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How ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is loosening up the Bible Belt

According to stats from the online ticket retailer Fandango, Mississippi really, really wants to get spanked.


Nico Lang

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 10, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 1:56 pm CDT

Mississippians really want to get spanked. According to online ticket retailer Fandango, Magnolia State residents report the highest anticipation for Friday’s Fifty Shades of Grey release, snatching up more advance tickets than any other state. Their neighbors to the east in Alabama also rank high on the pre-sales list, with Kentucky and West Virginia joining them. 

What’s interesting about these statistics is that sex toys have been criminalized in Alabama since 1998 as part of the Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act, and a 2007 ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals actually upheld the constitutionality of the ban. Esquire’s Karen Schwartz further reports: “[I]n 20 Texas counties, it’s illegal to own more than six ‘obscene devices’—their magic number for indicating that someone is trying to sell them.”

The South clearly has a complicated relationship with sex. While sodomy is still banned in 12 states—half of which are located in the southern half of the U.S.—and Alabama fights a federal ruling to allow all couples the freedom to marry in the state, the South loves to watch two men play “hide the sausage” on the Internet. 

Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, all states where same-sex marriage is currently banned, topped PornHub’s list of the states with the most searches for gay porn, but that was true for the entire region. As PornHub’s analytics team told BuzzFeed: “Every single state in the South watches porn at a higher percentage than the average of states where gay marriage is legal.” 

But conservative states aren’t just consuming more gay porn—they’re watching more kinds of porn in general. A 2009 study showed that the non-southern Utah is the porn-lovin’ capital of America, with more adult website subscriptions than any other state. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Dawn House argues that the reason for Utah’s high porn rates is the “scarcity of adult entertainment outside the home.” The study’s author, Benjamin Edelman, told the Tribune, “If it is distinctively difficult to get this material in retail locations in Utah, Utah residents who seek such material may have to get it online.”

However, Edelman reports that scarcity itself isn’t the only reason for porn’s high demand. As Callaway writes:

To get a better handle on other associations between social attitudes and pornography consumption, Edelman melded his data with a previous study on public attitudes toward religion.

States where a majority of residents agreed with the statement “I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage,” bought 3.6 more subscriptions per thousand people than states where a majority disagreed. A similar difference emerged for the statement “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.”

“One natural hypothesis is something like repression: if you’re told you can’t have this, then you want it more,” Edelman says.

The link between repression and the desire for porn is a documented worldwide phenomenon. While Egypt banned Internet porn three years ago, and a number of Middle Eastern and South Asian countries have highly restrictive policies around consuming “obscene” material, the Lebanese-American Mia Khalifa remains the world’s most popular porn star, with 434,000 followers on Twitter. (Illustrating the tensions here, Khalifa has also been the target of constant death threats). In Pakistan, the most common search terms for pornography include “sister,” “hislut com,” and “girls peeing in bed,” whereas Egypt favors “mom,” “mother,” and “lisa ann.”

According to the Daily Beast’s Aurora Snow, Internet porn not only fulfills a sexual outlet for those who might not be able to express desires outside of the norm (such as incest fantasies or homosexuality), but also it satisfies our curiosity and need for education about the human body. 

“In heavily religious states, abstinence is often pushed as the only safe sex, with very little to offer in the way of sexual education,” Snow writes. “Unfortunately, that leaves a growing number of people with questions about sex but no answers. Enter Google: the best way to find an answer to personal, possibly embarrassing questions without calling attention to yourself. … That’s what happens when you can’t find it elsewhere.”

Internet porn not only fulfills a sexual outlet for those who might not be able to express desires outside of the norm, but also it satisfies our curiosity and need for education about the human body.

While porn is often seen as a repressive tool, Snow explains that there can be a liberatory aspect to pornography. According to statistics from Homegrown Video, around a third of amateur porn videos during a six-month period in 2014 were filmed in the “Bible Belt.” As Snow reminds us, “these are not porn stars, just regular folks at home who film themselves for the world to see.” 

Homegrown Video’s Farrell Timlake further explains that a great deal of these submissions are interracial porn: “We get so many interracial tapes from states that people would stereotype as being racially bigoted areas. And that plays into the same thing: the more repressed it is, the more taboo it is, the more somebody is going to want to see it or touch that fire.”

But, of course, this isn’t just a matter of what people have buried in their Web histories, but also what they might be hiding in their daily lives. Laud Humphreys, the controversial sociologist behind the 1970 work Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, studied men who enjoyed casual same-sex encounters in public restrooms, often stopping for a toilet quickie after work. 

“[Humphreys] jotted down their car license numbers and tricked the local motor vehicles department into divulging the men’s addresses,” the Huffington Post’s Nigel Barber explains. “Without mentioning the true intent of his study, Humphreys interviewed the men in their homes. Most seemed happily married. Their homes often had the U.S. flag on the wall and a Bible on the mantelpiece.”

In recent years, a number of conservative figures have likewise been nabbed for enjoying gay dalliances, from Mark Foley to Larry Craig, who allegedly attempted to foot tap for some bathroom nookie at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in 2007. Rev. Ted Haggard came out as bisexual in 2011 after reports came to light that Haggard had an affair with a meth-dealing escort. 

Despite the obvious hypocrisy of legislating family-focused politics while “sinning” in private, the party of morality continues to crusade against porn viewing. The upcoming release of Fifty Shades of Grey has further intensified this battle. 

The right-wing anti-porn watchdog organization Morality in Media has already condemned the film on the groups of “female inequality, coercion, and sexual violence,” arguing that Fifty Shades “glamorizes and legitimizes violence against women.” A recent statement from the group asks if this is the message we want to send to audiences: “Is this really the kind of relationship we want our daughters, relatives and friends willingly entering into? With a stalker and a batterer? Do we really want our sons to become Christian Greys, practicing a violent masculinity that degrades men as well?”

This isn’t just a matter of what people have buried in their Web histories but also what they might be hiding in their daily lives.

Southern Baptist pastor Jay Dennis further opposed the film on the grounds that it’s “leading to the normalization of pornography,” and Fifty Shades of Grey is being widely boycotted both from conservatives and feminists alike concerned about the content of the film. But no matter your opinion on the merits of the movie or EL James’ writing, there’s a reason that Fifty Shades continues to tap into our cultural subconscious, as well as our hidden cravings for the unknown, the outré, and the taboo. For a generation of women whose need to explore their sexualities is either banned by state law or discouraged by social custom, breathlessly reading (or watching) Christian paddle Ana is the best substitute for the real thing.

If America is ready to release its inner goddess, it’s time to finally let our nation bend over and take it. 

Photo via Universal/YouTube

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*First Published: Feb 10, 2015, 8:10 pm CST