Pornography stats mirror conflict over ‘individual freedom’ vs. ‘public health threat’

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Editor’s note: Concern about the consequences of pornography use in Utah has set the Beehive State apart from national trends, as lawmakers grapple with what they have recently labeled as a vice that threatens public health. The Daily Universe explores how the issue impacts Utahns, both politically and personally.

First in a series.

Utah has ranked No. 1 in the nation for pornography subscriptions, while registering among the lowest in the nation for porn page views.

That seeming contradiction mirrors how American society in general — and Utah in particular — is trying to measure the impact pornography has on interpersonal relationships, and by extension, the shared values that hold families and communities together.

The feelings of BYU graduate Jonathan Harris reflect the conflict a recovering pornography addict within Utah culture must face in reconciling this gripping addiction with beliefs about the damage it can cause within society.

“I can’t begin to tell you just how intense of a process it is just to begin to de-isolate and reintegrate yourself into society when you feel so different, especially in the Mormon society when you feel so stained,” Harris said.

Sharing his experience with the duality of being immersed in pornography, in conflict with the teachings of his faith that warn of its consequences for individuals and society, makes Harris an unusually candid example of what many in Utah — both men and women — are dealing with.

But putting a number on how prevalent pornography is in daily life for residents of the Beehive State is difficult.

Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Benjamin Edelman’s 2009 study of online adult entertainment subscribers in the U.S. made headlines when it revealed that — at the time — Utah had the most paid online pornography subscriptions in the nation.

Yet prominent pornography website Pornhub did an internal study of page views by state in 2014 that ranked Utah’s number of page views per capita as 41st in the nation.

Edelman study

Edelman’s 2009 article “Markets: Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” shows more subscribers to online adult entertainment in Utah than in any other state. States with the most subscriptions include Utah (5.47 subscriptions per thousand home broadband users), Alaska (5.03), Mississippi (4.30), Hawaii (3.61) and Oklahoma (3.21), according to this study.

Adapted from Figure 2 in Benjamin Edelman’s “Markets: Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” published in Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2009. (Chuck Dearden)

Edelman analyzed data from a “top-10 seller of adult entertainment” in his study. He organized by state a list of zip codes associated with credit cards from all the online subscribers’ accounts from 2006-2008 to show how many online subscribers there were in each state.

“While it is difficult to confirm rigorously that this seller is representative, the seller runs literally hundreds of sites offering a broad range of adult entertainment,” the study states.

Edelman controlled the study for broadband users in each state when presenting the data. Broadband users outnumber others 18 to 1 at sites that analytics company comScore classified as “adult” in 2008, according to Edelman.

“Broadband connections offer high-speed data transfer — letting images, video, and other graphical materials load more quickly,” Edelman stated in the study.

When contacted by The Daily Universe, Edelman declined an interview on the results of the study.

Pornhub study

Pornhub is “one of the most prolific adult websites” and gets over 60 million visits per day, according to its online statistics. Pornhub studied pornography viewing rates on its website in the U.S. in a 2014 “Pornhub Insights” article.

Pornhub communications team member Chris Jackson said Pornhub statisticians used Google Analytics in the study to collect data for the website’s total number of page views in each state. They then divided that number by the states’ population to calculate page views per capita.

Utah’s page views per capita ranked 41st in the nation, according to this study. The data shows that the states with the most page views on Pornhub include Kansas (194 page views per capita), Nevada (166), Illinois (161), Colorado (159) and Massachusetts (153).

Data obtained from Pornhub Insights’ article, “Red Versus Blue US States.” (Chuck Dearden)

Pornhub attributes the variance of page views between states to factors such as population, demographics and platforms used, according to Jackson.

“Most of our traffic comes from mobile devices, so states with a large amount of mobile devices, which tend to be used by younger and more affluent users, typically have more page views,” Jackson said. “Our audience also tends to skew younger and to males, so those states with a lot of young males also tend to have higher page views.”

Comparing the studies

BYU Family Life Assistant Professor Brian Willoughby said it is important when comparing studies like these to identify how each defines pornography in terms of subscriptions, web searches and site visits.  He said factors like the difference between paid and free pornography views can represent very different segments of the population.

“When we use the word ‘pornography,’ that word is not very well defined in our culture, and it means different things to different people,” Willoughby said. “When you see studies like this, a lot of times you have to kind of dig into their very specific definition of pornography.”

Jackson agreed that the major difference between the two studies lies in Edelman’s study of paid pornography subscriptions and Pornhub’s study of mainly free page views.

“Our study used Google Analytics and the data was specific to the traffic on our site, which is mostly free,” Jackson said. “We do have Pornhub Premium, a paid service, but a majority of site traffic is for free content.”

Willoughby said he thinks both studies are accurate, but believes that if all factors could be put together to create a collective view of pornography in the U.S., there wouldn’t be much difference in the amount of pornography consumption in each state.

I’m sure there would be differences, but I don’t think they’d be as pronounced as they are in these studies,” Willoughby said. “What it looks like, the way people are accessing porn and the types of porn they’re viewing might shift a little bit region to region.”

Pornography in Utah

Willoughby said the types and patterns of pornography consumption in the U.S. tend to vary by the cultural dialogue around pornography in each region. He said pornography users in Utah tend to view it alone and in secret — exercising their ability to view something their culture, and possibly their faith, frowns upon.

“Because of the heavily religious sentiments of this state, we don’t have very open conversations and communication around pornography, so that tends to lead to different patterns of behavior,” Willoughby said.

Regulating pornography use is part of the reasoning behind Utah becoming the first state to officially declare pornography a public health crisis, when Gov. Gary Herbert signed bill SCR9 in March. Willoughby said that singling pornography out as a major public health issue helps boost efforts to curb a product that has been proven to negatively affect relationships and individuals.

“It’s not that pornography is destroying the world or destroying our civilization,” Willoughby said. “It’s the fact that we have very little to no checks on it right now that it’s creating a crisis right now in the country.”

Stories in “The Pornography Plague” series:

  1. Pornography stats mirror conflict over ‘individual freedom’ vs. ‘public health treat’
  2. Pornography’s effect on relationships is a wild card
  3. Pornography as a public health crisis
  4. Young LDS couples need honest conversations about porn before tying the knot
  5. Pornography addiction can be beat
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