Massive Internet study finds that we’re all sexual deviants
- By MAUREEN CALLAHAN
A Billion Wicked Thoughts – What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire
Upon leaving his work as a biodefense researcher at MIT and a Department of Homeland Security fellow, Ogi Ogas decided to pursue a field with even more opportunities for practical applications: Sex.
His new book, “A Billion Wicked Thoughts,” co-authored with Sai Gaddam, is billed as the first massive undertaking in the field since the Kinsey Reports in the mid-20th century. By analyzing a billion web searches from around the world, Ogas and Gaddam have emerged with the most complete survey yet of our collective sexual id.
“Sex therapists haven’t known which interests are common and which are rare,” Ogas says. “We probably now know more than ever before.”
Among their more surprising findings: Straight men enjoy a wider variety of erotica than imagined, including sites devoted to elderly women and transsexuals. Foot fetishes aren’t a deviance; men are evolutionarily wired to look for small feet, which are a sign of high estrogen production, which itself is a sign of fertility. Gay men and straight men have nearly identical brains, and their favorite body parts, in order of preference, line up exactly: chests, buttocks, feet. Straight men prefer heavy women to thin ones. Straight women enjoy reading about and watching romances between two men — it’s not about the sex, which is downplayed, but the emotion, which is the focus. (The largest audience for “Brokeback Mountain,” says the book, was straight women.) Straight men have a fascination with other men’s penises, which may be conscious or unconscious.
“The research, as far as I can tell, is pretty damn sound,” says Dr. Stephen Snyder, a sex therapist in private practice in Manhattan for over 20 years. “They worked very hard to acquire a large data set, and they found some very, very interesting stuff.”
Snyder read the book just a few weeks ago, and then he read it again. It immediately impacted the way he began treating patients, especially the ones who presented him with issues that aren’t well-documented in the literature. For example, he says, let’s take a wife who’s alarmed to discover that her husband has been looking at “she-male” porn online. Without much in the way of academic research — let alone patients who self-report — Snyder would straw-poll colleagues.
“Some would say, ‘That’s a normal variation,’ ” Snyder says. “Others would say, ‘That’s really disturbed.’ It’s very helpful, as a sex therapist, to know that this is not necessarily perverse.” He now believes that it’s not necessarily perverse.
“We just let the data tell us where to go,” Ogas says. Though the information sent them to Japanese anime sites (exceptionally popular among straight men) or to “cuckold porn” (in which men are forced to watch their wives have sex with someone else), it unearthed an even more surprising finding: 80% of all Internet searches are composed of just 20 interests.
According to the search engine Dogpile — which provided the authors with search data from Google, Yahoo! and Bing — the Top 10 sex-related searches are variations of these terms:
1. Youth (13.5%)
2. Gay (4.7%)
3. MILFs (4.3%)
4. Breasts (4%)
5. Cheating wives (3.4%)
6. Vaginas (2.8%)
7. Penises (2.4%)
8. (Blocked out in the book — too dirty even for the authors?)
9. Butts (.9%)
10. Cheerleaders (.1%)
When this information is broken apart further, however, human sexual desire becomes as confounding as ever. For example: Men fantasize about group sex far more than women and picture more men than women in the action. Straight men prefer to watch amateur porn online, and the authors theorize it’s because of perceived authenticity — a fake orgasm, it turns out, may be as disappointing as one in real life. One of the most popular and diverse areas of interest in sexuality is domination and submission, with straight women and gay men most interested in the latter role. Gay men enjoy straight porn in large numbers.
Such information, say the authors, isn’t merely reflective of the variety offered by the web. It’s human desire at its most unrestrained and uncensored, most secure in its anonymity. According to the book, in 1991 — before the birth of the Internet as we know it — there were fewer than 90 porn magazines published in the US. Today, more than 2.5 million porn sites are blocked by CYBERsitter. In 2008, approximately 100 million men in North America logged on to porn. (Also: One-third of the subscribers to Today’s Christian Women seek out erotica online.)
“Web porn has changed everything,” says Gaddam — including, he theorizes “our predispositions long-term.” Whereas once men may not have had access to unique sets of sexual triggers, now that they do, and now that we know large numbers of men are searching for them, perhaps male desire is evolving.
America’s pre-eminent evolutionary psychologist, Donald Symons, a pioneer in the field of human sexuality, isn’t so sure. While he admires the scope of Ogas and Gaddam’s research, he’s not convinced a causal line can be drawn from hard data to human desire — that, for example, the popularity of sites devoted to granny porn and transsexuals is a sign that straight men somehow find these images erotic.
“One of the first things I asked Ogi about was curiosity versus arousal,” says Symons. “Ogi is convinced that when people are searching for things, it’s primarily for sexual arousal. I’m not so sure about that. If there was a porn star with three breasts — I bet there would be a zillion hits. Would that be a sign men were suddenly aroused by that? I think not.”
Symons says he prefers to think it terms of counter-factuals: “If it had been the case that women were just like men, but society had been repressing women and once they’re online they seek the exact mirror-image of porn — that could’ve happened,” he says. “But it didn’t.” And it’s true: The research shows that men, as evolutionary science has long held, are stimulated visually, while women require a host of stimuli — context, emotion, verbal expression.
What would be really shocking, he says, would be fetish sites devoted to acne suffers, or people with no teeth — signifiers of poor health and high reproductive risk. “I don’t necessarily think that all men are searching for women with clear skin, one head and two breasts,” he says. But “when you’re doing a search, you’re usually looking for things that are uncommon.” Hence, he theorizes, the surfeit of searches for she-male porn.
Though the research is somewhat flawed — the data isn’t based on a true sample of Internet users, and there’s no way to know what motivated any given search — it is the largest and most unexpurgated look into one of life’s greatest mysteries: the origins and formation of sexual desires.
The underlying thesis, which Ogas and Gaddam believe will be proved correct: There’s no such thing as a sexual deviance. People who are attracted to mirrors, or to beards, or get turned on by ants in their pants — these are cases that, until now, have been diagnosed by clinicians who’ve seen patients. The Internet gives us a far better sense — rough, but still — of what is a likely anomaly and what is a far more common predilection. “We discovered things even Kinsey didn’t know,” says Ogas. “Foot fetishes, for example, are common across all cultures.”
The discovery may lead to a re-classification; perhaps someday, the male interest in feet will be considered as normal an interest as breast size or facial attractiveness.
As for lesser, freakier predictions, the authors insist, contrary to Symons’ belief, that the research proves that men who look at elderly women are actually turned on by elderly women. “There are forums where men talk about picking up grannies, the kinds that they like,” says Ogas. “We studied AOL search histories over a period of months — if someone’s just curious, they’re not going to spend money for a subscription to a site, or search for something over and over again.”
Still: why would men be attracted to a reproductively inviable woman? “We don’t have a good theory for that,” Ogas admits. “But we’ve spoken to hundreds of guys since we started working on the book — and we have yet to meet a guy who admits to watching any of the porn we’re talking about. The numbers say we should’ve encountered him by now.”
Despite the shortage of empirical data — and can there ever really be empirical data when it comes to human sexuality? — Symons says that the research itself is a gift. “I think,” he says, “all these questions can be sorted out in the future.” And as the authors so optimistically note in their conclusion, the upshot of the book — no matter how unsettling some of the data may appear — is actually quite comforting: There is, indeed, someone for everyone.