Smut in Jesusland: Why Red-State Conservatives Are the Biggest Porn Hounds

Their guiding principle seems to be, "Do as I say, not as I do."

Red-state conservatives may insist that the rest of us should keep aspirin between our knees and be forced to bear Divine Justice Babies if we don’t. They may refuse to provide cake or flowers for gay weddings, or even to attend. They may pretend that teens won’t do it if we just don’t tell them how. They may adopt the Church Lady posture if anyone mentions sex that doesn’t involve one man, one woman, the missionary position and a pulsing desire for more offspring.

But online search traffic from behind closed doors in Jesusland suggests that the bad, nasty, sexual impulses righteous believers are trying so hard to shut down may be their own. And if Google search patterns mean anything, they’re not succeeding too well: studies consistently demonstrate that people in conservative religious states search for adult materials online far more often than people in blue states. 

Ever since Freud first started publishing his theories, psychologists have had a fascination with what he called “defense mechanisms":

  • Denial means simply refusing to acknowledge that some event or pattern is real.
  • Repression involves pushing uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the far recesses of the subconscious mind. 
  • Reaction formation is saying or doing the opposite of what you really want but won’t allow yourself to express.
  • Projection means assuming that others share the impulses, feelings, and vices that you find unacceptable in yourself.

Freud had a lot of ideas that haven’t withstood the test of time or the scientific method, but defense mechanisms have stuck, in part because they are so useful for explaining some of humanities' more bizarre behaviors. Like, perhaps, the conservative obsession with controlling everyone else’s sexual behavior.

For almost two centuries, what happened in the Bible Belt, sexually at least, stayed in the Bible Belt. Oh sure, there was the odd scandal involving a small-town preacher and the pretty young wife of a deacon or youth minister, or a big-name televangelist who, for example, asked male followers to get vasectomies and then examined their swollen willies. And there were the shocking-shocking-I-tell-you revelations of evangelical leaders feeling up young female interns or paying male call boys or even behaving like Catholic priests. But most people, for some reason, have had a hard time considering the possibility that there might be a pattern of correlation between authoritarian religion, sexual repression, and sneaky sex. 

 
 

Enter the Internet, where everything is secret—or not.

Whatever You Have Said in the Dark Will Be Heard in the Light (Luke 12:3)

In October, two Toronto researchers, Cara MacInnis and Gordon Hodson, published a study in which they used Google Trends to analyze porn searches. Individual search records are protected by privacy laws, but it is possible to compare the popularity of search terms across various regions or states, which is what they did.

Specifically, MacInnis and Hodson linked state level information from Gallup polls asking about religious and political attitudes together with a variety of sex and porn-related search terms. Their study design involves a number of different comparisons and it considered the effects of other variables like poverty and population. Based on related research, they hypothesized that states with higher levels of religiosity and conservatism would have higher rates of search for sexual content.

They made this prediction, and the data bore it out. More religiosity and conservatism meant more searches on words like sexgay sexgay porn, or sex images

MacInnis and Hodson caution that aggregate data can’t be used to draw conclusions about individuals. Also, their research is open to alternative interpretations: Maybe lonely liberals in red states are the ones searching for erotica online. But their findings are in keeping with information from other sources: Business professor Benjamin Edelman at Harvard found that states with more traditional views of sex and gender have higher rates of paid porn subscriptions—meaning people who are willing to put porn on a credit card.

Strip club owners claim they make three times as much during Republican conventions as Democratic conventions or even the Superbowl. MacInnis and Hodson quote exotic dancer Layla Love who in 2001 said, “Since the RNC has started, I have actually started to do 15 to 17 hour shifts, every day, until the convention is over. So, for basically seven days straight, I will be in the club, every day, day shift and night shift.”

Preach What You Practice

One can almost picture a group of Values Voters at the convention after a night on the town:

Projection: Godless liberals are destroying this country—feminazi sluts demanding sex with no consequences and faggots pushing their gay agenda on our children. 

Repression: What? 

Reaction formation: This town is full of trashy dancers who wag their big tits and tight asses at honest businessmen. We should lock them up and throw away the key.

Repression: What?

Denial: Real Christians, through prayer, have the power to resist temptation. Only righteous men in public office can stop the moral decay of this sex-obsessed country.

Repression: Did you say something?

The honest truth is that we all have our failings, Christian or not, liberal or conservative. None of us live up to our best intentions or deepest values. What’s shameful is not the fact that people find sex arousing and seek it out, even when they feel compelled to do so on the sneak. The problem is hypocrisy and the way that it distorts public policies and parenting, causing real harm to real people. For over a decade, conservatives forced abstinence-only education on young people, insisting that hormone-ravaged teens could “just say no” when they themselves can’t.

This epic public health failure contributed to the United States having the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, with devastating economic consequences for young mothers and their offspring. Some thrive despite the odds; many do not. We can do better.

Denying young people information about their bodies doesn’t stop them from having sex. We know that. What it does is create a fog zone, a “haze of misperceptions, magical thinking and ambivalence” that puts teens at risk for sexually transmitted infections and surprise pregnancy. Teens are notorious risk takers. The army sends recruiters into high schools because at age 17 or 18 kids think bad things happen only to other people. Or they simply don’t think. Cognitive scientists tell us that the frontal lobe doesn’t develop fully until the early 20s.

Add to that a conservative, paternalistic “virginity code” that traces back to ancient times, layering shame, denial and secrecy around sexual exploration. Religious and cultural codes prizing virginity may once have helped to ensure that children were born only when parents could provide for them. But in today’s world, an antiquated purity myth can actually have the opposite effect. To kids who are earnestly trying to live by the spoken rules, planful, protected, “premeditated” sex may feel like a worse transgression than a high-risk encounter that erupts in the heat of passion. Young people who have prepared to be safe may get treated as if they were on the make. James Houston’s documentary film, Let’s Talk About Sexcontrasts American and Dutch youth in this regard. What do you think of someone who carries a condom? the filmmaker asks. Teens from the two cultures give opposite responses. 

American men, women, and yes, children need honest conversation about the world we actually live in, not some pretense or fantasy about how we think the world should work. We need policies that are grounded in evidence and that recognize the awkward, complicated and sometimes embarrassing reality of what it means to be human. And that includes the fact that most of us really, really like sex.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington, and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of "Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light" and "Deas and Other Imaginings." Her articles can be found at valerietarico.com.

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