SCIENCE

Religious People Say They Don't Watch Porn. Internet Data Says Otherwise.

Researchers asked them how they felt about that discrepancy.

07/07/2016 12:51 AM IST | Updated 07/07/2016 12:51 AM IST
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Highly religious people in the U.S. may have a love-hate relationship with online pornography, but new research suggests they don’t want to admit it.

A study published June 2 in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention aimed to find out how people who self-identified as very religious (based on how they rated the importance of religion in their lives and the degree of their religiosity) would react to paradoxical findings about religious individuals' porn use.

Many religious Americans consider watching porn to be deviant behavior or a sinful addiction, and attempt to address it through online software that prevents individuals from accessing porn or through therapy for people who are “addicted” to it.

“Watching porn excessively to the point that it disrupts an individual’s daily life is generally considered problematic,” said study co-author Cara MacInnis of the University of Calgary. “But some highly religious individuals might view the most minimal of pornography use that is likely not problematic to represent an addiction.”

Yet studies of internet use across the U.S. have found that a higher percentage of people subscribe to pornography services or search for sexual content online in states where a greater percentage of residents describe themselves as religious.

How would highly religious people react to this information? To find out, MacInnis and co-author Gordon Hodson, of Brock University in Ontario, asked more than 200 Americans to participate in a survey about their level of religiosity. About 42 percent identified themselves as Christian and 48 percent identified as agnostic or atheist.

The team then presented participants with the evidence of the discrepancy between reported and actual pornography use.

These participants responded negatively to these findings and were less willing to accept them as true. Cara MacInnis, University of Calgary

Sure enough, highly religious participants did not like what they heard, rating the information as upsetting, surprising, worrisome and threatening in a list of choices. They were more likely than their nonreligious peers to believe that the survey was conducted by politically motivated researchers.

“These participants responded negatively to these findings and were less willing to accept them as true,” MacInnis said. “This is consistent with a general tendency for people to reject research findings that are contrary to their personal opinions.”

Previously, a 2009 study by Harvard Business School's Benjamin Edelman titled “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” suggested that online porn subscriptions are more common in "conservative" states, where a higher percentage of people say they agree with statements like “Even today miracles are performed by the power of God” or “I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage” or “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.”

Benjamin G. Edelman, Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2009
The percentage of people subscribing to online pornography services varies widely by state.

In 2015, MacInnis and Hodson found the same correlation between religious states and online adult content use. The researchers defined "religious states" as those with a higher percentage of individuals who self-identify as very religious and consider religion to be important to their daily lives. They found that there were more searches for sexual content on Google in these states. 

Meanwhile, several studies that did not rely on internet data -- but directly asked individuals about their use of online porn -- found that religiosity is linked with lower self-reported use of online pornography.

So, how do we explain the discrepancy between the internet data and people’s own reports?

“It would not be surprising for religious individuals to deny or underreport viewing of sexual content, given that this violates their core values,” MacInnis said. Moreover, “psychoanalytic theories suggest that those advocating against a particular behavior are at some level drawn to that behavior.”

That said, these studies do not necessarily mean that religious people are not telling the truth about their habits, MacInnis said. Another reason could explain why the data doesn’t match up with what people say, but the researchers don’t know what that may be, she added.

The researchers also asked participants what traits they believe are linked with pornography use. This time, 252 people participated in the survey. The more religious participants said moral values, race and financial status were more related to pornography use than religiosity. They also expressed more negative beliefs about viewing sexual content online, calling it more problematic than racism and gun violence, MacInnis said.

Although a smaller percentage of religious individuals overall said they viewed sexual content online, a subset of them did report doing so. The more religious of these respondents said they felt more negative about this behavior.

This finding may be relevant to therapists, MacInnis said. “Therapists and clinicians might be mindful that highly religious individuals may be much more concerned or anxious about about themselves or others viewing sexual content than less religious individuals."

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