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Secrets of the Bible Belt: Trump, Porn & the Making of the New South

A half-century ago, Pres. Richard Nixon launched the “Southern Strategy,” a devil’s bargain struck by conservative and racist politicians with white voters to protect traditional “white skin privilege” through the ballet.  It fueled the shift of conservative white Southern voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party.  It successfully harnessed many white voters’ deeply felt prejudices regarding race, patriarchy and homophobia into a powerful political movement.  It’s been the North Star of Republican politics for a half-century and helped guide Trump to victory in 2016.

Key to Donald Trump’s electoral victory was decisive wins in the South.  The scale of his victory ranged from a slight few points (e.g., Florida, 49.1%; North Carolina, 50.5%; Georgia, 51.3%; and Texas, 52.6%), to a sizeable win (e.g., South Carolina, 54.9%; Louisiana, 58.1%; and Mississippi, 58.3%; and outright routs (e.g., Arkansas, 60.4%; Tennessee, 61.1%; Kentucky, 62.5%; and West Virginia, 68.7%).

The South, like much the U.S., is facing significant challenges.  In 2015, the Economist offered a gleaming profile of a region in transition.  “New data from the Census Bureau show that seven of the ten fastest-growing counties in America by population are in the South (defined here as the 11 states of the old Confederacy plus Kentucky and West Virginia). So are 70 of the top 100. The region is home to 34% of Americans, up from 27% in 1963.”  It identified affordable housing, favorable climate and growing racial diversity as part of the regions appeal to young workers and retirees; it also acknowledges its long history or low taxes, weak unions and light regulation attracting new business.  It warned, “Racism still casts a shadow. In 2014 40% of America’s 784 hate groups were based in the region.”

Writing in The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson offers a more sobering image. “The South today [2015] shares more features with its antebellum ancestor than it has in a very long time.”  He adds, “Now as then, white Southern elites and their powerful allies among non-Southern business interests seek to expand to the rest of the nation the South’s subjugation of workers and its suppression of the voting rights of those who might oppose their policies.”

While much of the South remains formally very Christian conservative, with tough anti-abortion and anti-gay regulations, nearly every state hosts a city – like Austin or Nashville or Durham — that offers a more liberated social space where an underground scene thrives.  Perhaps more revealing, demographic shifts and renewed urbanization are heating things up both politically and culturally.  The apparent growing popularity of online video porn among adults in the Bible Belt, particularly women, may be the most invisible but consequential change now playing out.

* * *

A 2009 study from Kansas State University (KSU) found that the Bible Belt had the highest concentration of people engaged in the “seven deadly sins.”  The researchers used federal data to map out “sin” throughout the nation and found it most concentrated in the South.  The findings drew much media attention — and was condemnation by Christian conservatives.

In the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great specified the seven deadly sins: (i) pride – an excessive belief in one’s own abilities; (ii) envy – excessive jealousy for others’ traits, status or abilities; (iii) anger – excessive fury or wrath; (iv) gluttony — an excessive desire to consume more than that which one requires; (v) greed – an excessive desire for material wealth or gain, no matter the consequences; (vi) sloth – excessive self-indulgence, laziness, a refusal to accept work discipline; and (vii) lust – an excessive craving for the sexual pleasures of the body.  Each persists into the postmodern world, defining key aspects of 21st century life.

Lust is especially revealing, signifying not only the autoerotic sexual pleasures experienced with oneself as a physical, natural being, but the erotic relations with another(s), whether real or imaginary.  One imaginary expression of lust is pornography – and porn viewing is alive and well in America.

A recent study by Proven Men Ministries, “a non-profit Christian organization aimed at helping men with an addiction to pornography,” found that approximately two-thirds of men (64%), both Christian and not, admitted viewing porn at least once a month.  In terms of monthly viewing habits, eight-out-of-ten (79%) of younger males (18-30 years) viewed porn, compared to two-thirds (67%) for middle-aged men (31-49 years) and half (50%) for older men (50-68 years).  The study also found that three-out-of-ten young men (18-30) watch porn daily, while only 3 percent of young women access pornography daily.

A 2013 Pew Research study found that only 12 percent of respondents – and 8 percent of women — admitted watching “adult” videos. It notes that this low admission rate “may reflect a reluctance to report the behavior among some adults.”

Surprising to many, porn is gaining widespread popularity in the (ostensibly) conservative Bible Belt.  In 2016, PornHub, which bills itself as the 3rd largest porn site in the world, analyzed the top ranked search terms for U.S. web users.  The top term was “lesbian”; it notes, across most of the South — Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia — and New York, “the most viewed category is ‘ebony’.”

PornHub released a more interesting report in 2013 based on a provocative question: “Do religious strongholds like Birmingham, AL, watch less porn than, say, the godforsaken vistas of San Francisco and Boston?”  It tracked website porn traffic and, employing what is known as the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, determined that a city’s ostensible religiosity was not be a major factor in residents’ online porn consumption.

A comparison of four very different cities is illuminating.  Huntsville, AL Provo, UT, Boston, MA, and Burlington, VT, are about as different as you can get in terms of cultural politics.  The study found that the lowest average number of videos watched per year was by residents of Boston (4.5 videos) and Provo (5.7) while among the highest viewing was in Huntsville (23.8) and Burlington (40.1 videos).  Other Southern cities fell somewhere in between: Montgomery, AL, 21.9 videos and Birmingham, AL, 12.1 videos.  The unexpected has become the ordinary.

