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Sex on Their Brains

How 'A Billion Wicked Thoughts' authors used new data on human sexuality tells us plenty about their own imaginations.

Peter Tupper 5 Jul

Peter Tupper is a Vancouver-based journalist and regular contributor to The Tyee.

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Sexual proclivities: Ogas and Gaddam used the Internet to learn what millions are searching for.

You don't have to work outside of the field you were trained for to write a book on sex, but apparently it helps.

Alfred Kinsey, author of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was an entomologist. Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex, was a gerontologist. Shere Hite had a history degree when she wrote The Hite Report on Female Sexuality. And Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, authors of a new survey of sexuality on the Internet, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, have PhDs from Boston University's Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems.

This doesn't necessarily invalidate their work. Perhaps sex is a topic so burdened with taboos and inhibitions that sexologists and designated experts are too concerned about maintaining the respectability of their field, and thus it takes maverick outsiders to break new ground. Less charitably, sex is also a topic that attracts its share of frauds, ideologues and quacks.

So, in which category does A Billion Wicked Thoughts belong?

Like Kinsey, Hite and others, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam used unconventional methods to break through people's usual embarrassed evasions and gather their data.

One of the problems hampering studies of sexuality is the lack of large survey information. Kinsey's project surveyed 18,000 men and women across the United States, with findings that were astonishing, like homosexuals existing in far greater numbers than thought, or that more than half of women masturbated. However, since then there has not been a sexuality survey of comparable scale to Kinsey's.

Ogas and Gaddam got around this problem by the most modern of methods: they looked to the Internet. They compiled the search data from sites such as Dogpile (nearly 400 million searches over a year) and AOL. Though the data was anonymized, they could still compile profiles of individuals from their search history, and give them nicknames like "Mr. Bikinis" and "Mr. Playstation." (If that doesn't give you pause for thought, it should.)

The authors say that this method is more revealing of the truth than surveys, and also provides insight into the sexuality of people who are not "WEIRD", that is, "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic."

Even though the Internet is no longer the enclave of male, white, middle-class Anglophone computer users, it is still skewed heavily towards that demographic. What do non-English speakers search for? There are also millions of Internet users separated from the larger world by the "great firewall" of China and other large scale censorship systems, whose desires aren't reflected in the search data. This seriously undermines the author's claim to the universality of their findings.

Evolution's evangelists

Still, Ogas and Gaddam do have a large data set to work with. Just a cursory scan of the most popular sexual search categories on Dogpile is provocative. Who knew that "MILFs" were so in demand, coming in at #3 after "Youth" and "Gay"? Taboo topics like "Incest" and "Bestiality" are in the top 15, but both are beaten out by "Cheating Wives."

Only a few pages into this book, the authors reveal the underlying theory of their work. They extensively cite the classic evolutionary psychology approach to desire, Donald Symons' The Evolution of Human Sexuality (1979). Symons is not only frequently quoted in personal emails, he provides a blurb at the front of the book.

Evolutionary psychology says that all human behaviour can be explained as adaptations towards maximizing reproductive fitness. This is reflected at every level from genes to brain structure to individual choices to large-scale behaviour.

According to this book, human males and females have evolved two different, competing reproductive strategies, reflected in everything from mass media to individual brain structure. Men follow the "Elmer Fudd, wabbit hunter" model of desire: the single minded, unending pursuit of females with visual signs of health and fertility. Women follow the "Miss Marple detective agency" model of desire: a multi-faceted, never-completed process of evaluating prospective males' health, wealth, social status and parenting skills. One strategy produces mostly pornography, a smorgasbord of willing sexually active females. The other produces romance novels, endless reiterations of alpha male warriors succumbing to the heroine's charms and settling into domestic monogamy.

If this sounds familiar, it is. It's every half-baked, "everybody knows", "just so" explanation for human sexuality that gets eternally recycled in magazines from Maxim to Cosmopolitan.

A recent article in Scientific American explored the claim that babies physically resemble their fathers. Evolutionary theory suggested that this is so that fathers can confirm paternity and make them more likely to provide for their offspring. However, the experimental data indicates that infants resemble both parents, or even their mothers more. Mothers tend to say the opposite, which has its own evolutionary explanation. Linking subtle human features or behaviours to millions of years of evolutionary process makes it easy to confuse just-so stories with the actual products of evolution.

