The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Why Conservatives Spend More on Pornography

Conservative states spend more on pornography—hypocrisy or repression?

As far as online adult entertainment is concerned, the Red states are also the red light states. Eight of the top ten pornography consuming states went for McCain in the presidential election (the two exceptions, Florida and Hawaii went democratic).

The biggest consumer of Internet pornography was Utah with 5.47 subscriptions per thousand home broadband users compared to Montana the lowest state with 1.92 subscribers per thousand (1). Study author, Benjamin Edelman of Harvard Business School focused on broadband users because pornography is a bandwidth hog. Edelman was also careful to rule out the age distribution of the population, income, education, population density, marriage rates and other characteristics that might make state comparisons unfair. Utah still wound up at the top of the heap.

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Utah's top ranking surprises many. One can think of many adjectives to describe the state: religious, conservative, family-oriented, outdoorsy, clean-living, but few would have guessed top-pornography-consuming. Many would find it easier to attribute such interests to western neighbor Nevada, a center for gambling and prostitution. Ironically, Nevada doesn't even make it to the top ten.

States that banned gay marriage had 11 percent more porn subscribers. The level of agreement in a state with the statement that "Even today miracles are performed by the power of God" predicted higher pornography consumption. States claiming to have old-fashioned values about family and marriage purchased substantially more adult-content subscriptions.

In addition to the conservative states' avid consumption of Internet pornography, there have been numerous examples of prominent conservative politicians and public figures whose lofty statement of values in sexual matters was cruelly undercut by their own actions: Larry Craig; Newt Gingrich; Mark Foley, Jimmy Swaggart; Bob Livingston, Henry Hyde, Ted Haggard, and Bob Packwood, among scores of less recognizable names.

Many words have been used to explain the apparent contradiction between ideals and practices. Hypocrisy is the obvious one. Edelman cites repression, pointing out that if people are told they can't have something they want it more.

Although his findings might appear new and shocking, not much is genuinely new under the sun. Many decades ago, sociologist Laud Humphreys (2,3) wondered what kind of men would stop off in a public restroom for a few minutes of oral sex with other men, on the way home from work. He jotted down their car license numbers and tricked the local motor vehicles department into divulging the men's addresses. Without mentioning the true intent of his study, Humphreys interviewed the men in their homes. Most seemed happily married. Their homes often had the U.S. flag on the wall and a Bible on the mantelpiece. Humphreys had the impression that their aura of respectability was overdone. He referred to this as the "breastplate of righteousness," or a defense against accusations of sexual deviancy by seeming super normal.

Really cracking down on sexual nonconformity is remarkably tough. The early Christian monks who were constantly on their guard against sexual thoughts ended up being obsessed with it. Pachomius of Tabennisi, Egypt, prepared a system of rules to maintain fourth-century monastic chastity that has an almost pornographic specificity in its details explicitly designed to prevent homosexual encounters (4). Monks had to be careful to cover their knees when they sat down together. Never hold hands. Never lend a book. Never pull a thorn from another's foot. Never help him to oil his body.

Reporting on Iraq, in 2006, John Hendren of NPR related the problems of some unfortunate people who were subject to the sexual paranoia of religious conservatives (listen). Shepherds outside Baghdad had been killed by Islamic militants for failing to diaper their goats. This was felt to be too great a sexual temptation for local men. The militants also slaughtered some grocers because the arrangement of their vegetables was considered too provocative. Evidently the celery was getting too familiar with the tomatoes contrary to their explicit guidelines for vegetable modesty.

1. Edelman, Benjamin (2009). Red light states: Who buys online adult entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23, 209-220.

2. Humphreys, Laud (1970). Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places. Chicago, Aldine.

3. Barber, N, (2002). Encyclopedia of ethics in science and technology. New York: Facts on File.

4. Barber, N. (2004). Kindness n a cruel world. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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