PornHub’s study also found that – not surprising — residents of more (ostensibly) religious cities had different viewing habits than those in (ostensibly) more secular cities.  For example, “gay” videos were more popular among residents of less-religious cities, while “teen” videos being the most common category for more-religious cities.  Residents of more-religious cities spent only about 47 seconds longer per visit than non-religious viewers.  And more-religious cities reported less likely to indulge in porn viewing on Christmas.

Homegrown Video is a San Diego-based amateur porn video production and distribution company founded in 1982.  In 2014, it completed a 6-month, in-house research study of the homemade videos it had received.  Its findings confirmed the findings of the KSU report – sin is thriving in the South.  Homegrown reports that 29.6 percent of the submissions came from the South.  While the largest proportion of the submissions came from – as expected — California (20.6%), the share from individual Southern states is revealing, especially the relative proportion (ostensibly) submitted by women:

+ Florida = 10.8%, 63.7% from females;

+ Texas = 6.9%, 57.1% from female;

+ North Carolina, 3.9%, 75% are female;

+ Georgia = 2%, 50% from females.

In addition, Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia had only 1 percent each in terms of submissions; in both Kentucky and West Virginia, all submissions were from females.

* * *

The South may suggest the fulfillment of Trump’s promise to “make American great again.”  Nice weather, affordable housing, low wages, few unions, little regulation and formally religious.  As the Economist notes, “In 2014 40% of America’s 784 hate groups were based in the region.”  While racial tensions can get intense, “the gap between black and white household income is lower in the South than in America as a whole.”  Perhaps more indicative of the coming future then the painful past, Pew Research finds that 14 percent of southern newlyweds marry someone of another race.

Nevertheless, the region is facing some serious challenges. The Kaiser Family Foundation finds that nearly two-thirds (64%) of American adults are overweight.  While people of color suffering higher rates of overweight than whites, two-thirds of whites (63%) are overweight.  The greatest concentration of overweight whites is in South:  Alabama (66%), Arkansas (69%), Georgia (64%), Mississippi (67%), Nebraska (67%), Tennessee (68%) and West Virginia (69%).  Other red states show high levels of overweight white people: Indiana (67%), Iowa (67%), Nebraska (67%), North Dakota (68%), Oklahoma (67%), South Dakota (67%) and Wisconsin (67%).  Many of these overweight voters likely backed Trump.

A second challenge involved teen birth rate.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, nationally, teen births are at their lowest level in more than 60 years.  Most representative were New Hampshire (13.8 per 100,000), Vermont (16.3), Connecticut (15.1) and Massachusetts (14.1) have the lowest rates of teen births.  Sadly, teen birthrates in 2012 were highest in Arkansas (45.7), Mississippi (46.1), New Mexico (47.1), Oklahoma (47.3), Texas (44.4) and West Virginia (44.1).  Other Bible Belt states have still alarmingly high teen birth rates, including Alabama (39.2), Georgia (33.8), Kentucky (41.5), Louisiana (43.1), South Carolina (36.3) and Tennessee (38.5).  More troubling, the CDC finds, “At least one clear trend emerges among Southern states, the concentration of HIV infections tend to be higher.”

Until Trump’s election, the Christian right’s culture wars were stalled.  Over the preceding three decades America’s sex culture was transformed, girls and women had (increasingly) the power to say either “yes” or “no” to a sexual encounter.  Now, the White House will be occupied by a man who reportedly engaged in two-dozen unwanted sexual assaults on women.

America’s sexual culture had changed.  The Guttmacher Institute found that premarital sex was engaged in by two-thirds of American women and teen girls.  It also reported that over the last quarter century, between 1991 and 2014, the teen birth rate fell 61 percent, from 61.8 births to 24.2 births for every 1,000 adolescent females.  It also reports that between 2008 and 2011 the abortion rate among females aged 15–44 years fell 13 percent, declining to its lowest level since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.  In 2011, the abortion rate was 16.9 per 1,000 women, well below the 1981 peak of 29.3 per 1,000; in 1973 it was 16.3 per 1,000.  Guttmacher argues that the fall in the abortion rate was due to more – and younger – women being smarter being more self-confident about sex because of sex-ed courses and the use birth control methods, most notably intrauterine devices (IUDs), not abstinence campaigns.

As the nation’s sexual culture evolved over the last couple of decades, die-hard anti-abortion advocates pressed on.  They became a powerful force at the local and state levels, driven by mean-spirited vengeance, desperate because their influence was waning.  With Trump’s victory, Mike Pence as VP and Republican control of both Houses of Congress, a new round of the culture wars will be launched and the South will likely be a major battleground.

Throughout this period, valiant purity warriors fought on.  Religious stalwarts in Montgomery, AL, Oak Grove, KY, Peoria, IL, and other localities regularly host “purity balls,” annual galas at which fathers escort their virginal daughters to celebrate chastity.  (Such “balls” would not seem out-of-place among patriarchal- and orthodox-religious groups.)  In addition, the Liberty Counsel, of Orlando, FL, promotes “Christian religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, and the traditional family,” and organizes an annual national Day of Purity for teenagers.  Who knows, a Trump administration – along with a Christian Congress — might require purity balls be held in all schools.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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