In the US, religious groups outwardly discourage and disavow the consumption of online sexual content. As such, one might expect to find less online sexual activity in more religious and/or conservative areas of the US.

But several new research findings cast doubt on such an intuition. For instance, US states that are more religious have significantly higher rates of teen pregnancies (Strayhorn & Strayhorn, 2009), even after controlling for several potential confounds (e.g. income). The correlation between state-level religiosity and teen-pregnancy rates (r = .73) represents a very strong statistical relation. Expressed as a binomial effect size display, this means that among states that are above-average in religiosity, 86% are also above-average in teen pregnancies.

Consider also a study of online porn subscriptions paid for by credit card. The results documented that more conservative/religious states had more subscriptions to pornographic content (Edelman, 2009).

Internet searches for sexual content

In a recent paper (MacInnis & Hodson, 2015), Dr. Cara MacInnis (my former PhD student) and I used Google Trends analyses to examine state-level searches for online sexual content (e.g., sex, gay sex, porn, XXX). Google respects the privacy of individual users but does provide search-content data at the aggregate (i.e., state) level. We looked at searches conducted in 2011 and 2012, considering state-level conservatism and religiosity and other potential confounds (e.g. state GDP, population size, poverty, internet use). We found that the more conservative a state, or the more religious a state, the more its residents searched Google for sexual content. Even after controlling for potential confounds, the correlations between religiosity and searching for sex remained significant (partial rs = .33 - .36).

These findings are important, we believe, in large part because they provide insights into actual online behaviour. That is, we did not ask how much people looked at online content. Rather, we looked at state-level behavioural evidence. These findings might surprise you, unless you work in the sex industry. A New York Times article (‘‘Strip clubs in Tampa are ready to cash in on G.O.P. convention’’) reported that when political conventions come to town, the strip clubs earn about 3X more when Republicans (vs. Democrats) host the conventions (Alvarez, 2012). Porn sites also report that conservative states consume as much, if not more, porn relative to other states (see links here and here).

Reactions to scientific findings about online sexual activity

We were intrigued by these large-scale, internet behaviour data, as they seemed to provide rather novel insights into private viewing of sexual content online, albeit at the state (not personal) level. We then wondered, how might people react to such findings?

In a paper just published (MacInnis & Hodson, 2016) we examined reactions to our earlier findings. We examined religiosity and religious fundamentalism among Americans. In the first study we did not have participants read our earlier Google study, but rather we had them read the following synopsis:

“A recent study demonstrated that searching for sexual content online (using Google) is more prevalent in more religious U.S. states than in less religious states. We would like to know your reactions to this study”.

To be clear, participants learned of no other details, just this basic finding. We found that those higher in religiosity or fundamentalism found these results more upsetting, surprising, and threatening, and considered the results unamusing and worrisome. But they also considered the findings to be less true, and were more likely to consider the researchers politically motivated. All this without having read the study itself, just a 35 word synopsis.

In a follow up study (MacInnis & Hodson, 2016, Study 2) we learned that those higher in religiosity or fundamentalism disapproved of searching for sexual content online. Moreover, they were very concerned about addiction to pornography. In fact, they rated addiction to pornography to be more problematic to America than racism, gun violence, or homophobia (big ticket items at election time).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this second study involved an analysis of a subset of religious people who admitted viewing sexual content online. How did they feel? Guilty, mischievous, dirty, and uncomfortable.  So why do they view sexual content online?  Answer: to monitor society’s immorality.

These studies offer novel insights into human sexuality. But several things are important to keep in mind. First, these studies were conducted in the US, and might not apply to other regions of the world. Second, some of the analyses (MacInnis & Hodson, 2015) were at the state-level, not individual level. One cannot conclude that conservatives or religious people necessarily search for more sexual content online.

Without doubt, these new technologies are transforming the research world. In many ways, online activity (i.e., behaviour) may be more relevant than traditional forms of self-report, particularly when the behaviour in question (e.g., pornography consumption) is socially sensitive. For example, a recent study found that Google searches for suicide-relevant terms better predict suicide attempts relative to self-reported suicidal tendencies (Ma-Kellams et al., 2016).  For this reason, research about online behaviour is expected to become increasingly relevant to understanding psychology in the modern era.

References and Suggested Readings:

Alvarez, L. (2012). Strip clubs in Tampa are ready to cash in on G.O.P. convention. The New York Times. Retrieved January 28, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/27/us/strip-clubs-in-tampa-are-ready-to-c...  

Edelman, B. (2009). Red light states: Who buys online adult entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23, 209–220. doi:10.1257/jep.23.1.209.

MacInnis, C.C., & Hodson, G. (2015). Do American states with more religious or conservative populations search more for sexual content on Google? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 137-147. DOI: 10.1007/s10508-014-0361-8  (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-014-0361-8)

MacInnis, C.C., & Hodson, G. (2016). Surfing for sexual sin: Relations between religiousness and viewing sexual content online. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 23, 196-210. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10720162.2015.1130000.  (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10720162.2015.1130000)

Ma-Kellams, C., Or, F., Baek, J.H., Kawachi, I. (2016). Rethinking suicide surveillance: Google search data and self-reported suicidality differentially estimate completed suicide risk. Clinical Psychological Science, 4, 480-484. DOI: 10.1177/2167702615593475

Strayhorn, J. M., & Strayhorn, J.C. (2009). Religiosity and teen birth rate in the United States. Reproductive Health, 6(1), 14. doi:10.1186/1742-4755-6-14.