Rethinking Mormons and Porn: Utah 40th in US in New Porn Data

Statistics tell stories, and this is something that Mormons know well. While many demographic indicators speak to the social health of Mormon culture, there are some that do not.

A well-known example: in 2009, a study found that Utah had the highest rate of online porn subscriptions of any state in the US. Latter-day Saints, who form a majority of Utah’s population, profess a belief in avoiding pornography.

New data, however, offer a conclusion opposite to the findings of the 2009 study, suggesting that Utah and other states with high Mormon populations have abnormally low rates of porn use.

Background

The Mormon blogosphere (or “Bloggernacle”) lit up with commentary after the release of the famous original study, and the conclusions of the paper became a focal point of the growing discourse about sexuality among Mormons online. Many major blogs addressed the issue head on, as in posts here and here.

After a few months, the Utah porn statistic became entrenched in conventional wisdom. Blogs would make reference to the statistic, and having drawn their conclusions, move on to provide explanations and accusations regarding the phenomenon, as represented here, here, here, here and here. The popular narrative of the shamed, porn-watching Mormon is well-represented by the views of Joanna Brooks, a well-known observer of Mormon religious practices and culture, who believes some of the religion’s teachings:

We all know LDS Church leaders have been emphasizing the dangers of pornography, especially to young men.  And yet, the statistics have shown that Utah has the highest rate of home online porn subscription.

Still, this seemingly contradictory pair of facts seems to suggest that there’s something compulsive going on with porn in the world of Mormonism.  Mormon communities are emphatic about chastity—because it is a commandment.  But Mormonism’s emphasis on chastity can impact the way Mormons feel about healthy sexuality, tinging it with shame, mystery, guilt, and unrealistic expectations. [link]

For five years the conversation on Mormonism and porn has been defined by this single data point, and psychological and sociological analyses of Mormon culture, like Brooks’, have rested upon it.

The paper’s accompanying fact that Idaho (25% Latter-day Saints) had the lowest rate of porn subscriptions per thousand broadband users in the US has only very rarely been cited. Also seldom reported is the fact that the data in the 2009 study was from an unnamed vendor, whose users may or may not be representative of the US population.

The New Data

Pornhub pageviews per capita

Annual pageviews per capita by state, Pornhub.com.

Last week, the third largest pornography website in the United States (Pornhub.com) released data on its annual pageviews per capita by state. A chart of pageviews by state is shown at right (a link to the analysis, which does not show explicit content, is here).

The chart as presented by Pornhub is limited in its applicability, because relevant demographic variables are left uncontrolled for, but the conclusion nevertheless appears favorable for Mormons. Utah’s pageviews per capita in 2013 were 40th in the US. Idaho and Wyoming, the other states with large Mormon populations, are even lower on the list, at 49th and 46th respectively.

In order to find a more meaningful interpretation of the data that would adjust for possible confounding variables, I went to the trouble of gathering the most recent demographic data I could find for each state, so I could perform a controlled regression. I included variables for GDP per capita, internet penetration per capita, male/female ratio, age distribution, race and each state’s marriage rate.

Using ordinary linear regression methods, I generated a difference between a state’s actual views per capita and the views that would be predicted based on demographic variables. In this analysis, Utah’s deviation from the views predicted by demographics was 45th in the United States, while Wyoming was 46th and Idaho came 50th.

In other words, when controlling for other variables, there is an even stronger suggestion than before that Mormon populations do not have abnormally high rates of porn use (at least as represented by Pornhub). We might even suggest that their rates of use are especially low.

I also decided to directly analyze the relationship between Mormonism and porn use (again, as measured by this particular metric). This is something the author of the 2009 study did not do. I included a variable for the percentage of a state’s population that is LDS, as measured by official LDS membership statistics and the most recent population projections based on census data.

The regression finds, roughly speaking, when controlling for the variables already mentioned, that a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s LDS population is associated with an approximate 16% decrease in the amount of porn consumption.

