Show World Center porn shop is shown, March 29, 2012 in New York's Times Square. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Recent data released by the Organization for Economic Co‑operation and Development suggest that the South, which trails behind the rest of the U.S. on a number of economic indicators, is the worst place to live in America. But disconsolate Southerners may take comfort in a totally different dataset released this week, showing that some Southern states are at the top of the list on one very different measure: Google searches for sex.

Specifically, Cara C. MacInnis and Gordon Hodson of Brock University found that residents of more religious and more politically conservative states -- often in the South -- are more likely to Google things like ‘‘sex,’’ ‘‘gay sex,’’ ‘‘porn,’’ ‘‘xxx’’, ‘‘free porn,’’ and ‘‘gay porn" than their peers in more secular states. The study, published this month in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, analyzed state-level Google Trends data for 2011 and 2012, and combined it with measures of religiosity and political conservatism from Gallup surveys.

"Overall," the authors say, "a reliable positive association of moderate-to-large association size exists between state-level religiosity and searches for the term 'sex.'" They observed similar patterns for Google image searches for sex with political conservatism.

The authors look at two different groups: political conservatives and religious conservatives. Political conservatism was associated specifically with an increased interest in sexually explicit images.

On the other hand, religious conservatives-- measured by the share of residents who say religion is important in their lives -- are highly correlated with searching for sex online, but not necessarily "non-traditional" sex. The study notes: "It may be that these 'sex' searches were conducted with the intention of delivering 'traditional' sexual content (e.g., information regarding monogamous, married, heterosexual sex)."

As you can see below, conservative-leaning states have a high level of interest in sex online, but some liberal states -- such as California and Illinois -- also are highly inclined.


The study's findings comport with previous research. In 2009, for instance, a Harvard researcher discovered a significant correlation between social conservatism and subscriptions to online porn sites at the state level.

Drawing on psychological research, MacInnis and Hodson hypothesize that people who publicly suppress their sexual urges end up needing a private outlet for them. "These results, observed across two separate years, were consistent with the preoccupation hypothesis that American religiosity and conservatism are associated with an increased (not decreased) interest in sexual content," they write.

It's important to note the study's claims don't necessarily hold true at the individual level. "Aggregate data should not be extrapolated to individual behavior, particularly in the field of sex research, where sensitive topics are often examined," MacInnis and Hodson write.

"Although searching for sex on the internet represents a relatively private, anonymous activity," MacInnis and Hodson write, "[Google data] provides unique and novel insights into the private lives of Americans, aggregated at the state level, in ways previously impossible."