, but I doubt they quite reach the level I'm talking about here. If any of you know anything about child safety tools currently available to parents for Android or iPhone, let me know. I'm sure there's a ton for Windows and Linux, and maybe macOS too. You could even get pretty scary and start talking about algorithms that determine if local files are porn or not.

There would certainly be some ways to skirt this, but as always there are ways around any law, really, if someone is motivated enough. Even with a border wall, some Latino illegal immigrants would manage to climb or swim around it, or get in some other way. Despite all the background checks in the world, one could choose to 3d print their own gun. When lawmakers create legislation, they're not counting on that legislation stopping everyone; just stopping most people is satisfactory.

However, none of that is on the table right now. What is on the table are these current laws; Virginia doesn't specify how the sites should verify that users are 18 or older, but others like North Carolina require an external commercially available database containing user age information. The porn sites check with this database and verify the user. At least in theory, if sites like Pornhub and e621 don't decide to self-immolate in response.

I think the arguments for this are pretty obvious. For conservatives, porn is pretty obviously bad for kids, and as that article says, over half of 13 year olds have seen porn by that age. Pretty bad! Requiring some ID would at least nail the mainstream sites that they use. That alone could do a lot. And asking for this database isn't too much; we ask for IDs in various other contexts. Alcohol and cigarettes come to mind. And buying porn in person would require the same. I'm pretty sure you can buy tobacco online, though I do not know the method for verifying the age of customers.

But there's plenty of ammo for people to dislike this law, too.

  1. If you take easy access to porn away, some kids will chase it down elsewhere. Viewing a Pornhub uploader's video is very different from getting into a Discord chat and getting porn directly from a stranger. The latter would be almost impossible to regulate, and it's a lot worse for children. They could also go onto worse virus filled sites.
  2. The effectiveness of this does not seem to be very high. This is the internet. There's an incredible amount of sites out there and it's impossible to catch them all. And preteens and teens can be incredibly motivated in seeking out explicit content. Without parental oversight, this probably wouldn't slow down most kids. Legislation can't replace parenting.
  3. Database leaks could be a problem, depending on how that's handled.
  4. If this becomes a nationwide thing, for people who want to avoid databases for privacy concerns, it could get a lot harder than just grabbing ProtonVPN and going to town. Maybe it would be adopted internationally and you'd HAVE to sign up for the database. Having such a hurdle to something that is arguably a free speech issue would be frightening.

What I'm mostly disappointed in are these redditors that seem to take it for granted that the legislation is a bad thing. Because they assume it's just about exerting control and the Republicans are fascist dictators and Reddit has porn anyway and it's all performative theater. I don't think these are convincing arguments. The people passing these laws are probably the same types that go for things like the Brady Campaign, they're not supervillains doing evil things for the sake of it.

I'm not super anti-porn, but I am in favor of these policy changes. Let me give an illustrative analogy:

I use marijuana. Weirdly, while my nickname in middle and high school was Weed-Man because I had long hair and wore a vintage green m65 all the time, I started using it after getting married. I think thc is great, it is fun, it lacks the hangover of alcohol, and it allows me to shut down the neuroticism of my brain and unironically enjoy things in a way I otherwise fail to do. As a Frasurbane adult, I take edibles with my wife and go to a nice dinner and La Boheme and I think that is a just-fine thing to do. I'm against the criminalization of Marijuana, because I use it and think it can be good, and because criminalizing it is ineffective (as a nerdy high schooler I had no idea where to get alcohol beyond the limited ability to steal it, while I had five phone numbers in my phone that could have gotten me weed despite not even smoking), and because people shouldn't be punished for using drugs on basically libertarian grounds.

On the other hand, I recently spent months writing letters to the editor, bothering my local police department, and attending local meetings to foment action against a local gas station that was advertising, with big banners, Delta-8 ThC products. This gas station is directly on the main road to the high school I attended, I stopped there frequently after early-spring track practice for hot chocolate. I spent hours playing the gadfly, until they agreed to stop selling.

