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.

110 thoughts on “Rethinking Mormons and Porn: Utah 40th in US in New Porn Data

  1. i’ve been confronting and challenging posted memes, blogs, bits-n-pieces and op-eds on facebook for ages; with an eye toward statistical and cultural realism – attempting to point-out and examine biases, untruths, study flaws, etc. i’ve been befuddled by how many are simply willing to believe whatever they see, read, or what’s thrown at them. for the record, although most of my family and friends are LDS, i and my same-sex domestic partner are not. thank you for your work in dissecting this issue and shedding some light on those who would do little in the name of intellectual honesty in pursuit of their defaming others. unlike most of them, i’m confident you won’t be bothered by the analysis of your own procedures and techniques used in this case here.

  2. That original study was bogus and the people who published it had to have known it. I actually researched it since the zip codes were published. One zip with high percentages was U of U student housing. Another high one was a small town of 150 people. If I recall correctly, the total population of all five zip codes was around 2500 people, hardly a huge percentage when compared to the two to three million people who live here.

  3. Mormons are as human and curious as everyone else. What makes a difference is that we are encouraged not to engage in Pornography. This doesn’t mean it won’t happen…only one’s ignorance would suggest this. However, the emphasis of family is a generally big deal in Utah. Church leaders provide guidance against watching Pornography…it is emphasized by parents.

  4. Just want to point out that your analysis and conclusions do not connect — i.e., the Pornhub study is of page views of their website; your regression analysis at best demonstrates that fewer Mormons visit a specific pornographic website. I am not sure how this results in your conclusion about lower overall rates of porn veiwership.

    • True, but PornHub is one of the largest.
      A paid subscription site with 5,000 subscribers is clearly the worse data set when compared to one of the larger, if not largest sites that gets 5 million hits a day.
      It’s like comparing reader data from all libraries (yes, there are other ways to read a book) vs reader data from a Large Minneapolis book seller to draw a conclusion about popular book genres
      The libraries don’t have ALL of the data, but it’s a much larger picture than the other.
      One should not run with either data set, but I think the larger data set is a good refute of the other.
      That being said, I think that more should be expected of Mormons. There might be some slight hypocrisy if we aren’t #50. But we all have our vices. Then again, maybe it isn’t hypocrisy when leaders repeatedly tell that it is a problem inside too, and more needs to be done.

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I don’t live in Utah but it is amazing how every few months someone will bring up the “Utah has the highest porn rates in the nation” because they know I am LDS. I have tried to educate regarding the limitations of the study referenced. Will now refer to this post.

    More recently on Facebook I have seen quoted a study indicating that Utah has the highest rates of child sexual abuse. I have not been able to find the reference for that study though–just the statistics “Numbers show Utah is eighth highest among all states in child abuse. The state had 6,900 cases in 2014. Of those, 27 percent were sex abuse, the highest rate of any state.” Just from the statement it is a bit confusing. They have the highest rate based on total number of abuse cases, not per capita. Curious if you have come across this and if you have further information on the source of the statistic.

    • Any study like the one you are describing is exceptionally difficult to draw conclusions from. The reason is that it depends highly on rates of reporting. Rates of reporting are almost impossible to determine because they can only be estimated according to very subjective criteria. This makes them difficult to factor into any study in a way that does not invalidate the study do to the author’s personal bias. Further, rates of reporting can drastically change the interpretation of any analytical result.

      For example:

      If a state has higher rates of reporting for sexual assault in general, it will automatically make a study that does not factor in reporting rates (or that subjectively assumes reporting rates are equal or lower than other states) look like it has higher rates of sexual assault when compared to other states.

      Alternatively, without factoring in reporting rates, a higher statistic for sexual assaults could just as easily be assumed to be the result of higher reporting rates (or that the reporting rate has been subjectively inflated). This would lead to a possible interpretation that the state has a higher rate of confidence in law enforcement as well as the judicial system in properly addressing sexual assault complaints. That would infer superiority to other states, not inferiority, and over time it may even represent a cultural shift and a deterrent that makes sexual assault LESS likely than in states with lows sexual assault statistics.

      When it comes to statistics, omission of significant factors that have a heavy impact on conclusions are tantamount (when intentional) to lies.

  6. I think in order to take this topic to a predictive level of running a L/NL regression, the data need to be fuller to represent more sites as the brand positioning, messaging and digital marketing methods may appeal differently to different markets. Moderate-to-high internet sex interest and porn consumption in Utah have also appeared in the Ashley Madison/Avid Life hack last year, as well as a regular trend in Google Trends data.

  7. In my clinical psychotherapy practice in Utah, I find that faithful Mormons who are emotionally distressed often self-medicate with porn use rather than other substances or compulsive behaviors since porn is perceived as less harmful than drugs/gambling etc. I would love to see the factors of depression/anxiety/stress controlled for and then the rates of porn use assessed. My guess for results would be: 1) porn use in non-distressed faithful LDS would be much lower than average 2) substance use in non-distressed LDS would be higher than average 3) Porn use in distressed active LDS would be higher than average porn use 4) substance use in distressed active LDS would be somewhat higher than average but not rise to levels of less active LDS or those of other world views.

    • Edit– point 2 should read “substance use in non-distressed active LDS would be much LOWER than average.

      • Has it occurred to any of the commenters here that Utah is not exclusively LDS. A little more than 50% overall with a lot less than 50% in Salt Lake City. It is probably the non LDS part of the population that accesses porn on the net because its harder to get in other ways in Utah.

  8. The link to your do-files and data set is not working, is there a way i could get those files. I find your analysis quite fascinating.

  9. Isn’t this apples to oranges though? the 2009 study was for paid subscriptions, pornhub is free. A negative reaction to a 2009 study that casts Utah in a poor light and a positive reaction to a recent study that casts Utah in a favorable light are obviously motivated by the same biases. If you’re suspicious of one study because of your bias you should be suspicious of the other.

  10. Any data to be trusted needs to qualify as being done to research acceptable standards, seems neither referred to here were performed acceptably to those standards. So we will have to wait for some well known research group to perform a large study. But indications are that maybe all the warnings from leaders and maybe parents since the 2009 study had some effect. I was just listening to a well known singer from UK Will Young about his addiction to porn. Considering his status and popularity it was surprising, the porn industry certainly knows what they are up to, and it is no good. Same could be said for the pharmaceutical industry, and again supposedly LDS are huge consumers of prescription drugs ..thinking they are looking at health “benefits”, while research (which the same industry has directed for decades) recently is more independent and show the truth was not what they have been indoctrinated over years by the industry. Maybe there is even a connection between porn use and prescription drugs. And ownership. I would not be surprised. A quick fix is the mantra, the reality of life demands more creativity and it as strenuous as rewarding at all levels.

  11. Man, with a finding like this, you’d think that someone should probably try to publish it in a credible peer reviewed paper, rather than in an opinion piece on the Internet.

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