This result is highly significant, even at the 0.001 level. In fact, “percentage of Latter-day Saints in population” had a higher statistical significance than any other single variable I included in the regression (the next most significant variable was internet penetration). The proportion of overall explained variation in the regression is 66%, and a test for overall significance is highly conclusive, suggesting that the model as estimated is meaningful and significant.

Why do the results appear so different for these two sets of data? It’s almost impossible to know. The author of the 2009 study did not reveal the identity of the “top ten” porn vendor who gave him credit card data, and he admitted that there was no way to evaluate whether the users of that vendor were representative of the porn industry in general. His data, which was gathered from 2006 to 2008, also did not measure consumption, but rather paid subscriptions. A possible explanation of the discrepancy is that Utah’s porn use is skewed toward paid pornography.

In fairness, we cannot be sure that Pornhub.com users are representative of the industry overall. However, in this case we are aware of the identity of the provider, which provides both paid and unpaid content.

Statistics tell stories, and the famous “Utah porn statistic” has told far more stories than it is worth. If critics of Mormon teachings on porn and sexuality would like to continue promoting the idea that a conservative sexual culture has backfired on itself, then they will have to confront a less convenient set of data.

Here is another narrative, that perhaps time and further analysis will prove: Mormons view less porn than others, and those conservative sexual teachings are working.

EDIT: In response to a request, I obtained recent Gallup data on religiosity by state, and added these variables to my regression, in order to separate the effects of religiosity in general and religious engagement by Mormons. The same general results persist: a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s LDS population is associated with an approximate 17% decrease in porn pageviews. The p-value is once again very low, at 0.002. In deviations from projections including religiosity, Utah is ranked 38th, Idaho 50th, and Wyoming 46th. The differences from the earlier analysis are small and require no changes to the conclusions I suggested above.

Technical notes: I used Stata to perform the regressions mentioned. Data were collected from government sources wherever possible. The results were consistent even when using logarithmic variables for pageviews and GDP. I learned the relevant statistical methods as part of the completion of the econometric portion of my Honours economics degree. EDIT: Datafiles and my Stata do-file can be accessed here.

Minimizing Casualties in the Culture War

Brendan EichThe culture war continues to make its effects felt, as last week the CEO of a technology firm lost his job for taking part in the fighting six years ago. Brendan Eich’s departure from Mozilla is in itself no tragedy, but it may be true, as Conor Friedersdorf argued in The Atlantic, that the move represents an affront to the values of a pluralistic society, and will have a chilling effect on political discourse.

Whether or not this is the case, the impassioned, sometimes vengeful response of some vocal progressives to Eich’s misdeeds and subsequent displacement seem to reveal a societal short-sightedness about cultural change itself.

Last year I wrote that the present wave of social progressivism had moved quickly, and that it was unusually unforgiving to its startled opponents. Social conservatives feel as in the position of veteran employees under new management, chastised for being slow to give up on the old rules, and still feeling affection for the old boss.

A fact easily forgotten by ideologues of any affiliation, left or right, is that the current cultural consensus does not foresee its own advance, to paraphrase F.A. Hayek. The main implication of this fact is the near-certainty that in our lifetimes there will be more sea changes in public opinion—and on issues we have hardly yet considered.

If liberals do not move with the tide on these future issues, as they have with marriage laws, they will at some point be in the position of gay marriage’s current opponents. Conceiving of the future is difficult, so it is worth bringing up a few possible scenarios.

For example, given recent history, it is not ridiculous to speculate that in the next few decades public opinion on polyamorous marriage could reverse. Supporters of the cause have already begun making the comparison to gay marriage. And if changing academic perspectives are any hint, pedophilia may see itself transformed from perversion to orientation. A growing transgender rights movement could lead to far-reaching institutional changes that would alter the way we talk about gender. Religious exemptions can hardly be generally guaranteed.

Looking further down the road: If animal rights attitudes shift, common farming and ranching practices could be banned and meat-eaters could face moral censure. Alcohol could go the way of tobacco and lose its place as the last widely acceptable recreational drug. The abortion dialogue could continue to trend rightward, creating a pro-life status-quo.

