Praise the Lord, Google the Porn

States that are home to large numbers of evangelicals generate an above-average number of Internet searches for sexually explicit material.
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We Americans love our pornography. But the amount of sexually explicit material we search for online varies significantly from state to state—and in a revealing way.

Several studies, including a well-publicized one from 2014, reported states with the highest percentage of highly religious people generate a disproportionate number of Google searches for sexual material.

New research confirms and refines those findings, revealing that is isn't religiosity in general that's linked to such behavior, but rather membership in certain specific denominations.

Take a guess which ones.

"Higher percentages of evangelical Protestants, theists, and biblical literalists in a state predict higher frequencies of searching for porn, as do higher church attendance rates," write sociologists Andrew Whitehead of Clemson University and Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma. "Conversely, higher percentages of religiously unaffiliated persons in a state predict lower frequencies of searching for porn."

The researchers focused on Google searches for the word "porn" in each of the 50 states from January of 2011 to July of 2016. They chose that slang term because it is "far and away the most popular entered into Google to access explicit material."

The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies provided an estimate of the number of evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics per 1,000 people in each state. Using data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the researchers also "estimated the percentage of each state that believes in God, the percentage that identifies as a biblical literalist," and how frequently the average person attends religious ceremonies.

"States with more individuals in the evangelical Protestant tradition, a greater percentage of theists, a larger proportion of biblical liberalists, or a higher mean of religious service attendance area all linked to a higher percentage of searches for 'porn' across all Google search engine queries," they report.

Importantly, this data does not tell us who exactly is doing all this searching for sexually explicit material. In surveys, evangelicals "report the lowest level of porn consumption" of American religious groups. The researchers speculate that some who would never admit doing so turn to online material as "a secret and private form of sexual expression that they do not feel the ability to express."

Then again, this trend may be driven in part by non-religious people who happen to live in heavily religious communities. In such places, "more overt expressions of sexuality are generally treated with disdain," Whitehead and Perry write. Faced with possible ostracism by their pious neighbors, some may see online activity as their only viable sexual outlet.

The researchers also offer a third thesis: This trend may be driven by evangelicals' kids. Devout parents "tend to provide less sex education to their children," they write. "It could be that youth in strongly religious moral communities are left with few options for sexual education or expression, and thus are more likely to search for porn online."

Of course, those explanations are not mutually exclusive.

These results help explain why Donald Trump maintained his popularity in states with heavy concentrations of evangelicals, even after tapes of his sexual boasting were made public. These voters aren't shocked by explicit sexual language—as their browser histories can attest.

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