A five-year-old study that singled out Utah as the state with the largest number of online pornography subscriptions has been a source of embarrassment for the state. Critics of the state and its culture of religious faith have for years seized upon the dubious distinction identified in the 2009 report, “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?”
New research provides evidence that strongly contradicts the 2009 study. An analysis of new data conducted by Canadian blogger Tom Stringham reveals that Utah ranks 40th of all 50 states — and well below the national average — in viewing pornography.
It seems improbable that Utahns’ interest in pornography has dropped so dramatically in so short a time. The more likely explanation is that one of the two numbers is wrong.
The 2009 report openly acknowledged potential problems in its findings. Conducted by Benjamin Edelman, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard, the study did not identify the “top-10 seller of adult entertainment” that provided him with the raw data from which the conclusions were drawn. Edelman maintained that this source was credible, but his article in the winter 2009 Journal of Economic Perspectives conceded that “it is difficult to confirm rigorously that this seller is representative.”
Edelman’s research focused solely on paid pornography subscriptions, rather than on pornography usage as a whole. “Sellers of adult entertainment face a variety of competing free material,” Edelman wrote, noting that “almost all sellers make a portion of their material available without charge,” and that these free trials often “act as an imperfect substitute for a paid subscription.”
His study made no attempt to correlate people who subscribe to such services and those who get access to pornography at no cost. Users who view material for free vastly outnumber those with subscriptions, and it is impossible to know if subscriber statistics directly translate to similar percentages of free users per capita.
There may be a way to reconcile the 2009 and 2014 findings. If one were to accept both statistics as presented, Utahns are less likely to view pornography than four out of five other Americans, but those Utahns who do consume pornography are more likely to pay for it than users in other states.
The broader lesson of the new research shows that it would be a mistake to draw sweeping conclusions from incomplete data. Critics of the state who unqualifiedly cite the 2009 statistic should bear this in mind.