The headlines are not difficult to dream up: “Polyamory rights group wins suit against religious group.” “Physicians directed to provide therapeutic virtual child porn for minor-attracted persons.” “Mosque loses fight to require gender identification.” “Governor seeks to bring past abortion providers to trial.”

These hypothetical examples sound absurd, and it may indeed be the case that they are—but if radical changes seem unthinkable it is worth considering that to those whose memory goes back more than two decades, so once would have the headline, “CEO opposed to same-sex marriage steps down amid controversy.”

But the likelihood (or rightness or wrongness) of these particular contingencies is not the point, if we accept that whatever the affiliation of today’s political observers, they could before too long find themselves forced to become a conspicuous enemy of public opinion.

For this reason, it would be wise for today’s cultural conquerors to act with magnanimity and grace toward their conquered, the way Friedersdorf and Andrew Sullivan have done. But in our electrically polarized political culture, theirs is not often the attitude that prevails. Sullivan laments, after hearing feedback from his readers, “only a small percentage of emailers are as disgusted as I am.”

Ross Douthat recently wrote an almost epitaphic letter to the officers of the marriage battle (he titled it The Terms of Our Surrender). Acknowledging that Christians and conservatives have not always acted with restraint when in the position of victor, he requested only that the winning side in this conflict “recognize its power”. To their credit, many intellectuals on that side are doing so.

But I would extend Douthat’s metaphor a little further and plead for a little more, given all of our shared history and unavoidable future. We live in a ceaselessly changing culture, and all of us, conservatives and liberals alike, could at one point find ourselves in a position like Brendan Eich’s, having made, say, a donation to a majority political cause a few years earlier.

When new battles place some of us on the unexpected defense, our moral territory in the culture war left all at once deserted by the forces of popular opinion, is it too much to ask that the victors offer the defeated, at least until the surrender has been negotiated, clemency for having defended the losing side?

Women are becoming less happy: What’s wrong with modern feminism?

Woman“Was happiness the goal? I always thought it was equality.”

That was the comment of a feminist writer this week in the Los Angeles Times, speaking on the goals of feminism. The statement is surprising—why would we think that women’s equality and happiness are opposed to each other?

The comment reveals a puzzle that has gone unsolved among feminists since 2009, when a landmark study cut short the unconscious narrative of the modern feminist movement, wherein the victories of feminism are always victories for women.

The puzzle is the juxtaposition of two facts: first, that the feminist movement has made historic progress in achieving its goals over the last half-century. Second, that women’s subjective well-being, or happiness, has unquestionably declined in absolute terms and in relation to men since the 1970s.

The research

The 2009 paper in the American Economic Journal, by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, was titled The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, and it caused a stir in the social science world. The authors found, in their meta-analysis of data, that while women in the US and Europe were once happier than men by a comfortable margin, their advantage had steadily declined starting in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s the average level of happiness for women had fallen below that of men, and it began to fall even more quickly during the twenty-first century.

The declines in unhappiness among women are not easily reduced to other phenomena, because the declines have occurred among all age groups, races and education levels of women, and persist when controlling for cohort effects, employment and family status.

The paper alludes to a few possible explanations for the paradox. One involves marriage: married people are known to be happier than unmarried people, and this holds more strongly for women than for men. A falling marriage rate would likely contribute to lower relative female happiness.

Another explanation the authors suggest is that the women’s movement itself has made women less happy, by leading women to think that they are not “measuring up” in a world where women are more often expected to work for pay, and to compete in that sphere, in some way, with men.

Both of these possible causes rotate around the changing cultural and economic roles of women, and suggest the possibility that the achievements of second- and third-wave feminism have led women, in fact, to become less satisfied with life.

There is no way to prove this is the case, and it would be dishonest to conclusively indict modern feminism in causing female unhappiness. Nevertheless, the paradox still puts feminist theorists in a difficult intellectual spot, because no feminist would have predicted in 1970 that the women’s movement would be accompanied by a broad decline in female happiness, especially in relation to men.

