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Laurie Schlegel, a certified sex addiction therapist, first decided to take on the porn industry after hearing Billie Eilish talking about the damage pornography did to her as a child. (All photos by Emily Kask for The Free Press)

The Woman Who Stood Up to the Porn Industry—and Won

Louisiana legislator Laurie Schlegel wanted porn websites to do more to protect her state’s children. Now her law is the blueprint for the rest of the country.

Before Laurie Schlegel decided to run in a special election to fill a seat in Louisiana’s House of Representatives in 2021, she asked her son for permission. 

“I asked him and he just boldly told me like, ‘Mom, I’m 16 and I love you and please don’t take offense to this, but I just don’t need you as much anymore,” explains Schlegel, in a black jumpsuit, green liner on her eyes, when we meet at her blonde brick home in downtown Metairie. 

“And so that hurt.” 

But she quickly got over it and immediately started working on her campaign. Even though the licensed sex addiction therapist and pro-life Republican faced a tough race against Eddie Connick, the scion of a storied New Orleans political family and cousin of singer Harry Connick Jr., his pedigree did not help his chances. Nor did a campaign flyer that read, “Sending a social worker to the legislature would be like washing money down the drain.”

His gambit landed with about as much grace as Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.” 

“Social workers from my district contacted me and were like, ‘How can I help you?’ ” explains Schlegel, 47.

In April 2021, Schlegel won the seat with 52 percent of the vote, and immediately planned to address the usual concerns of the 45,000 residents in her district, such as crime and education. But a few months after she took office in May 2021, she decided on a different agenda: taking on online porn.

What she has since achieved—after two years in office—has made international news. Not only has Schlegel curbed the billion-dollar online porn industry for the first time in history, forcing websites to protect kids in Louisiana and pull out of at least three U.S. states, she has offered a legislative blueprint for others across the country.

“I am truly humbled to see that we began a movement that has swept the country and began a long overdue conversation about how we can protect kids from hardcore pornography,” she says. 

Schlegel’s crusade started back in December 2021. She had listened to The Howard Stern Show and 21-year-old pop sensation Billie Eilish talking about online porn. Eilish told Stern that she began watching “abusive” images at the age of 11, and that this had warped her sense of how to behave during sex and what women’s bodies look like.

“No vagina looks like this,” Eilish told Stern. “I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much porn.”

Schlegel was struck by Eilish’s openness, that she was “just a young girl being vulnerable enough to share those details with the world.” 

The singer’s story also chimed with Schlegel’s professional experience both as a sex addiction therapist and a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children in the foster care system. She knew the issues facing young clients raised on unlimited free online porn—the decoupling of intimacy from sex; the inability to get aroused without porn playing in the background; a warped idea of what your partner actually wants. 

“If you’ve never had your first kiss but you’ve seen hardcore pornography, it’s going to mold the way you view sexuality,” Schlegel said. “You’re not dealing with a fully formed adult brain that's like, ‘Oh, so I shouldn’t strangle my partner?’ ” 

If Schlegel understood the damage pornography causes, she also knew how easy it is for children to access it. And she realized that now she was a state legislator, she was uniquely positioned to do something about it. 

She soon settled on the idea of legislation that, if passed, would require porn sites to confirm their customers were 18 or older before they could click through to their content. 

“You can’t be 10 years old and go into Mr. Binky’s—that’s an adult bookstore in my district,” she says. “This is public policy we’ve accepted across the board in brick-and-mortar stores, but we’ve just been giving a pass to the internet.” 

While Schlegel attends a nondenominational Christian church and describes her faith as “very important to me,” she had no desire to impose her morality on others over the age of eighteen. “Adults have rights, so I get it,” she says, explaining that all she wanted was to craft a bill making it harder for kids to access videos like “I Invite My Stepsister to Take a Bath to Fuck Her Hard and Cum in Her Ass.”

Opponents to Schlegel’s law claim it stifles free speech. “I think the porn industry’s way to fearmonger is to say, ‘Well, now you adults aren’t going to be able to access it,’ ” she says.

