Sex Ed

5 Fascinating Things Americans’ Google Searches Have Taught Us About Sex

July 14, 2017 by Justin Lehmiller

Google Trends has quickly become one of the favorite research tools of sex scientists. Why? In part, because not everyone is willing to participate in sex studies and, among those who are, we know they don’t always answer survey questions honestly. For instance, some people won’t report what actually turns them on because they’re embarrassed by it. Likewise, others lie about how many people they’ve had sex with in order to make themselves look better in the eyes of others. When people go to Google, though, they have a powerful incentive to tell the truth because, otherwise, they won’t find what they’re looking for. As a result, Google searches are thought to be very revealing because they can give us a glimpse into the things that people might not be willing to share with scientists, or anyone else for that matter.

In the last few years, several research papers have been published exploring the contents of Americans’ Google search histories. In this post, we’ll take a look at five of the most fascinating things we’ve learned so far from this unique research tool.

1.) Interest in consensual non-monogamy is on the rise. Over the last decade, Americans have increasingly searched for information about various forms of consensual non-monogamy, especially open relationships and polyamory (but also cuckolding, to some degree). To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans are more open to practicing consensual non-monogamy than ever—we need more research to know that; however, what this shows is that Americans are at least interested in learning more about departures from monogamy.

2.) Searches for pornography and prostitution peak in the summer—and also around the winter holidays. Our searches for sex-related information fluctuate throughout the year, but the two peak times that people reliably search for porn and prostitution are in the early summer months (June and July) and around the winter holidays (late December to early January). The summer and winter peaks are thought to be due to very different sets of reasons. Click here to learn more about the summer peak and here to learn more about the winter peak.

3.) People in the most religious states search for the most porn. A recent study found that Google searches for the word “porn” (the most common word people use when searching for online pornography) are related to several indicators of religiosity in a given state, including the size of the Evangelical Protestant population and the number of people who say they believe in God. Regardless of which indicator you consider, the more religious the state, the more porn searches that occur. There are at least three possible reasons for this finding, which you can learn more about here.

4.) Our porn searches change following major elections. Research has found that porn searches changed during the week following the 2004, 2006, and 2008 US elections. Specifically, they were higher in states that voted for the prevailing political party than they were in states that voted for the losing party. So, in 2004, there were more porn searches in Red states than Blue states following Bush’s victory; conversely, there were more porn searches in Blue states than Red states in 2008 following Obama’s victory. What accounts for this? Scientists believe that it’s a function of the challenge hypothesis, or the idea that our testosterone levels increase during competition; however, they rise faster for people who win compared to those who lose. Simply watching a competition leads to similar hormonal changes. These changes, in turn, are thought to lead to behavioral changes, including increases in both aggressive and sexual behaviors, with searches for porn being just one possible manifestation.

5.) Google searches for STD-related information are related to states’ STD rates. One study found a positive correlation between searches for gonorrhea and a state’s gonorrhea rate, meaning that in states where there were more infections, there were more searches related to that particular STD. Why is this important? Because sexual health researchers may be able to look at Google searches as an indicator of potential changes in infection rates. In other words, our internet searches could help to identify potential STD outbreaks in a faster and more cost-effective way than ever before.

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Image Source: 123RF/Darius Turek

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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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