But the reality of the last forty years seems to say that modern feminism either makes women unhappy, or else that at best, it has little or no power to make them happy. (If feminists disagree, perhaps they can bear the burden of the data and prove it.)

The goals of feminism

This is where we are reintroduced to the philosophical question introduced by the Los Angeles Times commentator: is feminism about equality or happiness? Ideally we take both, but if we must make one our goal to the possible detriment of the other, or at least some modern formulation of the other, which one will we take?

We have seen the fruits of the kind of feminism that devotes itself to modern egalitarian ideas before happiness. But what would happen if the aims of feminism were designed according to the criterion that they would lead to the most happiness for women?

That is, if feminist ideology were left aside for a moment, and the progressive assumptions so peculiar to our age were temporarily locked in their ivory tower, what kind of public policy would we find would really bring more enjoyment into the lives of women?

Social science has been fairly conclusive on many of the correlates of happiness in the Western world, and some of these correlates are especially powerful for women. It is worth taking note of these data by considering a few examples that may have been overlooked by activists.

A happiness-focused feminism

As mentioned before, married women are considerably happier than unmarried women (see the Stevenson paper, p. 217). Public policy that promoted the institution of marriage would seem to be an unambiguous gain for women. To be specific, perhaps public schools could teach teenage students about the emotional, psychological, and financial gains that accrue to married people (along with, of course, the sacrifices that are involved).

The story goes deeper than marriage: women are especially wounded by a reckless sexual culture. Sex unconnected from commitment does not lead to long run happiness for either sex, but men derive more satisfaction and less pain than women from these indiscretions. Ross Douthat argued recently, citing studies: “In our sexual culture, the male preference gets treated as normative even by women who don’t share it, and whose own comfort level with sex outside a committed relationship is actually substantially lower.” Even if we do not insist on marriage, women would probably benefit from a “somewhat more conservative sexual culture,” Douthat argues.

Speaking of our sexual culture, there are few places more hostile to women than the virtual world of pornography. Porn use has been shown to corrupt men’s attitudes toward women and to make them more inclined to violent sexual acts. It would make sense for feminists to advocate for a culture that stigmatizes pornography, and for public policy that would help establish that culture.

Women’s happiness is also more affected by instability in domestic life than is men’s. This is perhaps tied to higher female risk aversion. One of the most ubiquitous causes of domestic instability in the Western world is male alcohol use. Men are known to drink at least twice as much as women, and are responsible for about four-fifths of binge drinking. In the US, fifteen to twenty million adults are dependent on alcohol, two thirds of them men.

Alcohol’s costs in comparison to other drugs are particularly social—for example, if a married man is an alcoholic, it is his wife and children who pay much of the price. Alcohol use, even at relatively moderate levels of consumption, also increases the likelihood of rape and other forms of violence by men. Feminists interested in female well-being should fight the culture that normalizes this extraordinarily pervasive social vice, a primarily male indulgence.

Feminism’s future

I have offered a few suggestions for a happiness-focused feminism: strengthening the marriage institution and fighting a culture of promiscuity, pornography and alcohol. If, as I have suggested, we define feminism as a program of initiatives that are likely to make women happier, then feminism will include these traditionalist ideas (as well as others).

However, like the LA Times commentator, academic feminists have rarely sponsored these policies, and in the case of marriage, they have sometimes promoted the opposite. Indeed, they have made organizations and churches advancing these goals their enemies. They seem to ask, in response to gloomy female happiness data, “was happiness the goal?”

Perhaps we have found the explanation for the refusal of a majority of American women to identify as feminist: modern feminism is not really designed to increase the quality of women’s lives. On the contrary, it is an ideology that is firstly anti-traditional and only secondly pro-women: women’s well-being is incidental (and perhaps obstructive) to the cause of progressivism.

If this is feminism, please count me out.

However, if feminism is the promotion of policies known to make women happier (whether the policies are conservative or progressive), count me in. I look with optimism toward a more virtuous society, where the happiness of women and men is the germ of our cultural philosophy, and ultimately the fruits of its efforts.

Photo Credit: Mait Jüriado.