Spider libidos

The book grinds on, one blunt declarative sentence after another, veering into talk about brain structures in one paragraph and animal mating habits in the next. What, if anything, do the reproductive practices of wolf spiders, which aren't even mammals, have to do with humans? It isn't just that quoting animal studies when discussing human behaviour is a cheap, easy shot; you can always cherry-pick some obscure animal to support your point. There's also a long, ignominious history of researchers studying animal behaviour and ignoring, explaining away or outright denying any data that does not fit their thesis. This is particularly noticeable in sexual studies, where the whole menagerie gets dragged in to support theories about universal male promiscuity and female monogamy.

Evolutionary psychology theory is particularly prone to adding ad hoc hypotheses in the light of new information. If humans compete, that must maximize reproductive fitness. If they cooperate, that must also maximize reproductive fitness. Even if humans are aroused by something that has nothing to do with coitus and possible impregnation, evolutionary theory will still explain it in terms of reproduction.

Shoe fetishism, for example, can be explained by evolutionary psychology, up to a point: a woman wearing high heels presents the illusion of smaller feet, longer legs, greater height, and more prominent buttocks and breasts, all signs of health and/or femininity, and arguably indicators of greater reproductive fitness. But in more acute forms of fetishism, the shoe itself becomes the object of desire, and another person is not even necessary for arousal.

The greater problem with the health/fertility sign theory of fetishes is that it ignores the cultural history of the objects of desire. Saying that high heels are sexy because they make women look more desirable overlooks the fact that shoes and boots with heels were originally worn by men. It is only centuries later that heels became part of female attire, along with several other articles of clothing originated and by men that women copied and revised; a long standing trend in Western fashion history. A fetishized object carries a rich history of symbolism and association, both individual and cultural.

Grannies are hot

The human body itself is a much a product of culture as of nature. The ideal female figure (and male as well) changes over time, bouncing back and forth between the slim, boyish silhouette of the 1920s flapper to the wasp-waisted hourglass of Dior's New Look in the post-war era. Even if human beauty can be described mathematically, such as the supposedly ideal female hip-waist ratio of 0.7, it still doesn't explain these variations.

The authors own data goes against this evolutionary theory. In the Dogpile data, Youth is the most searched-for category, which fits. But the #2 is Gay, followed by MILFs. Grannies, women presumably without the signifiers of health and fertility, come in at #20, ahead of Celebrities and Asians. Cheating Wives are ranked fifth, which should set off male jealousy alarms instead of arousal.

So, how can we explain the popularity of desire for human traits that have nothing to do with reproductive fitness? If the purpose of sex is to propagate the species, why does so little of it go anywhere near what could result in pregnancy?

Back in the 19th century, psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing had a new body of information to understand, much like Ogas and Gaddam. Increased surveillance by medical and legal authorities revealed a variety of aberrant behaviour that could not categorized. Was a man who repeatedly accosted women and cut off their hair buns a violent criminal who needed to be punished, or was he mentally ill and needed to be treated?

Krafft-Ebing's book, Psychopathia Sexualis, listed numerous case histories of unusual sexuality, ranging from the harmless (a man who paid prostitutes so he could lather and shave their faces) to the horrifying (a man who compulsively mutilated dead bodies.) His theory was the purpose of desire was human procreation, and anything that did not lead to that was a perversion. His key concept to explain sexual deviance was "paraesthesia", which was "perversion of the sexual instinct, i.e. excitability of the sexual functions to inadequate stimuli." Sexual sadism, for example, was natural male aggression misdirected away from reproduction. Masochism, a term he coined, was the problem of submissive desire (natural in women) exhibited in men. When women did exhibit extreme sexual submission, Krafft-Ebing had to graft on the separate diagnosis of "sexual bondage."

Krafft-Ebing's book was intended for legal and medical professionals, and portions were written in Latin to keep from the general public. Despite this, many laypeople read it and its theory of human sexuality, as inborn traits, informs our thinking about sex to this day.

Ogas and Gaddam have the same problem as their intellectual forebear Krafft-Ebing, and make the same error. They classify desires into what they call cued and uncued interests, with the distinction being that cued interests evolve naturally, while uncued interests are the result of environmental factors interfering with sexual imprinting, with a distinct origin story. This probably has more to do with cultural definitions of normal and abnormal sexuality than any difference in how that desire develops in individuals. A gay person or a person with a fetish will at some point in their life have a moment of realization that their desire is not considered normal in their culture. It does not follow that their desire arises from a different process than normative desire.