Within days of hearing Eilish’s story, Schlegel contacted Dr. Gail Dines, a sociologist and anti-porn scholar whose 2015 TEDx Talk, Growing Up in a Pornified Culture, captured Schlegel’s concerns. The two women made strange bedfellows—Dines self-identifies as a “progressive, Jewish, pro-sex feminist who believes in free speech”—but they agreed the porn industry had gone too far, and something had to be done to stop it.

Both Dines and Schlegel were frustrated by the way that porn had seized the narrative, convincing the public that any regulation of their content was a death blow to free speech.

“I think the porn industry’s way to fearmonger is to say, ‘Well, now you adults aren’t going to be able to access it,’ ” says Schlegel. 

At Schlegel’s request, Dines delivered a webinar to the bipartisan Louisiana Legislative Women’s Caucus in January 2022. Among its most jarring findings is that minors who view pornography are more likely to believe women enjoy being raped. 

“People were shocked at Dr. Dines’ research and the type of pornography that kids can access on the internet and how it impacts them,” says Schlegel. “You could see from their follow-up questions that they’d had no idea and that many were appalled.” After the session, lawmakers were eager to offer Schlegel whatever support she needed. “I had even some of my Democratic colleagues saying, ‘How can we help you push this?’ ” she says. 

Meanwhile, Schlegel began researching legal precedent. She was looking for a sweet spot where a law would limit minors’ access to pornography without being struck down as unconstitutional. She says she got in touch “with constitutional lawyers, people who can take a look at my ideas and the language and ask, ‘Could this pass constitutional muster?’ ” 

There was also the technical question of how exactly to verify someone’s age online. During the pandemic, an electronic age verification system, called LA Wallet, had been authorized to accept digital driver’s licenses and ID cards as legitimate forms of identification in Louisiana. After getting assurances that LA Wallet could provide the technology to “verify someone’s age without giving any other identifying information,” Schlegel crafted Louisiana House Bill 142

The legislation requires online publishers of porn sites to require age verification, via an LA Wallet program called VerifyYou Pro, Anonymous edition, that users are over 18. 

By February, Schlegel had introduced the legislation in the lower chamber. HB-142 sailed through the Louisiana House (96–1) and State Senate (34–0) in June 2022. And when the law went into effect this past January, Pornhub, the world’s largest porn site, lost 80 percent of its traffic in Louisiana. 

Soon after, two dozen states proposed copycat policies; Arkansas, Montana, Mississippi, Utah, Virginia, and Texas have now all passed similar legislation. This summer, Pornhub chose to pull out of Mississippi, Utah, and Virginia entirely rather than comply with the new age verification requirements. 

Visitors in those states are now greeted with a video of a fully clothed Cherie DeVille, star of the films MILFs Like It Big and Slut Inspection, urging users who support internet freedoms to contact their state representatives. Pornhub further cited in a July 2023 statement that the laws “jeopardize user safety and privacy” and encouraged “all members of our community to stand up for your freedom to enjoy and consume porn privately.”

The Free Speech Coalition, which represents the porn industry, has filed lawsuits in several states, arguing age verification laws are “ineffective, unconstitutional, and dangerous.” U.S. District Judge David Ezra recently agreed, calling Texas’s law “constitutionally problematic because it deters adults’ access to legal sexually explicit material, far beyond the interest of protecting minors.” As of September 19, a three-judge panel in Texas reversed the earlier decision and, for now, is allowing the law to stand.

Opponents of age verification say these laws are an overreaction, that publishers are being forced to wall off their sites on the off chance the content might harm a child. As well as First Amendment objections, anti-censorship advocates worry about privacy. They note, for example, that every driver’s license in Louisiana was recently exposed to cyberattack

Schlegel says she understands some of her critics’ concerns, but believes the law is “100 percent not unduly burdensome to adults. . . . If you go on Pornhub’s site in Louisiana, the [age verification] process takes less than a minute for you to get unlimited [access to] whatever pornography you want to look at.”

Meanwhile, Schlegel is thrilled that an idea she had while listening to the radio has had such a widespread effect across the nation. 

“Getting HB-142 passed and signed by the governor felt amazing,” says Schlegel. “While it may sound cliché, I ran for office to make a difference, especially when it comes to kids.”

In August, Schlegel got a second law passed, which heavily enforces the first. “How can you sit back and do nothing? That wasn’t an option for me.”

Over a lunch of po’boys and onion rings, Scott Schlegel explains the challenges he and his wife have faced. “I mean look, we’ve been together since we were 17 years old, we support each other,” says the district court judge for Jefferson County.

There was the time she nearly died in childbirth the week of Hurricane Katrina. Freshly out of the hospital with their newborn son, the couple drove out of New Orleans just before the storm hit. 

“I just felt so bad Scott had to board up the house by himself,” says Schlegel.

There was also Schlegel leaving a 10-year career as a pharmaceutical rep in 2011 to get a master’s in marriage counseling, a decision partly inspired by the Bible study class she led, after which women would stay to talk about their relationships. “I want to be a marriage counselor and help marriages,” Schlegel recalls telling herself during her training. “I just didn’t want to do addiction, and then lo and behold, I’m doing addiction work.”

This happened because her second-ever client, while Schlegel was doing her training at Catholic Counseling Services, told her he was a sex addict whose problem had started with online porn.

“This was something I wasn’t familiar with,” she says. She realized that by helping people with their sex lives, including porn addiction, “I’d still be helping marriages, because a lot of people come in with that, and it’s really working on betrayal, too.”

Schlegel started work as a licensed professional counselor in 2016, and in 2021 got her master’s of arts in marriage and family counseling from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. She still practices—a sensible move, given that Louisiana representatives earn just $16,800 a year. While her opponents complain about the burden HB-142 places on visitors to porn sites, Schlegel is the one helping her clients sort through the wreckage caused by underage porn addiction.

“When you see the naked form, you get aroused. I think that’s very natural,” she says. “But what pornography presents I don’t think is natural, or at least a majority of it. Most of it is very aggressive when it comes to the woman. I think a lot of pornography is violence masquerading as sex. . . . I have seen people lose it when we talk about the addictive quality. Despite the consequences—broken marriages, lost jobs—it’s still a hard behavior to quit.”

With her age-verification legislation in the books, Schlegel also passed bills addressing crime and education during her first term. But she soon returned to her commitment to building a wall between kids and what she calls “the pornoverse.” 

“In order to do better enforcement, I passed a second law, HB-77,” she says. “If you’re not complying with the [first] law, then our AG can bring a lawsuit.” That law went into effect in August.

In order to convince the legislature the second bill was needed, she first went onto one of the porn sites flouting HB-142 and copied down the titles of videos on the landing page. 

“Fifty little thumbnails that any 10-year-old can see,” she tells me, while opening a manila envelope marked, “Please Be Advised Before Opening: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE.” Inside is a list of the titles she saw, which she distributed to lawmakers and which she now reads aloud.

“Daddy, please don’t come inside of me, I AM your daughter.” “Teenage bitch doesn’t know I’m fucking her.” “Ebony Miles loves white man cum to swallow.” “Did our stepdad fuck us last night?” “Sexy stepsis and friend tag team 3 big cocks.” “Intense ass pegging after he cums. . . ” 

She looks up at me. “I mean, I don’t know if you want me to continue.”

Of the pushback from the porn industry, Schlegel says: “They’re obviously fighting this because they don’t want to be regulated, of course; who wants to be regulated? But they haven’t been, and I think that’s why they’re so irresponsible, whether it’s to women or to children. And so yeah, it’s going to be a fight.”

Schlegel herself will be continuing, not only with her political career—she plans to run for reelection in 2024—but with her movement to protect children from pornography. She appreciates that there will be lawsuits, and that people do not want their data mined. But she’s not buying the idea that what she sees as a minimum of safeguards will be the end of internet freedom as we know it.

“Once you understand the gravity of this issue and realize what kinds of hardcore porn young kids freely are seeing online and how it is impacting them, how can you sit back and do nothing?” she asks. “That wasn’t an option for me. And hopefully doing nothing is not an option for the country going forward.”

Schlegel slips the list of obscene titles back in the envelope. “This is the beginning conversation,” she says. “It’s not the end for me.”

Nancy Rommelmann is the co-host of the podcast Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em and writes the Substack Make More Pie. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @NancyRomm. And read 16-year-old Isabel Hogben’s Free Press essay “I Had a Helicopter Mom. I Found Pornhub Anyway.”

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