Conservative Christians are more likely to think porn is immoral but view it anyway, study finds

New research indicates there is a significant number of conservative Christians who are morally opposed to pornography but view it anyway.

The study, recently published in the Journal of Sex Research, found that evangelical Protestants were more likely than non-religious people to have an incongruence between their beliefs and their actions.

“I’ve been studying the intersections of pornography and religion for the past few years now. That may seem like an odd pairing, but when you think about it, pornography (and other sorts of sexual issues) plays such a major role in the lives of devoutly religious Americans, particularly conservative Christians,” explained the author of the study, Samuel L. Perry of the University of Oklahoma.

“Having studied what conservative Christians think about pornography as well as their consumption habits, I started to notice a bit of a discrepancy. In every study of which I’m aware, conservative Christians are far more likely than other Americans to reject pornography on moral grounds. There is basically no justification for it whatsoever in their minds. However, I also started to notice that, despite their unequivocal rejection of pornography, conservative Christians aren’t considerably less likely than other Americans to report viewing it.

“Sure, a number of studies show that, say, conservative Protestants and frequent churchgoers view porn somewhat less often than other Americans,” Perry told PsyPost. “But that’s not the case in every study. In some studies, for example, being a conservative Protestant or frequent churchgoer didn’t make much of a difference at all in terms of porn use.

“So I started to consider whether deeply religious Americans are more likely than other Americans to experience the situation where they view porn as completely immoral, but they find themselves watching it anyway. I call this the experience of incongruence, where there is a discrepancy between one’s moral view of porn and their usage of it.”

For his research, Perry examined data from 2,279 Americans who participated in the Portraits of American Life Study (PALS) in 2006. PALS is a national study that tracks religion, morality, politics and other social issues.

“My suspicions were confirmed that even though evangelical Protestants had the strongest, negative moral views about pornography, they weren’t any different from ‘unaffiliated’ Americans in their likelihood to report viewing porn, once other factors were controlled for,” Perry told PsyPost.

Overall, he found that about 10% of Americans who believed pornography was “always morally wrong” had viewed it within the previous year.

Evangelical Protestants were approximately 2.5 times more likely than unaffiliated Americans to view pornography use as morally wrong.

“In fact, evangelical Protestants and other sectarian Protestant groups were the most likely of all religious groups to report the experience of ‘incongruence,’ saying porn is always immoral, but viewing it anyway. To put that in perspective, less than 6% of religiously unaffiliated persons reported believing porn is immoral but watch it anyway, compared to over 13% of evangelical Protestants or other sectarian Christian groups.”

But this incongruence seemed to almost exclusively affect men. Perry didn’t find evidence that religious women were more likely to believe that pornography was morally wrong while still viewing it.

“When I looked at measures of religiosity, I found there was an important gender dynamic at play. The connection between church attendance and prayer frequency and experiencing an incongruence between one’s porn beliefs and usage only applied to men. But as men’s church attendance or prayer frequency increased, their likelihood of experiencing that incongruence (believing porn is wrong, but watching it anyway) increased in a linear fashion,” the researcher explained.

“For example, among those Americans who ‘never’ attend church, only about 7% of men report experiencing an incongruence between porn beliefs and usage. But at the highest frequencies of church attendance, over 25% of men report experiencing an incongruence. That means that for those men who attend church services several times a week, roughly 1/4 of them say porn is always immoral, but they watch it anyway. The results were similar for prayer frequency as well. ”

As with any study, Perry’s research had some limitations.

“Because of the way the data are set up, I was really only looking at whether respondents reported viewing porn at all in the previous year, not how frequently they watched it,” he explained. “I was more interested determining whether devout, conservative Christians were simply more likely to experience an incongruence between their porn beliefs and usage compared to others.

The study also examined cross-sectional data, allowing Perry to find correlations but not allowing him to draw inferences about cause and effect.

“I also unfortunately could not definitively determine why,” he added. “Some scholars may argue that it’s because of the ‘preoccupation hypothesis,’ that conservative religious persons become obsessed about the very thing they reject and get caught up in watching it. But I tend to think that it’s a combination of two things: (1) conservative religious Americans are very much a part of mainstream society and they’re consuming most of the technology and media that everyone else is, and (2) our religious characteristics, beliefs, and behaviors tend to be better predictors of our group judgments (‘porn is bad’) than they are of our private behaviors. In combination, those two factors add up to conservative Christians denouncing pornography in public, but being sort of unable to avoid it in private, especially the men.”

The study, “Not Practicing What You Preach: Religion and Incongruence Between Pornography Beliefs and Usage“, was published online June 20, 2017.