Senator aims to curb ‘violent’ porn, pitches mandatory age verification for online sites

Independent Quebec Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne is calling for a crackdown on the consumption of online pornography by young people through new legislation that would force porn sites to verify the ages of all users.

Miville-Dechêne has introduced a bill, S-203, that would make porn sites like the Canadian-owned PornHub — a video sharing site that hosts adult content — criminally liable for failing to check a user’s age before they browse.

Miville-Dechêne, who was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2018, said children and teenagers must be protected against graphic material that she said can pollute their minds, and blocking access through the law is the best way to do it.

“If you’re a minor, you can’t see a movie if it’s classified 18 years and over. If you’re a minor, you can’t buy a Playboy. But if you’re a minor, you have complete, unfettered access without barriers of any kind to 4.5 million porn sites around the world,” Miville-Dechêne told CBC News.

“I’m not on a crusade against porn. I just want to protect kids from porn that is shown widely on these websites that is not at all the soft kind of stuff. It’s hardcore, it’s tough and it’s violent.”

The senator contends porn distorts the meaning of sex for its consumers, depicts women as objects to be used and abused by their partners and promotes physical aggression through the frequent depiction of slapping, choking, gagging and hair-pulling.

‘A fantasy world where women are abused’

“It’s a fantasy world where women are abused. It gives both sexes a twisted vision of what sexuality is,” she said.

Miville-Dechêne said a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour journal found that adolescents who consume violent pornography are six times more likely to be sexually aggressive than those who consume non-violent pornography or no pornography whatsoever.

She also pointed to Australian research that suggests frequent pornography consumption by young people can lead to “compulsive consumption” — like an addiction — unrealistic expectations about sexual experiences, fear and anxiety, problems with self-esteem and a distorted view of what their bodies should look like.

Porn consumption has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic as social restrictions have forced more people online for sexual activity. (Shutterstock / Empirephotostock)

Marilyn Evans, an Ontario woman who started the organization Parents Aware in 2016 to combat porn consumption among young people, is backing Miville-Dechêne’s bill.

“Children are landing on these sites where they find extreme, violent and often illegal sexualized content. It’s dangerous and irresponsible for Canada not to implement age verification,” she said.

Porn consumption has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic as social restrictions have forced more people online for sexual activity.

PornHub has reported traffic to its site has jumped 23 per cent since the onset of the pandemic-related lockdowns, with over 100 million daily visits to the site on any given day. The Montreal-based site is one of the world’s most prolific, averaging over 100 billion video views a year.

While there’s little data on Canadian porn-viewing habits, Miville-Dechêne said it’s well known that a significant number of those porn consumers are young people.

‘What kind of society do we want to be?’

Miville-Dechêne, a former journalist, pointed to a 2014 study by Ottawa-based MediaMatters that suggested 40 per cent of all boys in high school have seen porn online, 28 per cent look at it at least once a day or once a week and 7 per cent of girls say they have watched porn.

“What kind of society do we want to be? The average age to stumble upon porn is 11. Well, that’s pretty young,” she said.

The bill would make it a Criminal Code offence to make sexually explicit material available to a minor on the internet.

A first offence would be punishable by a fine of not more than $10,000 for an individual and $250,000 for a corporation. Fines for subsequent offences would be more substantial.

MindGeek, the Canadian company that owns PornHub — and other major streaming sites like Brazzers, Digital Playground, Men.com, Mofos, Reality Kings, Sean Cody and WhyNotBi.com — did not respond to requests for comment on the new legislation.

While the bill itself does not dictate how these sites should verify the age of its users — if passed, it would be up to the federal cabinet to enact regulations — Miville-Dechêne said there are a number of third-party companies that offer verification services.

The current standard for most sites — an honour-based system where users click a box to confirm they’re over 18 — is a low barrier to entry that can easily be ignored, she said.

“Let’s be frank about this. This is a joke,” she said.

Yoti, a British company, checks ID cards and then issues a certified age “token” for a user’s browser. Another option would be to implement a “porn pass,” which would be sold at stores that check a buyer’s age in person.

“There will be worries about private information being used by a third party, but when people say that to me I say, ‘It’s already in use to gamble online, to buy alcohol online. Why would porn be any different?'” she said.

“We want to make sure minors don’t have any access and it’s obviously the only way. It’s not a high price to pay to protect from overexposure.”

Brenda Cossman is a professor at the University of Toronto and the director of Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. She is also the co-author of the book Bad Attitudes on Trial: Pornography, Feminism and the Butler Decision, a study of anti-pornography feminist advocacy.

She said bills like this revive a decades-old debate within feminism about the place of pornography — and goes too far in policing sexual expression.

“Pornography has long been targeted as somehow being related to violence against women. That has been debunked. There’s actually no proof of a causal relationship between watching pornography and more harassment or violent attitudes towards women,” she told CBC News.

‘Here we are, again, singling out sex’

Cossman said that since the obscenity law debates of 1850s Britain, lawmakers have been trying to portray sex as something that would deprave and corrupt young people and women.

“Here we are, again, singling out sex. We have this idea that somehow sex is uniquely damaging in a way that watching unbelievably violent, gory, horror stuff, and all the video games kids play, is not. But, oh yeah, sex, now there’s the problem,” she said.

“I don’t think looking at sexually explicit material is any better or worse than looking at a whole range of things. Reviving this debate that somehow accessing pornography is detrimental to women and children just seems like something from a bygone era.”

Cossman said massive online porn traffic figures show just how integral porn is to the daily lives of millions of people.

And if legislators are concerned about young people accessing explicit material, there are other ways to restrict access, Cossman said. She said she believes turning to the Criminal Code to police sexually explicit material is too heavy-handed.

Miville-Dechêne said she isn’t interested in shutting porn sites down entirely — she just wants them to be the exclusive domain of adults. She said such measures are already being pursued in Europe.

In Germany, the government is poised to make it mandatory for internet service providers to block access to the most popular foreign-based porn sites if those sites refuse to implement an effective age-verification system.

In July, France passed a law with new criminal sanctions for porn websites that do not implement strict age-verification systems. Administrators could be subject to a three-year prison sentence and a fine of 75,000 Euros if they fail to comply.

“I must acknowledge that this is a controversial area, and too many people tend to believe that this is a purely conservative issue. In my view, this can be a cross-party issue, because it’s about protecting children,” Miville-Dechêne said.

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