Sex Ed

People In Conservative States Google The Most Online Sexual Content

October 16, 2014 by Justin Lehmiller


It is no great secret that political and religious conservatives in the United States have a tendency to disapprove of any kind of sexual activity that is inconsistent with “traditional values” (i.e., anything other than vaginal intercourse within a heterosexual, monogamous marriage). Likewise, they tend to be more supportive of abstinence-only education and many of them discourage any kind open discussion about sexual matters. However, as we have seen time and again, conservative leaders (both political and religious) are often caught engaging in the activities that they themselves have so strongly protested, from having same-sex affairs to paying for sex (or both). Research provides additional support for the idea that there is sometimes a disconnect between what conservatives say publicly and what they do privately by revealing that the most online sexual content is actually sought in the most conservative of states.

In a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers examined Google search trends for seven sex-related terms across all 50 U.S. states for the years 2011 and 2012. The terms in question included: “sex,” “gay sex,” “porn,” “xxx,” “free porn,” “gay porn,” and the Google Image search term “sex.” Each state was assigned a religiosity score and a conservatism score based upon data obtained from recent Gallup polls, and these scores were then correlated with the frequency of each sexual search term.

The results revealed slightly different patterns of associations for religious conservatism and political conservatism, so we’ll consider each one separately. First, religious conservatism was associated with more frequent searches for the term “sex” across both years, even when controlling for general internet use and several demographic variables (state population, GDP, and poverty levels). For those who are statistically inclined, the correlations were not small either (r=.41-.43). So, in states with more religious conservatives, there was more searching for sex, but not necessarily non-traditional sex or explicit sexual images.

Second, political conservatism was associated with more frequent searches for “sex” (2011), “gay sex” (2012), and the Google Image “sex” term (2011 and 2012), even when controlling for internet use and demographics. Again, the correlations were not small (r=.29-.49). So, in states with more political conservatives, there was more searching for non-traditional sexual content, as well as more explicit sexual imagery.

So why are people in politically and religiously conservative states searching for more sex content online? The authors of this study suggest that conservatives tend to be more preoccupied with sex in general and that the repression of their urges in public leads them to act on those urges in private. However, given that this is a correlational study, we do not truly know what is driving the results. Indeed, some might look at these data and argue that perhaps it is not even the conservatives at all who are looking for sexual content and that perhaps the increased interest in online sex in conservative states is driven by liberals who happen to be living in very sexually repressed environments.

Clearly, more research in this area is warranted before we can draw firm conclusions, especially research that goes beyond looking at just the broad, state-level variable and that considers a wider range of search terms; however, at the very least, these results reveal an intriguing paradox that there is greater interest in online searches for sex in the most religious and politically conservative parts of the country.

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To learn more about this research, see: MacInnis, C. C., & Hodson, G. (in press). Do American states with more religious or conservative populations search more for sexual content on Google? Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Image Credit: 123RF

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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