Republican Senator's Internet Safety Bill Targets Legal Sex Work

WASHINGTON—Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has introduced a new bill that would require most web platforms to verify the ages of individuals who appear in sexually explicit images. Presenting the bill as a measure to counter big tech CEOs such as Meta's Mark Zuckerberg, there is language in the act that targets the legal status of consensual sex work, including adult pornographic content.

S.3718, or the Preventing Rampant Online Technological Exploitation and Criminal Trafficking (PROTECT) Act, would require all interactive computer platforms to verify the ages of individuals in sexually explicit imagery. Lee's office presents this measure as a tool to counter the proliferation of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and non-consensual intimate imagery (NCII) online.

Federal law already requires adult entertainment companies to verify the age of all performers appearing in pornographic material and retain those records through a custodian of record, which is typically a lawyer, CEO or senior executive. Any failure to do so or the falsification of these documents could result in civil and criminal penalties against any such adult entertainment companies.

Sen. Lee, however, wants to extend this standard to virtually every platform, such as social networks like Facebook and Instagram. 

"Tech companies need to do more to prevent the exploitation that is occurring on their platforms and allow individuals to remove images shared without their consent," Sen. Lee said in a January 31 press release. "The PROTECT Act is a step in that direction."

Organizations in support of the PROTECT Act echo Lee's sentiments. In the same press release from Sen. Lee's office, Jon Schweppe of the American Principles Project calls the measure a necessary step towards reigning in the adult entertainment industry.

"The more people learn about the online porn industry, the more they demand action against it," said Schweppe, the organization's policy director. For context, the American Principles Project is part of a coalition of right-wing organizations united under the banner of Project 2025. AVN previously reported on Project 2025, which is primarily backed by the Heritage Foundation, and its efforts to ban legally-produced pornography, strip it of First Amendment protections, and then imprison online porn producers and performers.

"By its very nature, online porn is about exploiting the human person, which is why it's no surprise that the industry has turned a blind eye as child sexual abuse material has flourished," said Schweppe. Dawn Hawkins, the chief executive officer of the anti-porn National Center on Sexual Exploitation, also shared her support for the PROTECT Act in the same statement as Lee and Schweppe.

"The PROTECT Act would ensure that federal law supports victims of image-based sexual abuse," Hawkins added in her statement.

Opponents of the PROTECT Act are concerned that Sen. Lee and his backers want to see consensual sex work completely outlawed.

Mike Stabile, the director of public affairs for the Free Speech Coalition, posted a thread to his users on X (formerly Twitter) pointing to language in the bill pertaining to the term "coerced consent." A review of the PROTECT Act reveals that "coerced consent" would be defined as consent to engage in sexually explicit content creation due to coercion of some sort. In other words, it would make paying for porn performers or other sorts of adult content creators—within certain parameters—a crime. 

For instance, this standard, if it were to become law, would invalidate consent to appear in a porn scene if "economic circumstances" motivated an individual to participate in this type of work. "Economic circumstances" could include paying rent, buying groceries and supporting a family member. According to the bill, other conditions that would invalidate consent would be immigration status, pregnancy, the presence of a disability, an addiction, or whether an individual is under the legal age of consent. Juveniles cannot appear in commercial pornography due to age compliance and recordkeeping laws enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice.

"As they did with reproductive rights, legislators want to make producing or performing in adult content dangerous and legally risky, in hopes of chilling sexuality more broadly," Stabile told AVN in an email. "This attempts to broaden the definition of coercion so that everyday issues—needing to pay a credit card bill or rent—can be used as evidence of criminality.

"This is less a bill than a religious tract and attempts to make the criminal code conform to the belief of faith-based groups that no woman could ever willingly be a sex worker," Stabile added.

Allie Eve Knox, a porn performer and sex worker's rights activist, shares Stabile's sentiments.

"It is always a big red fucking flag to me when someone speaks for me, without any prior information," said Knox. "So a politician saying I'm being coerced in my profession without knowledge is not only a bald-faced lie, but it a potentially harmful narrative."

Knox additionally alluded to Lee courting support from Grammy Award winner Taylor Swift to promote the PROTECT Act. Swift was the target of a troll on X who circulated NSFW AI-generated porn images of the pop star that went viral and resulted in potential legal action. While the online adult entertainment industry already struggles with AI-generated deepfake pornography and the non-consensual use of a person's likeness, Lee said that he wanted Swift to support his bill despite the anti-porn and anti-sex work language that could otherwise infringe on the rights of producers of legally-produced pornography and age-restricted content.

"He is intentionally trying to push this bill with the Taylor Swift narrative so that people jump onto it without thinking or being aware of the implications," Knox concluded.

Allie Awesome, another performer and director of talent recruitment for, told AVN that she, too, is concerned.

"By Mike Lee’s definition, all work is coercive," she said. "Why distinguish sex work from other forms of labor? Is it because Mike is a member of the LDS Church, and he can’t fathom the idea that sex work is work?"

Larry Walters and Corey Silverstein, both First Amendment attorneys specializing in representing adult entertainment industry clients, told AVN that the PROTECT Act is likely to face significant judicial pushback.

"The bill relies on debunked myths about adult entertainment causing violence, being consumed by minors, and existing unregulated, in the attempt to impose burdensome new regulations and introduce contractual uncertainty on the industry," said Walters. "Contrary to the preamble to the bill, the production of adult content is already regulated by federal law which requires performer age verification and retention of records by producers."

Silverstein was more direct about the shortcomings of the PROTECT Act.

"To my knowledge, no actual sex workers or trade organizations were contacted for feedback prior to the introduction of this bill, and so once again, the most important and affected people by the bill have had their opinions completely ignored," he said. 
The PROTECT Act has no other co-sponsors. It is currently referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Reportedly, Lee introduced similar legislation during the 2022 legislative session and attracted very little support from his colleagues, including in the Senate.