Study finds religious factors linked to searches for online pornography in the United States

A state-level analysis has found that religion is correlated to searches for online pornography in the USA.

The study, published in the The Journal of Sex Research, found that states with a higher percentage of Evangelical Protestants, theists, or biblical literalists had a higher proportion of Google searches for “porn” from January 1, 2011, to July 31, 2016. The same was true of states with higher average levels of religious service attendance.

States with more individuals who didn’t identify with a religion, on the other hand, tended to have proportionally less Google searches for pornography.

The study controlled for the potential effects of political ideology, income, education, age, and percentage married of each state population. The research was based on data from Google, the 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Study, and the the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Andrew L. Whitehead of Clemson University. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Whitehead: My coauthor Sam Perry is publishing really interesting work on the relationship between religion and pornography consumption. These various studies primarily focus on the individual-level relationship. After reading his work I wondered if there were group-level differences in the relationship between religion and pornography consumption. I reached out to Sam to ask him what he knew on the topic and began investigating it myself. A really fascinating body of research makes the case that religion is an important component of the social structure and serves to create moral communities. Basically, when more people around you are religious, your actions are influenced by that context. This occurs whether you as an individual are religious or not. These moral communities exert an influence on everyone. Given the relatively hidden and private nature of pornography consumption, we were curious as to whether such moral communities might be significantly associated with this type of behavior, or not.

What should the average person take away from your study?

We find that the states with more Evangelical Protestants, theists (people who profess belief in a God or higher power), and biblical literalists (those who report they interpret the Bible as the literal word of God) are significantly more likely to have higher aggregate rates of online searches for pornography. States where people attend religious services more frequently are also significantly more likely to have higher rates of searches for online porn. Finally, we find that states with higher percentages of residents unaffiliated with any religious group have significantly lower levels of searching for online porn. All of these relationships are present even when we take various state-level measures into account, like the median age of the population, median income, how politically conservative the state is, the percent of residents who are married, and the percent of residents who have a Bachelor’s degree.

These findings are interesting because at the individual-level, people who affiliate with Evangelical Protestant groups, attend church, read the Bible literally, or believe in God generally report much lower levels of pornography consumption. It is striking to see this relationship reversed at the state level. This underscores the importance of accounting for religion as a group-level phenomenon and not solely as an individual trait. These findings suggest religion really does matter at the group-level.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

It is important to point out, as we do in the study, that while searching for porn is more prevalent in more religious states, we cannot then conclude that religious individuals search for more pornography. This is called the ecological inference fallacy – drawing inferences about individual behavior based on data gathered at the group level. Because the Google search data is anonymized, we cannot discover anything about those who are doing the searching for porn.

It is tempting for some to propose explanations that are somewhat more susceptible to the ecological inference fallacy. For example, one study on pornography consumption and religion at the state level explains the association using the preoccupation hypothesis. The preoccupation hypothesis predicts religiously conservative individuals, while outwardly opposed to pornography, are secretly drawn to it. While this is certainly a plausible explanation for the positive association at the state level, there is no way to confirm that it is actually religious people searching for pornography online.

We propose a number of possible explanations in our paper for the positive association between state-level popularity of pornography consumption and religiosity. It very well could be that religious people are searching for more pornography like prior research suggests. It could also be that non-religious and religious people living in the midst of strong moral communities have fewer avenues through which their sexuality can be expressed and so they turn to a private form of sexual expression. A third possible explanation is that it is the youth in Evangelical homes who are doing the searching for pornographic material. A body of research shows Evangelicals tend to provide less sex education to their children.

Overall, the key finding is that in the midst of a strong moral community searching for pornography is more prevalent. Future research should continue to explore how human behavior is shaped by the surrounding social environment. Religion, as we show, is an essential part of the social structure.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We would like to encourage social scientists to consider Google Trends a viable research tool. It is a powerful instrument that can unobtrusively measure a specific social behavior in the aggregate on virtually any topic. Trends provides data on search terms worldwide, within hundreds of countries, or at the state, metro, or city level here in the United States. Researchers can examine particular periods of time, as well as Google Image, News, and YouTube searches.

The study was titled: “Unbuckling the Bible Belt: A State-Level Analysis of Religious Factors and Google Searches for Porn“.