FactChecker is an occasional series in which we examine claims, myths, and misunderstandings frequently heard in evangelical circles.
The Claim: Christian men—particularly those living in the “Bible Belt”—consume as much, if not more, pornography than their non-religious peers do.
The Background: There appear to be two sources for the origination of this claim.
The first is the Proven Men Porn Survey, a survey conducted in 2014 by Barna Group for Proven Men Ministries, a non-profit Christian organization aimed at helping men with an addiction to pornography.
The survey found that approximately two-thirds (64 percent) of Christian men admit they view pornography at least monthly. Based on that claim, you might be alarmed by the thought that two-thirds of the men who you think are faithfully following Christ are looking at porn at least a dozen times a year. But that’s not really what the survey found.
As with all surveys that rely on self-identification, clearly defining the terms—such as Christians—are essential. Fortunately, Barna does a better job than most other pollsters in this regard.
Barna classifies someone as a Christian if they individual self-identifies as Christian or identify with a Christian denomination (other than Mormons or Jehovah’s Witness). Within that category, Barna identifies individuals as “born again” if they made a personal commitment to Jesus that is still important in their life today and believe that when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Barna classifies individuals who do not meet the criteria of Born Again as “nominal Christians.”
Within the subset of the “born again,” Barna identifies “legacy evangelicals” and “non-evangelical, born again.” Non-evangelical born-again Christians outnumber evangelicals by almost a four-to-one ratio, according to Barna. They are less conservative and less traditional than evangelicals, and seven-times as many claim to be advocates for LGBT rights (27 percent). Little more than half of this group (55 percent) firmly believe that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches, and fewer than one-third of this group (31 percent) contend they have a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with those who think differently.
Returning to the survey we find that 64 percent men view porn at least once a month (54 percent for born-again Christian men)
About one-third of all self-identified Christian men do not view porn every month. Of those who do, 10 percent are nominal Christians. Of those who are born again, only about 11 percent would be what we’d consider “evangelicals.” (The survey doesn’t appear to have asked about church attendance or denominational affiliation.)
The second claim is that pornography consumption is higher in Bible Belt states (that is, regions in the South that have a higher population of socially conservative evangelicals). The claim usually follows the pattern of “the top nine states viewing the longest (per visit) are all in the Bible Belt,” and is based on the “2019 Year in Review” for the pornography company Pornhub
According to Pornhub, the states with the longest time spent per visit on their site are Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri, West Virginia, Indiana, and (the non-state) District of Columbia. But the time differences are rather trivial. The difference between the state that had the shortest time spent on the site (Kansas, with 9 minutes and 59 seconds) and the state with the longest (Mississippi, with 11 minutes and 26 seconds) is only 87 seconds.
In February, Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead published a study titled, “Do People in Conservative States Really Watch More Porn? A Hierarchical Analysis.” Their study found that “state-level religious and political characteristics do not predict individual-level pornography consumption, and individual-level religiosity and political conservatism predict less recent pornography consumption.” They also found that “the amount of variation in individual-level pornography viewing due to state-level factors is quite small.” In other words, there is no basis for the implication that Christian men in Bible Belt states view pornography more than non-Christian men in other areas of the United States.
The Reality: The problem with the survey conducted for Proven Men is not necessarily that it is wrong, but rather that it can give the wrong impression. A statistic that implies a significant majority of Christian men are consumers of porn is alarming. But it becomes less surprising when you realize many of those “Christian” men surveyed are nominally Christian or reject traditional sexual ethics.
Using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), Lyman Stone looked at the connection effect of both religious identity and religious attendance:
Across all religious groups in America, people who attend religious services more frequently are far less likely to view pornography. Nominally Protestant men are nearly five-times more likely to view pornographic films as men who frequently attend religious services (more than weekly). And across all levels of religious attendance, Protestant men are about 5 percent to 10 percentage points less likely to have viewed porn in the last year.
These are meaningful differences! They suggest that religiously-observant Protestants are experiencing a vastly lower rate of pornography use. [emphasis in original]
This is not to say that all the news is positive. As Stone observes, “The share of Protestant men who report having watched a pornographic film in the last year has risen to about a third even among those who regularly attend church.” But as he adds,
Through the 1980s, Protestants and other regular church-goers looked similar. But over time, non-Protestant churchgoers have developed porn habits very similar to their less devout neighbors. Today, Protestant men who attend church regularly are basically the only men in America still resisting the cultural norm of regularized pornography use.
Thus, pornography use is much lower among devout Protestants than among other people, suggesting Protestant belief and behavior truly is distinctive. However, because pornography use is rising among Protestant churchgoers, it makes sense for Protestant pastors to perceive pornography as a growing issue.
This is the crux of the problem with claiming that when it comes to porn there is no difference between evangelicals and unbelievers: it’s not true and it’s not helpful.
For many pastors, though, it feels true because of selection bias. Many of us regularly encounter and counsel men in our churches who are consumers of pornography. What we forget is that many people outside of our churches have no moral qualms about pornography . Of men aged 18 to 49, 67 percent say pornography is morally acceptable. And of all Americans who say religion is not very important, more than two-thirds (76 percent) find pornography morally acceptable.
The claim is also not helpful because it implies that few Christians are finding victory over that particular sin. It’s understandable why pastors and organizations who fight pornography would want to highlight the problem with dramatic statistics. But the message we are sending is that almost every other man in the church has a porn problem. That might give the impression that victory is unattainable, when the reality is that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9).
We can and should be realistic about the problem of porn use among Christian men. But we should be even more clear Jesus is willing and able to cleanse us from all such unrighteousness.