Making gay strange

Intentionally or not, Ogas and Gaddam's theory normalizes heterosexuality and pathologizes homosexuality. In fact, there's no discussion of homosexuality until page 125, beginning with a glib passage of female sexual versatility. The chapter devoted to male homosexuality starts with a bizarre factoid claiming that gay men have longer and thicker penises on average than straight men, and continues from that to a discussion of gay and straight brain structures. Gay men are said to be neural hermaphrodites, combining the heterosexual males' visual body-part seeking with heterosexual females' attraction to alpha males. This is attributed to the controversial theory of prenatal hormonal influences.

You might wonder how the authors apply this theory to female homosexuals. The short answer is, they don't. A Billion Wicked Thoughts has more to say about the sexuality of naked mole rats than of lesbians. It's as if there is an entire chapter missing from this book. Is the near total silence about this quadrant of human desire because the authors couldn't fit lesbians into their thesis, or because they didn't consider it worth studying, or because they couldn't find any lesbian romance/erotica/pornography to study?

Although there isn't a mass-media business comparable in scale to hetero porn, gay porn or romance novels that is dedicated to the desires of lesbian women, lesbians do write their desires, whether the resulting product happens to be marketed as porn, erotica or romance. If Ogas and Gaddam missed them, they didn't do their due diligence in their research.

The complete lack of discussion of lesbian desire indicates a limitation of this project. If there's no mass-media literature to study, there's nothing to say. Call it the fallacy of the free market, the assumption that the market will produce a perfect reflection of all consumers' desires. It ignores the idea that the market has its own demands and assumptions, and that the gatekeepers of commercial mass media may not cater to certain desires out of their own preconceptions or aversion to risk.

When it comes to controversial subjects, like women's rape fantasies or gay men's fantasies about straight men or straight women's apparent greater comfort with bisexuality, this book's analysis is thimble deep, attributing these behaviours to malfunctioning brain circuits. The application of evolutionary psychology becomes tautological. Men act this way, women that way, except when they don't.

Use some imagination

When you examine the farther frontiers of human sexuality, the niche fetishes of pornography and the micro-genres of fan fiction and so on, it's like encountering a new continent full of unfamiliar wildlife. Why are so many men attracted to pre-op transsexuals? Why do female fanfiction writers love getting their male characters pregnant? Why are balloons such a common fetish for women? These expressions of desire need to be evaluated on their own terms, instead of being shoehorned into narrow, pre-existing categories.

Other writers on sex, like Robert J Stoller and Michael J Bader, emphasize that a fetish or fantasy must be understood not just as a mental trait or as an instinctive trigger, but a narrative, a story. They are little stories we tell ourselves to allay our anxieties and fears of personal rejection, failure of gender roles, disapproval of authority figures and the like. Dig into a fetish as commonplace as a man's preference for busty women, and you'll find a narrative that assumes they're more highly sexed or more accommodating than other women, and thus they won't reject his advances. True or not, his anxiety dissipates and he can become aroused.

Instead of making us deterministic wind-up toys, sexual fantasies reveal the complexity of human nature. We are the only animal who tells stories.

Apart from the serious problems of methodology and theory, there's an unsettling jocular tone throughout the book. There's no need for a book on sex to overcompensate and be dry and stuffy, but it does undermine the book's credibility when the authors pepper their work with quotes from male stand-up comedians, Hugh Hefner and "Sai's ex-girlfriend."

More troubling is the undertone of hetero-centrism and a pervasive neglect of queer people and queer sexualities. In addition to the inexcusable silence about lesbian desire, the authors make a point of speaking to heterosexuals, with warnings like "If you're a straight guy, gay porn might be too squicky for you too watch." (Pg. 134) The afterword opens with a reassurance to men that, regardless of character, some woman somewhere will find them attractive, and woman that, regardless of looks, some man somewhere will fetishize their body. Gay men and lesbians get no such promise.

Early in this book, the authors reference "Rule 34," a bit of Internet folklore stating that no matter what the subject, somebody somewhere has made porn of it. True or not, this does suggest the incredible variety of sexual expression to be found on the Internet. Ogas and Gaddam don't reconsider old ideas of gender and sexuality. Instead they promote a thesis a mediocre stand-up comedian could conceive. They reduce A Billion Wicked Thoughts down to just two: "Yay, boobies!" and "Why didn't he call me?"

This is the real tragedy of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, that of wasted opportunity. The authors had a vast dataset to study and simply lacked the imagination to ask good questions. For all their questionable methods and qualifications, mavericks like Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite told us things about ourselves we did not know. Ogas and Gaddam just repeated what we already believe.  [Tyee]

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