Inside the Utah PornHub Block

If you’re living in the state of Utah and opened up PornHub today, you might have been surprised to be greeted not by the usual wall of clips, but a singular video followed by a couple explanatory paragraphs. PornHub, along with other adult sites owned by parent company MindGeek, blocked access to IP addresses from the state in protest of its recent age verification law. Now, in order to access any site that includes adult material, users must provide proof of age to the web host, and companies that don’t comply will be liable if they’re sued because a minor accessed their content.

Pornhub decided to opt out of the state entirely in response. In their message for Utah-based users: “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.”

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While online searches for VPNs have skyrocketed in the state since the bill went into effect May 3rd, the state has a history of legislation addressing the so-called porn epidemic. Utah, where over half of the population identifies as Mormon, passed a resolution in 2016 declaring pornography to be “a public-health crisis,” building the foundation for this month’s move: Utah joins several states in enacting similar age verification measures, all part of a larger wave of legislation pushed in the name of “protecting children.” Utah’s S.B. 287 Online Pornography Viewing Age Requirements reads: “This bill creates obligations and liabilities for a commercial entity that provides pornography or other materials harmful to minors.”

Performer Cherie DeVille in the video addressing visitors from Utah | PornHub

In practice, proponents of these bills are capitalizing on the dual moral panics of pornography addiction and children’s safety, all horrifically intersecting at a time our society is experiencing an upswing in puritanism. In the incredible essay Everyone is Beautiful and No One is Horny by RS Benedict for Blood Knife, Benedict traces the converging cultural moments that have brought us to a sexless today:

Even before the pandemic hit, Millennials and Zoomers were less sexually active than the generation before them. Maybe we’re too anxious about the Apocalypse; maybe we’re too broke to go out; maybe having to live with roommates or our parents makes it a little awkward to bring a partner home; maybe there are chemicals in the environment screwing up our hormones; maybe we don’t know how to navigate human sexuality outside of rape culture; maybe being raised on the message that our bodies are a nation-ending menace has dampened our enthusiasm for physical pleasure. 

The grand rise of Marvel has led to a Hollywood that prioritizes cinema for the vague “everyone” amid a culture equal parts repressed and cautious. Add in religion, where suppression of desire for the sake of a greater cause is a central test of morality, and the climate in which we live is heaving towards a shiny, plastic, sexlessness.

Conservatives take that a step further by pushing agendas that aim to purify Americans. In her 2020 book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Kristen Kobes Du Mez writes that post-Cold War Evangelist Billy Graham was concerned about “America’s youth and the younger generation’s lax sexual morality.” Du Mez writes of his mentality: “A strong nation was a virtuous one; sexual morality was an issue of national importance.” Anti-deviant legislation is an effective way for a group to advocate for their values on a large scale, and an even more effective tactic is to center that legislation on protecting children, actual defenseless living things that continue to be caught up in the agendas of people who care the least for them.

When enacting puritanical requirements upon the way children engage with media, it’s legislation as an override to parenting: a deliberate tactic to remove agency from families in making their own choices, instead requiring compliance within a rigid test of morality. In 2009, Utah was ranked as the “porn capital of the world” whilst being the only state where a majority of the population belongs to a single church. It’s The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that is largely contributing to the myth of the porn addition epidemic, framed in church doctrine as depraved behavior and the cause of the dissolution of the family.

The church preaches pornography as “the new drug” and considers anyone who consumes porn to be an addict, ideally to be saved in one of the many church affiliated therapy centers springing up around the state. In an official video posted to the organization’s website, a couple grapples with the husband’s porn addiction. He confesses, “I’ve got a problem,” and no details, not even in vague, pun-laced terms is anything of substance described, only that this addiction almost caused the downfall of this marriage, and that they sought the immediate help of the church. Though the details don’t particularly matter in the end; any interaction with pornography is considered an illness, and his horrible moral failures must be dealt with to preserve the family unit. In a 2005 church conference address, Elder Dallin H. Oaks reflects, “For many years our Church leaders have warned against the dangers of images and words intended to arouse sexual desires. Now the corrupting influence of pornography, produced and disseminated for commercial gain, is sweeping over our society like an avalanche of evil.”

