In 2009 Benjamin Edelman, a professor at Harvard Business School, published an informative article looking at rates of adult entertainment subscriptions from a major adult entertainment distributor by zip code. He compared area-level characteristics with subscription rates to draw associations between pornography subscriptions and region-level characteristics. [1] Of particular note was his finding that Utah had the highest rates of paid subscriptions to the adult entertainment provider he listed.

Good social scientist that he is, he did not draw any conclusions about Mormon proclivities or culture specifically from that one data point of Utah.  However, that hasn’t stopped the less cautious masses from drawing their own conclusions about Utah Mormons and their widespread, closeted desire for adult entertainment, and the Utah/pornography connection has become a matter of conventional wisdom, even finding its way to a place on Utah’s Wikipedia page (as of September 2013). The implications, of course, being that since Utah is most readily associated with Mormonism, there’s something about Mormon culture or doctrine that’s impelling widespread sexual hypocrisy. This particular logically fallacious conclusion was problematized by a Deseret News article that requested the county-level pornography data used in the study. If pornography use was really driven by some complicated Mormon cultural mechanism, then all other things being equal the counties with a higher precentage of Mormons would have the highest rates, but in reality the counties with the highest rates are Sevier, Salt Lake, Morgan, and San Juan counties, hardly bastions of Mormon influence relative to other Utah counties. [2]

However, the conventional wisdom still persists and probably will continue to do so regardless of what I write here. Nevertheless, in this small research note I look at an alternative measure of pornography use to further nuance the headline that Utah ( i.e., Mormondom in the public consciousness) has the highest rate of paid pornography viewing per capita: Internet search terms as measured by Google Trends. Google Trends is a relatively new but increasingly used research tool in the social sciences, and it provides a more generalizable measure that does not rely on the data from a single firm. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell this data is only available at the state/month level, so there is no way to disaggregate this data by zip code like Edelman did. However, for my modest purpose of showing Utah’s ranking relative to other states, state-level ordering data should suffice.

An obvious and somewhat difficult question to answer is which keywords should be used as the representatives of pornography searches in general. Fortunately, three prior papers using Google Trends keyword data to explore Internet pornography use have already addressed this question. Using the Internet service WordTracker, they found the keywords most often used in conjunction with the seed word “porn” and used these keywords to measure pornography-related searches in general. [3]

Here I use the same search terms as a baseline measure of pornography use to see where Utah ranks for pornographic search terms. I draw my data from 2004 to September 2013.

The search terms themselves vary widely in their frequency of use. Specifically, when inputted with all the other terms, “porn” has a Google search volume index of 60 (this number is indexed relative to the total number of searches globally), “sex” has a score of 45, and “nude” has a score of 19, with the remaining scores being 9, 7, 5, 5, 4, 3 (and no, I’m not printing these terms here, readers are referred to the articles above if they are interested in the specific keywords used); therefore, “porn” and “sex” seem to be the most-used pornographic search terms by far. How does Utah measure on these two keywords? For “porn,” Utah is dead last out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. On “sex” Utah ranks 34th out of 51. The remaining ranks of relevant search terms are, respectively, 14th, 39th,47th,  27th, 36th, 39th, 3rd, and 44th.

Google Trends also allows for rankings of cities within states. While there is a lot of variation among cities for individual search terms, some cities that are consistently ranked stand out. Vernal appears to lead the pack as a top-three city in Utah for all but one of the search terms. Roy, Tooele, Cedar City, Salt Lake City, and Bountiful are other cities that tend to be near the top of the rankings. Mormon-heavy Provo is not in any of the top-15 rankings, but South Jordan and West Jordan are almost consistently in the top-15. The respective rankings for “porn,” the most often used search term, are Vernal, Roy, Bountiful, West Jordan, Salt Lake City, Kaysville, Layton, Midvale, South Jordan, Draper, Ogden, Cedar City, Sandy, Park City, and Lehi. 

As I’ve demonstrated here, Utah is not significantly higher than other states in regards to pornographic search terms; and in regards to the most common search term, it is dead last. For eight of the ten search terms Utah falls below the median, but in one more particular, less-used search term it ranks third overall. No, I'm not telling.

Now that I’ve presented evidence that shows that on some measures of pornography use Utah is lower ranked, I’m not going to turn around and automatically attribute this characteristic to Mormonism. Popular perception notwithstanding, there is more to Utah than just Mormonism.  As I’ve previously stated, without finer data on both Mormon identification and porn use I can’t parse this out. But it does nuance the meme that porn use is higher in Utah than elsewhere; indeed, looking over all the search terms used in previous research, the data might even suggest that surfing for pornography may be somewhat lower than elsewhere, generally speaking.

This brings up the question, Why the discrepancy between Google search terms (what we've looked at here) and paid pornography subscriptions (Edelman's research)? This is ultimately a question that’s beyond the ken of this paper and probably has to do with differences between people who pay for porn and those who surf the Internet for it. However, what I’ve demonstrated here is that Utah does not have a relatively high amount of surfing-the-Internet type pornography use, which may be a less selective form of pornography consumption than paid pornography viewing.


[1] Edelman, Benjamin. "Markets: Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?," The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23: 1 (2009), 209-220. [Back to manuscript].

[2] For a further discussion of possible explanations for the Utah/pornography connection, see the remainder of the Deseret News article (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705288350/Utah-No-1-in-online-porn-subscriptions-report-says.html?pg=1) and the FAIR article on the subject (http://en.fairmormon.org/Utah/Statistical_claims/Pornography_use_in_Utah). [Back to manuscript].

[3] a) Markey, Patrick M., and Charlotte N. Markey. "Seasonal Variation in Internet Keyword Searches: A Proxy Assessment of Sex Mating Behaviors." Archives of sexual behavior (2013): 1-7.
           b) Markey, Patrick, and Charlotte Markey. "Pornography-seeking behaviors following midterm political elections in the United States: A replication of the challenge hypothesis." Computers in Human Behavior 27, no. 3 (2011): 1262-1264.
           c) Markey, Patrick M., and Charlotte N. Markey. "Changes in pornography-seeking behaviors following political elections: an examination of the challenge hypothesis." Evolution and Human Behavior 31, no. 6 (2010): 442-446. [Back to manuscript].


Full Citation for this Article: Cranney, Stephen T. (2013) "Are Utah Mormons Pornography-Using Hypocrites?: Utah's Rank as Measured by Google Search Terms," SquareTwo, Vol. 6 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCranneyUtahPorn.html, <give access date>

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