13 Jul 2016

God forbid

9:00 am on 13 July 2016

Do religious young people watch less porn? 


Nothing to see here.

Nothing to see here. Photo: 1232RF

The effect porn has on young people's brains is constantly under review, but young people don't care they're too busy watching porn. Nothing can stop them!

Except maybe God?

A new study out of the University of Calgary in Canada has found young people aged 13-24 who attend regular religious services consume less porn as they age compared their (non-religious) peers. 

"We found that porn use increased sharply in early adolescence, particularly for boys," explains PhD student Kyler Rasmussen, who led the study.

"If adolescents attended church regularly their use still tended to increase overall, but that increase wasn’t nearly as strong compared to adolescents who didn’t attend church at all.

"This led to considerable differences in porn use between attenders and non-attenders by the time they hit adulthood."

Rasmussen (whose work is not affliated with the church) wants to pinpoint exactly what it is about religious services that steers young people away from porn. "If we can take those aspects of religion that are working and apply them in a family setting or an [irreligious] setting, that might be really worthwhile,” he says.

The study analysed the results of an anonymous phone survey on porn-use between the ages of 13 to 24. There were 3,290 respondents, the majority of whom were "Evangelical Christian, Mainline Protestant and Catholic".

But can it really be that simple? We got in touch with Rasmussen to find out more. The following is an edited Q+A:


Why do you think going to church might deter young people from looking at porn? 

In the paper, we outline three of the most likely ways religion could discourage porn use: the first is that religion tends to encourage people to exercise self-control, which would help dissuade kids from acting on all sorts of temptation, including porn. 

The second is that sitting in church, you hear sermons and lessons warning you against pornography, which might lead kids to think more negatively about porn. 

The third is an idea called social control, where kids would be hesitant to watch porn simply because they know their parents or god won’t like it. So far, the evidence points to the second and third option being more likely than the first. 

Do you think it is likely that this lower usage of pornography will continue later into these young people’s lives, or will it only delay it?

Based on other research, porn use tends to peak in the mid-20s and decline steadily from there, and it was in the early 20s that we saw the strongest differences in porn use between high and low religious attenders. 

That suggests that the difference is likely to stick around once an individual hits his or her late 20s and 30s. That’s going to be even more so the case when you consider that religious young adults are more likely to get married earlier; you see a big decline in porn use among men when they get married. 

Do you think the moral pressures that deter young people from watching porn could also be harmful when it comes to their attitudes toward sex?

That depends on your perspective. It’s clear that religious kids have less sex with fewer partners, start having sex at a later age, and feel more guilty about engaging in sex when they do. 

That latter part is definitely not ideal, especially if they carry sex-related shame into their adult relationships. In the long-term, though, religion is almost certainly a net benefit for romantic health. Once married religious adults are [believed to be] just as satisfied with their sex lives as the irreligious. 

They’re also more committed to and more satisfied with their relationships overall, and are less likely to get divorced. If you’re playing the long game, which religious people tend to do, those social and moral pressures probably seem pretty useful.

Are young people in religious communities likely to be getting a different style of sex education than their nonreligious peers? Could this affect their engagement with porn?

The answers are “yes” and “probably”, but maybe not in the way you’re thinking... 

Religious parents are more likely to request abstinence-only education programs and to teach abstinence-only principles to their kids. You might think this would lead religious kids to just be more curious about sex, since they’re not getting enough education at home, but there’s not much evidence for that. 

The real nightmare scenario is when you have a lot of porn use but little to no sex education. In places where that’s the case (like rural Africa, where there’s an abundance of smartphones but no sex ed), porn use becomes a very serious problem for adolescents, since they have no context in which to process it. 

Could the message that porn is bad result in the opposite effect, making porn taboo and therefore more desirable?

More taboo? Absolutely. More desirable? Probably not. It’s hard to overestimate the desire young men already have to watch porn – there’s myriad biological and psychological factors that combine to make porn it appealing, and the taboo isn’t likely to [affect that] much. 

It might lead a certain sense of curiosity about porn, of wanting to see what all the fuss is about, but the greater barriers presented by religious communities mean curiosity is less likely to lead to serious consumption. 

There was one study, for instance, that found that more religious states in the U.S. were more likely to search for the word “sex” on google, but were substantially less likely to put “sex” into a google image search. Why? Probably because religious people are more likely to dip their toe in erotic waters but less likely to do a cannonball. So they might be intrigued by the idea of watching porn, but don’t actually want naked people to end up on their screen.