Religious People Use Less Porn and Are No More Likely to Believe They Are Addicted

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Have you heard these claims a lot recently? Or perhaps even believed they are true?

  1. Religious populations have higher rates of porn use than their secular brethren, and lie about it.
  2. Religious porn users are not really addicted to porn; they only believe they are addicted because they are ashamed.
  3. Believing in porn addiction is the source of any problems, not porn use itself.

Articles about a handful of highly publicized studies on porn use and religion have spread these claims, which many people, both religious and non-religious, have mistakenly begun to accept as fact. However, several air-tight new studies (some by the very researchers whose work has been most represented in such articles) dismantle the above 3 memes.

Meme #1 arises from a few studies that found higher rates of Google searches for sexual terms in "red states" (more religious and conservative), although multiple surveys of porn users almost always find that religious individuals use less porn than secular users. Memes 2 and 3 arise from articles spinning the results of several "perceived pornography addiction" studies by Dr. Joshua Grubbs.

First study: Religious people tell the truth about their porn use

In Social Desirability Bias in Pornography-Related Self-Reports: The Role of Religion, reserachers tested the hypothesis that religious individuals are more likely to lie about their porn use to researchers and in anonymous survey studies.

First, a backward glance. The "lying" hypothesis rested on a few studies analyzing all state-by-state frequency of Google searches for term such as "sex," "porn," "XXX," and the like. These state-level studies reported that conservative or religious (“red”) states search frequently more porn-related terms. The authors of these studies suggested that their findings meant that (1) religious individuals watch more porn than the non-religious, and (2) religious porn users must therefore be lying about their porn use to researchers and in anonymous surveys.

But could lying really explain why nearly every study that employed anonymous surveys had found lower rates of porn use in religious individuals (study 1, study 2, study 3, study 4, study 5, study 6, study 7, study 8, study 9, study 10, study 11, study 12, study 13, study 14, study 15, study 16, study 17, study 18, study 19, study 20)? Should we believe the many anonymous surveys? Or only the two state-level Google search trend studies (MacInnis & Hodson, 2015; Whitehead & Perry, 2017)?

When researchers tested the hypothesis that, “religious people are lying about their porn use,” they found no evidence supporting that assumption. In fact, their results suggested that religious people may be more honest than secular individuals about porn use. In short, the state-wide comparison approach is clearly a flawed way of researching this topic. It's not as reliable as anonymous surveys in which each subject's level of religiosity is identified.

From the abstract:

However, contrary to popular sentiment-and our own hypotheses-we found no evidence for and much evidence against the suggestion that religious individuals have a more pronounced social desirability bias against the reporting of pornography consumption than the irreligious. Interaction terms assessing that possibility were either nonsignificant or significant in the reverse direction.

From the conclusion:

These results do not fit the narrative that religious individuals are underreporting consumption or overstating their opposition to pornography to a degree greater than the less religious and suggest that, if anything, researchers have been underestimating religious opposition to and avoidance of consuming pornography.

Thus, rather than causing a shame-based self-labeling of normative porn use as “porn addiction,” religion appears to be protective against porn use (and thus problematic porn use).

So, what might explain increased searching for sex-related terms in "red states?" It's highly unlikely that regular porn users enjoying an hour-long session use Google to search for the relatively innocuous terms ("XXX", "sex", "porn") that the researchers investigated. They would head directly to their favorite tube sites (probably bookmarked).

On the other hand, young people who are curious about sex or porn might employ such Google search terms. Guess what? The 15 states with the highest proportion of adolescents are "red states." For more analysis concerning religion and porn use see this article: Is Utah #1 in Porn Use?

An aside: Before leaving the topic of religiosity and porn, it's worth noting that some researchers have been embarrassingly eager to hammer home their own biases about religious people. Take "Surfing for Sexual Sin" by MacInnis and Hodson. These researchers' dubious conclusions that religious people watch more porn (based on comparing state-level religiosity and volume of sex-related Google search terms) were inconsistent with the overwhelming majority of research results in the field. Nevertheless, MacInnis and Hodson took matters a step farther. They shared their conclusions with religious participants and found that,

those higher (vs. lower) in religiosity or religious fundamentalism considered the findings more inconsistent with personal knowledge of religious states and individuals, considered the findings less true, and considered the authors politically motivated.

In view of the research above, the religious participants were right to rely on their personal knowledge rather than the researchers' faulty methodology and conclusions.

Second study: "Believing yourself addicted to porn" strongly correlated with use, but not with religiosity

In the last few years Dr. Joshua Grubbs has authored a rash of studies correlating porn users' religiosity, hours of porn use, moral disapproval, and other variables with scores on his 9-item questionnaire "The Cyber Pornography Use Inventory" (CPUI-9). In an odd decision that has lead to much confusion, Grubbs refers to a subject's total CPUI-9 score as "perceived pornography addiction." This gives the false impression that the instrument somehow indicates the degree to which a subject merely "perceives" he is addicted (rather than being actually addicted). But no instrument can do that, and certainly not this one.

To say it another way, the phrase “perceived pornography addiction” indicates nothing more than a number: the total score on the following 9-item pornography-use questionnaire with its three extraneous questions about guilt and shame. It doesn't sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of perceived vs. genuine addiction.

Perceived Compulsivity Section

  1. I believe I am addicted to Internet pornography.
  2. I feel unable to stop my use of online pornography.
  3. Even when I do not want to view pornography online, I feel drawn to it

Access Efforts Section

  1. At times, I try to arrange my schedule so that I will be able to be alone in order to view pornography.
  2. I have refused to go out with friends or attend certain social functions to have the opportunity to view pornography.
  3. I have put off important priorities to view pornography.

Emotional Distress Section

  1. I feel ashamed after viewing pornography online.
  2. I feel depressed after viewing pornography online.
  3. I feel sick after viewing pornography online.

As you can see, the CPUI-9 cannot distinguish between actual porn addiction and “belief" in porn addiction. Subjects never “labeled themselves as porn addicts” in any Grubbs study. They simply answered the 9 questions above, and earned a total score.

What correlations did the Grubbs studies actually report? Total CPUI-9 scores were related to religiosity (see next section as to why that is), but also related to "hours of porn viewed per week." In some Grubbs studies a slightly stronger correlation occurred with religiosity, in others a stronger correlation occured with hours of porn use.

The media grabbed onto the correlation between religiosity and total CPUI-9 scores (now misleadingly labeled "perceived addiction”), and in the process journalists morphed the finding into “religious people only believe they’re addicted to porn.” The media ignored the just-as-strong correlation between CPUI-9 scores and hours of porn use, and pumped out hundreds of inaccurate articles like this blog post by David Ley: Your Belief in Porn Addiction Makes Things Worse: The label of “porn addict” causes depression but porn watching doesn't. Here is Ley's inaccurate description of a Joshua Grubbs study:

"If someone believed they were a sex addict, this belief predicted downstream psychological suffering, no matter how much, or how little, porn they were actually using."

Removing Ley’s misrepresentations, the above sentence would accurately read: "Higher scores on the CPUI-9 correlated with scores on a psychological distress questionnaire (anxiety, depression, anger)." Put simply – porn addiction was associated with psychological distress (as was hours of porn use). This was a longitudinal study, and it found that this association between porn use and pyschological distress held steady for a year. 

No matter how misleading, "perceived pornography addiction" appealed to the mainstream and spread across the media. Everyone assumed Grubbs had figured out a way to distinguish "addiction" and "belief in addiction." But he hadn't. He had just given a misleading title to his porn use inventory, the CPUI-9. Nevertheless, articles based on various CPUI-9 studies summed up these findings as:

  • Believing in porn addiction is the source of your problems, not porn use itself.
  • Religious porn users are not really addicted to porn (even if they score high on the Grubbs CPUI-9) - they just have shame.

Even practitioners were easily misled, because some clients really do believe their porn use is more destructive and pathological than their therapists think it is. These therapists assumed the Grubbs test somehow isolated these mistaken clients when it didn't.

As the saying goes, "The only cure for bad science is more science." Faced with thoughtful skepticism about his assumptions, and reservations about the unfounded claims that his CPUI-9 instrument could indeed distinguish “perceived pornography addiction” from genuine problematic porn use, Dr. Grubbs did the right thing as a scientist. He pre-registered a study to test his hypotheses/assumptions directly. Pre-registration is a sound scientific practice that prevents researchers from changing hypotheses after collecting data.

The results contradicted both his earlier conclusions and the meme (“porn addiction is just shame”) that the press helped to popularize.

Dr. Grubbs set out to prove that religiosity was the main predictor of "believing yourself addicted to porn." He and his team of researchers surveyed 3 rather large, diverse samples (male, female, etc.): Who’s a Porn Addict? Examining the Roles of Pornography Use, Religiousness, and Moral Incongruence. (He posted the results online, although his team’s paper has not yet been formally published).

This time, however, he didn’t rely on his CPUI-9 instrument. (The CPUI-9 includes 3 “guilt and shame/emotional distress” questions not normally found in addiction instruments – and which skew its results, causing religious porn users to score higher and non-religious users to score lower than subjects do on standard addiction-assessment instruments.) Instead, the Grubbs team asked 2 direct yes/no questions of porn users (“I believe that I am addicted to internet pornography.” “I would call myself an internet pornography addict.”), and compared results with scores on a “moral disapproval” questionnaire.

Directly contradicting his earlier claims, Dr. Grubbs and his research team found that believing you are addicted to porn correlates most strongly with daily hours of porn use, not with religiousness. As noted above, some of Grubbs studies also found that hours of use was a stronger predictor of "perceived addiction" than religiosity. From the new study's abstract:

In contrast to prior literature indicating that moral incongruence and religiousness are the best predictors of perceived addiction [using the CPUI-9], results from all three samples indicated that male gender and pornography use behaviors were the most strongly associated with self-identification as a pornography addict.

Being male is also strongly predictive of self-labeling as "addicted." Rates of male porn users who answered “yes” to one of the “addicted” questions ranged from 8-20% in the new study's samples. These rates are consistent with other 2017 research (19% of college males addicted). Indidentally, this study on male porn users reported problematic use rates of 27.6%, and this study reported that 28% of male porn users evaluated met the threshold for problematic use.

In short, there is widespread distress among some of today’s porn users. High rates of problematic use suggest that the World Health Organization’s proposed diagnosis of “Compulsive sexual behavior disorder” (in the ICD-11 beta draft) is genuinely needed.

Based on their results, Dr. Grubbs and his co-authors advise that, "mental and sexual health professionals should take the concerns of clients identifying as pornography addicts seriously."

A non-Grubbs study questions the CPUI-9 as instrument to assess either perceived or actual porn addiction

The above studies are not the only ones to cast doubt on Grubbs’s earlier conclusions and the press about them. Just a couple of months ago, in September, 2017, another study came out, which tested one of Grubbs’s hypotheses: Do Cyber Pornography Use Inventory-9 Scores Reflect Actual Compulsivity in Internet Pornography Use? Exploring the Role of Abstinence Effort.

The researchers measured actual compulsivity by asking participants to abstain from internet porn for 14 days. (Only a handful of studies have asked participants to abstain from porn use, which is one of the most unambiguous ways to reveal its effects.)

Study participants took the CPUI-9 before and after their 14-day attempt at porn abstinence. (Note: They did not abstain from masturbation or sex, only internet porn.) The researchers' main objective was to compare 'before' and 'after' scores of the 3 sections of the CPUI-9 to several variables.

Among other findings (discussed in depth here), the inability to control use (failed abstinence attempts) correlated with the CPUI-9’s actual addiction questions 1-6, but not with the CPUI-9’s guilt and shame (emotional distress) questions 7-9. Similarly, "moral disapproval" of pornography use was only slightly related to CPUI-9 “Perceived Compulsivity” scores. These results suggest that the CPUI-9 guilt and shame questions (7-9) shouldn’t be part of a porn addiction (or even "perceived porn addiction") assessment because they are unrelated to frequency of porn use.

To say it differently, the most addicted subjects did not score higher on religiosity. Moreover, no matter how it is measured, actual porn addiction/compulsivity is strongly correlated with higher levels of porn use, rather than with “emotional distress” questions (guilt and shame).

In summary the three new religion and pornography studies support the following:

  1. Religiousness does not “cause” porn addiction. Religiosity is not related to believing you are addicted to porn.
  2. The amount of porn viewed is the strongest predictor (by far) of actual porn addiction or belief that someone is addicted to porn.
  3. The Grubbs studies (or any study that used the CPUI-9) did not, in fact, assess"perceived porn addiction" or "belief in porn addiction" or "self-labeling as an addict," let alone distinguish it from actual addiction.