Conservatives, Porn, and “Community Standards”

by on March 2, 2009 · 22 comments

Ben Edelman of the Harvard Business School has just released an interesting new study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives entitled, “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?”  Using data he obtained from a top-10 seller of adult entertainment, Edelman examined adult website subscriptions on the zip code level and found that conservatives seem to be every bit as interested in pornography as liberals. In fact, “Subscriptions [to adult entertainment sites] are slightly more prevalent in states that have enacted conservative legislation on sexuality” and “subscriptions are also more prevalent in states where surveys indicate conservative positions on religion, gender roles, and sexuality.”  He also finds that:

In states where more people agree that “Even today miracles are performed by the power of God” and “I never doubt the existence of God,” there are more subscriptions to this service.  Subscriptions are also more prevalent in states where more people agree that “I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage” and “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.”

Even more interesting is the fact that, on a state-by-state basis, Utah* residents topped all other Americans in terms of subscriptions to online adult entertainment websites. Finally, Edelman concludes:

On the whole, these adult entertainment subscription patterns show a remarkable consistency: all but eleven states have between two and three subscribers to this service per thousand broadband households, and all but four have between 1.5 and 3.5. With interest in online adult entertainment relatively constant across regions, there’s little sign of a major divide.

But it’s not just Internet porn where we see this trend at work.  As I noted in my law review article, “Why Regulate Broadcasting?” we’ve seen a similar trend at work with television. When you look at some of the TV shows that conservatives and religious groups gripe most about, you might be surprised to know that it is conservatives who make those shows as popular as they are!

As Bill Carter of the New York Times reported in a 2004 article, “Many Who Voted for ‘Values’ Still Like Their Television Sin,” Nielsen ratings data shows that in many Republican-leaning “red state” markets, such programs garner higher ratings than in many Democratic-leaning “blue states.” For example, in the counties that constitute the greater Atlanta television market, ABC’s dramatic comedy “Desperate Housewives” was the top-rated show even though nearly 58 percent of voters in those counties voted for President Bush.  Similarly, in the traditionally conservative Salt Lake City market, where President Bush captured over 72 percent of the vote, the top four shows were “C.S.I.,” “C.S.I. Miami,” “E.R.,” and “Desperate Housewives.”

Likewise, in a 2004 column about “The Great Indecency Hoax,”  NY Times columnist Frank Rich noted that the same trend holds in conservative Oklahoma City, where “Desperate Housewives” is more popular than it is in Los Angeles, as well as Kansas City where the show is bigger than it is in New York City.  Rich quoted sociologist Herbert Gans who explained the phenomenon as follows: “For some people it’s a case of ‘I am moral therefore I can watch the most immoral show.’”

Such findings call into question the logic of traditional “community standards”-based regulatory efforts. Indeed, it is unclear how lawmakers can determine the relevant “community standard” for purposes of speech and content regulation when some of the most conservative communities in America are downloading as much porn as Edelman’s study finds, or when conservatives are watching smutty TV in greater numbers than liberals do.

The better approach, as I’ve argued here before, is to replace “community standards” with “household standards.”  That is, it would be optimal if public policy decisions regarding content took into account the extraordinary diversity of citizen / household tastes and left the ultimate decision about acceptable programming to them.  That’s especially the case in light of the fact that less than 32% of U.S. households have any children in them, and those homes that do have children have plenty of tools and methods at their disposal to control objectionable content. Let’s empower parents to make decisions for themselves and their families so that Uncle Sam doesn’t need to play the role of national nanny for all of us.

____

* Edelman’s mention of porn consumption in Utah reminded me of this passage from Jeff Rosen’s 2004 essay on “The End of Obscenity” (which I discussed in greater detail here):

three years ago, when a local video retailer in Utah was prosecuted for peddling hard-core pornography, he successfully argued that his products were consistent with what his neighbors were watching on pay-per-view: in an age of nationally distributed hotel pornography, there was little difference between the consumption habits of hotel guests in Salt Lake City or Las Vegas. Pornography is everywhere, suggesting that there is no national consensus against it and no vast disparity from one locale to another.

Seems that those Utah residents are a horny bunch!  Maybe their new motto should be, “What happens in Utah, stays in Utah.”

  • MikeRT

    A similar study was attempted on violence, and it showed that red states were more violent than blue states on average. However, as Vox Day proved, that study was faulty because it did not compare the rural versus urban crime rates, wherein it was found that much of the violence in red states actually happens in their bigger cities, just like it is in blue states.

  • http://www.technagora.com Libby_J

    It would be interesting to see more information about actual porn consumption, rather than subscription rates. What types of porn are subscribers getting? (I'd assume that some of the less conventional/more hardcore types are more anathema to the conservative mindset than, say, Playboy). Who are the subscribers? For all we know, they could be socially-isolated liberals, or people who are politically disinterested. How many people actually subscribe to porn sites, vs. the number of users who find free or pirated porn, and why are the subscribers paying for something they could be getting for free?

    Really, why the heck *are* conservative counties getting more porn, and what are those kinky folks into (assuming that they really do subscribe to/consume porn in the same proportion that nonconservatives do)? That's what I'd be interested to know. ;-)

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