I have no inherent objection to Delta-8 products, I've used them before, but the idea of them being sold unregulated and without ID to kids, to high schoolers on their way home, is capital-B Bad. I am mildly negative on teenagers using weed at all (my wife and I joke that we think weed is for marriage, and there is evidence it can trigger schizo stuff), but more than that I don't think it's a good idea for them to get it easily. If there was a sketchy head shop downtown, out of the way, in a place teenagers know they shouldn't go, that would sell Delta-8 and other semi-legal drugs (Kratom, Salvia, etc) I would object less. It's the idea of a kid just buying it on the way home from track practice, probably taking the gummy immediately to avoid possible detection at home, that scares me. They bought it with no ID check, no effort to hide it, right next to the TicTacs and the Arizona Green Tea, it can't be anything bad right? It's harmless, I bet it won't even work, I'll take two of them and drive home. If it were anything serious, they surely wouldn't be allowed to sell it like this!

In the same way, this policy will not prevent all kids from watching any porn. No policy will achieve that. But a well outlined and enforced policy will increase the barriers to watching porn, and make it seem less normalized and easy. Kids going to sketchier sites and finding porn less easily is a positive outcome. They will likely consume less porn, and will be aware from the circumstances that it is something kinda bad, kinda dirty, kinda socially disapproved. They will have that judgment in the back of their head, keeping it at arm's length, from the context in which they view it. That extra effort will serve to express viscerally to the kid that this stuff is kinda maybe bad and dangerous.

I don't at the end of the day disapprove of porn that strongly. I've stopped using it myself years ago, but I used it enough in my teen years that I can hardly claim purity, and if I like myself (which I do) I can hardly claim it negatively impacted me. What I do disapprove of is the normalization of pornography, the integration of pornography into our culture. I resent that I can't go on any decent sports subreddit or forum without being constantly subjected to weird pornographic metaphors. I hate that pornography has eaten sex, especially kinky sex, that good sex is taken to be a simulation of pornography, there is always an imaginary camera in the room, an audience. I hate that people consider watching porn normal, even if it is. Jesus Christ people learn to have a shameful dirty secret.

I understand exactly what you mean and I think it gets to the heart of a lot of modern knots we're in related to wanting to both not be mean/shame certain behaviors but also having effective sign posts for "this is pretty bad actually and you should dabble in moderation if at all". In this category are obesity(A couple pounds is not a big deal but dozens to hundreds is a catastrophe), porn, alcohol, drugs, gaming, vanity and even internet arguments. One must balance their indulgences.

A kid can go into a store and buy a knife. Most kids understand that knives are dangerous. The vast majority of kids don't abuse knives. Why can't it be the same with recreational drugs?

I hate that pornography has eaten sex, especially kinky sex, that good sex is taken to be a simulation of pornography, there is always an imaginary camera in the room, an audience.

When I was younger I often used to feel like I had to perform to some imaginary standard while having sex, but this wasn't because of porn, it was because I was wound up too tight to actually let go and enjoy the fun of sex and because I cared too much about what I imagined the person I was having sex with was thinking about me. If anything, I think that porn has helped me to become more comfortable with my sexuality.

I hate that people consider watching porn normal, even if it is. Jesus Christ people learn to have a shameful dirty secret.

I don't think that there is anything shameful whatsoever about watching porn.

The vast majority of kids don't abuse knives. Why can't it be the same with recreational drugs?

The intent of recreational drugs is to "use it on yourself."

The intent of a knife is never to "use it on yourself" except for exceedingly rare medical emergency situations or incidents of self-harm that are universally recognized as bad.

I think that porn has helped me to become more comfortable with my sexuality.

Bully for you.

I don't think that there is anything shameful whatsoever about watching porn.

Would you be alright with a stranger watching porn next to you on an airline flight? Or in a library? Or around children?

The consequences of modal child drug abuse are both far subtler and far more harmful than the modal child knife abuse along many different axes. The positives of knive availability to children outweigh the negatives. The negatives of drug availability to children outweigh the positives.

A kid can go into a store and buy a knife. Most kids understand that knives are dangerous. The vast majority of kids don't abuse knives. Why can't it be the same with recreational drugs?

Except where they can't:

Restrictions on Sale or Transfer. It is unlawful to sell or transfer any “deadly weapon” to a person under the age of 18. A knife “designed as a weapon and capable of producing death or serious bodily injury” would fit within the definition of a deadly weapon set forth in 18 PA C.S.A. § 2301. The prosecution must prove the item in question was “designed as a weapon.”

While intended to prevent kids from buying switchblades or the like, what this tended to cash out to at my local outdoors stores was that no minors were allowed to buy pocket knives without a parent present.

Now, in the boy scouts we all collected pocket knives, the weirder and more aggressive and more "intended to cause serious bodily harm" the better. But there was friction, we were aware that the item was taken seriously because we had to use workarounds of one type or another to get them.