Social-media marketing of t-shirts sold by the anti-porn organization Fight the New Drug; one slogan reads #PornKillsLove

The video’s husband must immediately repent. He recounts telling his wife “every detail” of what his addiction entails and in b-roll she weeps during a staged counseling session. She recalls, “everything came out, all of the choices and decisions that he had made that came with his addiction.”

Linda S. Reeves of the Relief Society, the official women’s organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, promises that the lord will be their— and our— escape from this horrific sin sweeping the nation. She leans in as she tells the camera, “healing from the effects of pornography takes time. We need to know and have faith that the Savior knows us and our situation. Our Father in Heaven…he knew about pornography, that this would be the plague of our day.”

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Louisiana, a state with an age verification law similar to Utah’s, has a state-created digital wallet that houses personal information like your Drivers License. PornHub checks your access against that wallet each time you visit their site from Louisiana. Utah doesn’t have that kind of tool, and there aren’t concrete plans in place to make that happen any time soon. With no formal plan for enforcement, sites can opt not to comply with the verification rule, and users will start to traffic pages with little to no safety or privacy measures as a result.

Responsible websites will have security certificates and other privacy measures in place for users to theoretically feel safe uploading their driver’s license per the age verification, but breaches still happen and online privacy is fragile, regardless of the platform. A site processing large amounts of personal data is simply a giant, glowing, neon target for hackers. Sites offering free age verification services are likely doing so to outright collect and capitalize on user data.

PornHub is often the first victim in attacks against online porn. To be the most known is to be the most visible and therefore top of mind when the time comes to drop the hammer. But as to some they seem to represent the entire industry, porn and sex creators of all financial statuses are in danger of being blocked, banned, and drained of resources and revenue. While PornHub might be able to fiscally survive losing access from anyone in Utah that hasn’t already downloaded a VPN, an independent OnlyFans creator might not.

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Todd Weiler, a Republican state senator from Utah, championed the state’s age verification bill, and received criticism for the inclusion of language touting unsourced claims that “pornography use is linked to lessening desire in young men to marry, dissatisfaction in marriage, and infidelity.” The year the bill passed, Weiler told The Atlantic he saw this as the beginning of a national movement to take on porn as a health epidemic. When asked to clarify, he replied, “I’m not a scientist.”


CITED

EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL AND NO ONE IS HORNY MODERN ACTION AND SUPERHERO FILMS FETISHIZE THE BODY, EVEN AS THEY DESEXUALIZE IT. Blood Knife. https://bloodknife.com/everyone-beautiful-no-one-horny/

Overcoming Pornography Addiction: The Healing Power of Jesus ChristYouTube.

Utah Declares Porn a “Public Health Crisis,” Furthering a Mormon Myth About Porn Addiction. Slate. https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/04/utah-declares-porn-a-public-health-crisis-furthering-a-mormon-myth-about-porn-addiction.html

Welcome to Utah, online porn capital of the USA. Computerworld. https://www.computerworld.com/article/2481037/welcome-to-utah–online-porn-capital-of-the-usa.html

Pornhub Blocks All of Utah From Its Site. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en/article/93kbkv/pornhub-blocks-utah-age-verification

The Moral Panic About Online Porn. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/07/dont-panic-about-pornography/489881/

Inside the Movement to Declare Pornography a ‘Health Crisis’. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/04/a-crisis-of-education/478206/

S.B. 287 Online Pornography Viewing Age Requirements. Utah State Legislature. https://le.utah.gov/~2023/bills/static/SB0287.html

Pornhub blocks access in Utah in protest of new age verification law. Axios. https://www.axios.com/2023/05/02/pornhub-utah-block-social-media-age-verification

Inside the messy collapse of the UK’s unworkable porn block. Wired UK. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/uk-porn-ban-digital-economy-act

Kobes Du Mez, K. (2020). Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright.