Are religious people honest about their Internet pornography viewing habits?

Religious people tend to view pornography more often than they let on—and resist data that tells them so, according to a 2016 study.

The study, published in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, aimed to answer a few questions regarding religiousness, online pornography use, and perceptions of the self and others related to pornography.

Previous research has indicated that self-reports of pornography use and the hard data don’t line up. When surveyed, individuals with higher religiosity and religious fundamentalism reported less pornography use than others. However, studies examining Internet use have shown just the opposite: that religiosity is actually associated with more online pornography use.

“Positive associations have been revealed between religion and online sexual activity at the state level…Searching for sexual content online and subscribing to online pornography services are each more prevalent in more religious U.S. states,” said Cara C. MacInnis, corresponding author of the study.

Research has also shown that the religious community sees pornography as an issue reaching epidemic proportions. People high in religiosity tend to consider pornography use a problematic behavior and are more likely to refer to it as an “addiction.”

Scientists conducted two studies to determine (1) how religious people would react to the discrepancy between self-reported and actual use of pornography, and (2) how religious people view pornography and “sexual sin” compared with other social and political issues.

Study 1

Study 1 collected data from 208 American individuals, with around 42 percent identifying as Christian and 48 percent identifying as agnostic or Atheist. Participants took surveys determining level of religiosity (extent to which religion is important to everyday life) and religious fundamentalism (rigidity of beliefs and unwillingness to consider alternative beliefs or perspectives). The team then presented participants with the evidence of the discrepancy between reported and actual pornography use.

Participants who were high in religiosity and religious fundamentalism were more likely to react negatively to the research, rating it more upsetting, surprising, worrisome and even threatening. They also found it to be less true than people with low religiosity and religious fundamentalism. Interestingly, they also were more likely to believe that the research was conducted by politically motivated authors.

“[The results are] consistent with [people’s] tendencies to reject research findings contrary to personal opinions,” explained MacInnis.

Study 2

If religious fundamentalists reject the idea that religiosity is associated with higher pornography use, then what traits do they believe are associated? Scientists sought to answer this question in Study 2—as well as explore their beliefs regarding the severity of society’s pornography use.

In this study, 252 American Individuals answered a series of surveys and shared their opinions. The results showed that more religious participants believed that moral values, race, and socioeconomic status impacted the use of pornography more than religiosity. They also rated pornography addiction and “sexual sin” as more of a problem than gun violence, racism and homophobia.

The findings are certainly intriguing and may have an impact on clinical practice as well as future research.

“Clinicians can be mindful that religious individuals likely resist evidence suggesting associations between religiousness and viewing sexual content and adjust therapies accordingly,” said MacInnis.

The findings also add to previous research showing that people tend to resist scientific evidence that does not align with their personal beliefs.

“Future research can explore interventions to prevent such inoculation against divergent views,” MacInnis added.