Support for porn bans founded on religion, not science

April 17, 2021
The anti-porn forces are more religion-based than science-based, surveys find. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

The anti-porn forces are more religion-based than science-based, surveys find. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Conservative politicians have been citing science to support anti-porn legislation, but according to surveys conducted from 1984 to 2018, the only Americans who still broadly support banning porn are biblical literalists — not science believers or skeptics.

In fact, an analysis found that a person's level of trust in scientific authority was mostly unrelated to favoring a ban on pornography. 

Looking at a 35-year span of opinion surveys conducted by NORC — formerly the National Opinion Research Center — that asked Americans whether they supported outlawing the distribution of pornography, a paper published March 22 in Social Forces revealed the insincerity of the politicians in 29 states who have proposed — and, in 17 states, passed — resolutions declaring porn a "public health crisis" since 2016, the author said. 

"Within the past few years in pornography research, [there have] been attempts by various religious groups and anti-porn activists to medicalize habitual pornography use, considering it an 'addiction,'" said Samuel L. Perry, author of the paper and an associate professor in the University of Oklahoma's Department of Sociology. Although the high-profile citations of cognitive science and social sciences research increased, the science behind the claims is "not at all settled," he said, referencing the fact that while the majority of young men regularly watch porn, "massive, transformative, cognitive effects" have yet to materialize. 

Thus, he said, politicians cite science tactically, not sincerely: "You can't say anymore, 'We want to get rid of porn because it's wickedness.' But it's completely legitimate to say, 'We want to get rid of porn because it's a public health crisis like opioids or meth.'"

Perry began his analysis expecting to find evidence of this insincerity, hypothesizing that people who were less trusting of scientific authorities would become more supportive of banning porn over time. He was surprised, however, by the actual results: Science skeptics' support of banning porn had declined much more sharply than support among people who had more trust in science; in other words, people who trusted science less were catching up with the rest of Americans in their lack of interest in a porn ban. The only group holding fast in their belief that porn distribution should be outlawed are the most theologically conservative Americans. 

Across four statistical models, the odds that a biblical literalist would support a porn ban were roughly double that of other Americans. A biblical literalist's likelihood of supporting a porn ban remained around 50% for all survey years, while non-biblical literalists' likelihood of supporting a porn ban went from almost 40% down to 20%.

The study relied on data from NORC, which has conducted the General Social Survey at least once every two years since 1972. Perry took the surveys from 1984 to 2018 because 1984 was the first year that asked about views of the Bible. The analysis controlled for a dated but consistent question about whether the respondent had watched an "X-rated movie" in the past year. The analysis also controlled for other traits, including age, race, sex, education, being from the South and being a Republican. 

The tactical use of contested science matters, Perry said, because the facade of legitimacy was letting politicians focus on an imaginary crisis while ignoring real problems. 

"Just after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, lawmakers in the state legislature had the opportunity to consider gun control legislation one week after that horrific event," Perry told The Academic Times. "They decided not to consider gun control legislation, but they did pass a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis and to place 'In God We Trust' on all campuses were students and faculty could see them. … What lawmakers waste their time on matters."

The study, "Banning because of science or in spite of it? Scientific authority, religious conservatism, and support for outlawing pornography, 1984–2018," published March 22 in Social Forces, was authored by Samuel L. Perry, University of Oklahoma.

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