Public Sociology: Mark Regnerus on porn and same-sex marriage

Mark Regnerus contributed a short piece on a correlation he found between watching pornography and support for same sex marriage to The Witherspoon Institute’s ‘Public Discourse.’ In the essay, he attempts to be very clear about what he is not saying. He’s not writing about “any correlation between same-sex relationships and porn use (although that would be an answerable research question)” and he’s not “talking about women’s support for same-sex marriage” because women just aren’t that in to porn. His question is “Does heightened porn use matter for fashioning attitudes about marriage?”

Here is the data analysis Regnerus presents as an exploration of his question:

But of the men who view pornographic material “every day or almost every day,” 54 percent “strongly agreed” that gay and lesbian marriage should be legal, compared with around 13 percent of those whose porn-use patterns were either monthly or less often than that. Statistical tests confirmed that porn use is a (very) significant predictor of men’s support for same-sex marriage, even after controlling for other obvious factors that might influence one’s perspective, such as political affiliation, religiosity, marital status, age, education, and sexual orientation.

The same pattern emerges for the statement, “Gay and lesbian couples do just as good a job raising children as heterosexual couples.” Only 26 percent of the lightest porn users concurred, compared to 63 percent of the heaviest consumers. It’s a linear association for men: the more porn they consume, the more they affirm this statement. More rigorous statistical tests confirmed that this association too is a very robust one.

As he concludes the essay, Regnerus uses the standard line which anybody who has been through the peer review process for quantitative work has probably been asked to include: “Of course, correlation doesn’t mean causation, and I’m not suggesting causation here.” But, that shouldn’t stop us from concluding that we are “pretty confident” in the direction of the “causal arrow,” right? It’s enough, I guess, to puzzle parenthetically about how odd it would be if the arrow ran the other direction.

But, Regnerus doesn’t just stop there, he also rules out “political affiliation” and “religiosity” (whatever that might mean) as causal factors. I’d assume he did this by using them as controls when he did “more rigorous statistical tests [that] confirmed that this association too is a very robust one.”

Now, what we have right up until the last paragraph looks like a lot of social science meant for public consumption. Regnerus actually goes out of his way argue that he’s done careful analysis, and his mention of the ecological fallacy is arguably a ‘public sociology’ thing of beauty. I used to write press releases for a survey we ran here at Le Moyne College, and it’s not an easy task to interpret the survey or statistical work for a general audience, or to explain in great detail the work that was done to achieve the final product. I always wanted to tell the press who would interview me, “but really I wouldn’t make much of these analyses.” That’s not great copy.

All of that said, here is the last paragraph of Regnerus’ essay, where he’s very clear about what he is saying with his analysis:

In the end, contrary to what we might wish to think, young adult men’s support for redefining marriage may not be entirely the product of ideals about expansive freedoms, rights, liberties, and a noble commitment to fairness. It may be, at least in part, a byproduct of regular exposure to diverse and graphic sex acts.

This paragraph, these 2 sentences, really made me stop and think, and write this post. Here are 2 questions I’m stuck on: Contrary to what who might wish to think?  How did Regnerus measure and control for “ideals about expansive freedoms, rights, liberties and a noble commitment to fairness” to check if his correlation remained robust in their presence? Further, I can’t help but think that the last sentence should be edited to read, ‘It may be, although this analysis can’t really tell us, a byproduct of regular exposure to pornographic material.’

Nobody would get very excited about a final sentence like that one because it’s way too obviously conjecture to be used as a scientific basis for morality.

***

Obviously I’ve responded to this very quickly, and maybe I’ll think about it some more. Any thoughts or suggestions?

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4 comments

  1. This latest gay-bashing bigotry out of Regnerus is profoundly dishonest. What he does not say in the article is more important than what he does say. For one example, what he does not tell readers is that out of his study’s total 2,988 respondents, only 84 watch porno “every day or nearly every day.” 1,402 of his respondents are in favor of same-sex marriage. So, if every last one of his 84 respondents who watch porno “every day or nearly every day” were to favor same-sex marriage, that still would mean that only 5.9% of his respondents who favor same-sex marriage watch porno every day. Yet, he is attempting to brand and smear equality supporters as daily pornography viewers. Regnerus and his Witherspoon funders and editors made the choices about how to present this latest gay-bashing bigot attack. This was a very calculated way for them to be sure of presenting the information in a manner that attempts to demonize equality supporters. “Watches porno every day” is not a characteristic for 94.1% of his respondents who favor same-sex marriage, yet Regnerus says that there is an “association” between porn viewing and support for marriage equality.

  2. Not enough is being done by the Sociological community of Scholars to sanction Regnerus. In fact I would change that to nothing is being done. When the Supreme Court takes up the Prop 8 Case and the DOMA case they are simply going to accept Regners’ assertions that gays make bad parents because nobody that I am aware of, is doing any research to refute Regnerus’ claims. Tisk tissing in blogs is underwhelming, doesn’t cut it.

  3. I don’t have time to read the original essay, unfortunately, but is there any comment about the likelihood that those who oppose same-sex marriage also UNDERREPORT porn usage? I am thinking of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker – that type of personality.

    Also, not sure if you were trying to make this connection, but certainly there could be a correlation between viewing pornography and holding “ideals about expansive freedoms, rights, liberties.” Sexual freedom is freedom, too, at least to some people.

    Interesting comments, thanks for posting!

  4. David, those are interesting observations. I don’t recall a discussion of underreporting porn usage. I was actually involved in a congregational survey once and encouraged removal of a porn question because I figured it wouldn’t get reliable responses. It’s worth considering. And that second point is smart. That’s not what I intended, but on the face of it, I think it makes more sense as a testable claim than that users are somehow depraved, which I think is the implication of the original essay.

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