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The Sexual Obsession

Why conservatives cannot control their sexual urges.

Religious conservatives like to spout moral principles and family values, and to claim that religion is essential for moral conduct. They often sound much better than they act (1). Perhaps they should be called the immoral minority as opposed to the moral majority they claim.

The tea party

Many decades ago, sociologist Laud Humphreys (2) wondered what kind of men would stop off in a public restroom (or “tearoom”) for a few minutes of oral sex with other men, on the way home from work. By acting as a lookout against police, Humphreys gained acceptance in this community. He jotted down car license numbers and managed to interview the men at home. Most seemed happily married. Their homes often had the U.S. flag on the wall and a Bible on the mantelpiece as Humphreys reported in his book Tearoom Trade. In other words, they came across as religious conservatives.

Residents of highly religious states spent more on cyber porn than less religious states according to a more recent study of online pornography access in the U.S. (3). The more politically conservative states were also keener on pornography. 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 Republican candidate John McCain in the 2008 presidential election (the two exceptions were Florida and Hawaii that went democratic).

The connection between religion and pornography was no fluke. Indeed, agreement with various religiously conservative positions was predictive of pornography use. 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” was also associated with higher pornography consumption. States claiming to have old-fashioned values about family and marriage purchased substantially more adult-content subscriptions.

Really cracking down on sexuality is remarkably tough and can have the opposite effect of feeding sexual obsessions. Constantly on their guard against the perceived danger of sexual thoughts, early Christian monks believed they were possessed by evil spirits.

Randy monks

Pachomius of Tabennisi, Egypt, prepared a system of rules to maintain fourth-century monastic chastity that has a Monty Pythonesque specificity in its details. These were explicitly designed to prevent homosexual encounters. 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 (4).

Bizarre and archaic though Pachomius might seem, his rules find echoes in the contemporary middle East. Reporting on Iraq, in 2006, John Hendren of NPR related the problems of some unfortunate people who experienced the sexual paranoia of religious conservatives. 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.

Feeding the obsession

Why are religious conservatives so interested in pornography? Perhaps there is greater sexual frustration and thus more interest in online porn in conservative states. Individuals who seek to repress their sexual impulses, may also spend more time thinking about sex making them more interested in, or more responsive to, pornographic material.

Whatever the underlying psychology, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that religious and political leaders who emphasize sexual morality and family values in their public pronouncements behave very differently in private. 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.

A long string of political scandals linked religious conservatives to extramarital affairs, and prostitutes. Liberal politicians have had their share of sex scandals also. Yet these seem less shocking if only because the participants did not set such high standards for themselves in these matters.

Some of these scandals are cut straight from the cloth of Tearoom Trade. Among the most widely publicized incidents were gay romances with underage congressional pages, and yes, alleged sexual solicitation in a public restroom by “family man” Larry Craig at Minneapolis airport.

Public piety has little to do with private conduct. If anything, expect the opposite.


1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at:

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

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

4. Barber, N. (2004). Kindness in a cruel world. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

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