united states of pornography

March 4, 2009

An old axiom says that the people who appear the most prudish are much more likely to have a secret porn stash in their closet. Yeah, so what, we hear a lot of axioms and they’re not necessarily true. How do you prove it? An online marketing expert curious about porn purchases in the United States took anonymous receipts from one of the top ten porn sites and matched the associated zip codes to states and the political attitudes of the consumers living in them. His conclusions? Red states do indeed consume more porn.

painting of a woman

Purchasing subscriptions to porn sites is relatively uniform across the country but there are a few noticeable differences on a state level. We’re talking about just a few people per 1,000 per a given state. And we’re also talking about purchasing subscriptions from 2006 to 2008 with no accounting for the vast amount of free porn floating all across the web. Nevertheless, the New Scientist write-up notes that 8 out of the top 10 porn consuming states handed their electoral votes to John McCain and 6 of the bottom 10 voted for Obama. Additionally, people who would agree with statements associated with socially conservative agendas had 3.6 more purchases per 1,000 state residents than those who did not.

So there seems to be a very slight correlation between conservatives and a higher rate of porn purchasing and the study itself also offers other little gems. For example, urban areas are said to buy more subscriptions until they hit a certain population density. Marriage and divorce are factors that tend to lower the amount of subscriptions bought by 0.65% and 0.28% respectively. Also, interestingly enough, younger and college educated residents tend to buy more porn at the same time as graduate degrees reduce porn purchases. But again, this is all purchases. It’s one thing to measure how much people spend on porn if that was the only way to access these entertainment services. We could make the argument that tech savvy porn hunters could skew the results of this study if we account for their use of free adult sites.

To bolster this study’s validity, it would be nice to look at the traffic patterns of a cross section of both subscription and free adult entertainment sites as well. Analytical software that counts all the views, unique visitors and tracks their geographic locations could be used to figure the location of a visitor on a state level. Using IP addresses, one could even dig down to a city level, but the farther down you try to go, the less accuracy you have due to the way IPs are assigned. If you’re sitting in NYC but the proxy you use to access the internet goes through New Jersey, a statistical chart would show you as coming from the state with which that proxy is associated. However, these cases are a small percentage of visitors and you’re usually going to have a very good idea about which state’s residents are accessing a site most often.

When traffic and purchase data are combined, we might get a very different picture or confirm the study’s findings. It could very well be that red states not only buy the most porn, they also surf for the most porn. Another scenario is that red states buy more porn while blue states are surfing for more free porn. Or free sites could be the great equalizer and balance out the porn subscriptions of red states with the free adult content visited by blue states…

See: Benjamin Edelman (2009). Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23 (1), 209-220 DOI: 10.1257/jep.23.1.209

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  • Another hypothesis is that the liberal minority in the red states feel so repressed in that environment that they turn to porn in greater numbers than in the more liberal states.

    Overall, this bears the mark of a good studyit raises more questions than it answers. ;)

  • This was a poor study. There is absolutely no way to tell if the sample group (1 credit card subscription service) is representative, as even the author mentioned in the study. Furthermore, as pointed out when this paper was covered on BoingBoing, there is so much free porn out there that this study might just be showing that Blue staters are more willing or more informed about getting free or pirated videos.

    This paper should be held up as an example of bad science–poor research technique and poor assumptions published with a political message? Horrible.

  • Greg Fish


    I don’t know if it was a purely political study, but I do agree that the way it was done is just plain bad. If I turned in this kind of paper to some of my professors, I would probably get a C if not worse for using a convenience sample rather than a random cross section which such a study would require.