Study after study has found that the more devoted people say they are to their religion, the less likely they are to admit watching pornography. If being a social psychologist has taught me anything, though, it’s that what people say they do isn’t necessarily what they actually do. And, in the case of porn, a new study published in the Journal of Sex Research suggests that there’s a big discrepancy between reported behavior and actual behavior.

In this study, researchers examined the popularity of searches for the term porn in all 50 United States over the last six years. They looked specifically at searches for this one word because previous research has found that it’s actually the single most common term people use when searching for sexually explicit material online. Apparently, Americans are even lazier and less creative when it comes to getting off than we thought.

The researchers then looked to see whether porn searches were associated with several different indicators of religiosity across states, including the size of various religious groups, how many people say they believe in God, how many people say they take the Bible literally and how frequently people attend church.

The results told a consistent story: in states with higher proportions of people who identify as Evangelical Protestants, who believe in God, who take a literal view of the Bible and who attend church often, searches for porn were a lot more common than they were elsewhere. By contrast, in states where fewer people reported having a religious affiliation, searches for porn tended to be lower.

So what exactly is going on here? There are a few possible explanations.


Maybe it’s all about being sexually deprived?
One possibility is that online porn has become the primary sexual outlet for people who live in highly religious states. As you know, many religions prohibit sex outside of marriage and, even within marriage, they may only permit sex for the purpose of reproduction. Limited sexual opportunities combined with local bans prohibiting porn shops and strip clubs serve to make the internet the default option for the sexually deprived. Plus, the internet offers the advantage of being a private way to express desires that one wants to remain hidden.

Perhaps it’s just reverse psychology in action?
Another possibility is that when religions place major restrictions on people’s sex lives, it might paradoxically lead them to seek out sexual gratification even more—a phenomenon psychologists have labeled reactance. Basically, when people perceive their personal freedoms as being limited or restricted, they tend to respond by resisting and trying to reassert those freedoms. You can think of this as a case of “reverse psychology,” with people doing precisely the opposite of what they’ve been told.

Or maybe it’s more about sex education than anything?
Yet one other potential explanation is that these porn searches stem from the fact that religious states are the least likely to offer comprehensive sex education. So, maybe people are going online in search of the information they aren’t getting from school or from their parents. To the extent that this is true, perhaps these searches are largely driven by adolescents and young adults.


We can’t say for sure which, if any, of the above explanations is correct. Although I suspect that each is true to at least some extent, we need more research to really know.

By the way, it’s important to mention that while this study is great in the sense that Google searches can circumvent people’s tendencies to lie about “sinful” behaviors like porn use, this method has its limitations. For instance, we don’t know for sure who is doing all of the porn searching. Is it mostly adults or children? And are the people performing the searches religious or non-religious? Living in a highly religious environment probably affects everyone, regardless of whether they affiliate with the dominant religion. In other words, maybe everyone in these communities gravitates toward more private forms of sexual expression, such as online porn use.

It’s also worth mentioning that we don’t know for sure what people did with all of their search results. Searching for porn and using porn aren’t necessarily the same thing—although, it’s probably pretty safe to bet that if you’re doing one, odds are that you’re doing the other.

Limitations aside, these results tell us something important, which is that strong religious prohibitions against sex clearly aren’t reducing online porn use; in fact, they seem to be increasing it.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University, a Faculty Affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.