What the Internet reveals about sexual desire

Straight men look at penises? Fat women are preferable to scrawny ones? Researchers explain their amazing finds

Published May 2, 2011 8:15PM (EDT)

Artist renderings of some of the most popular sexual archetypes: A "bear," a "MILF" and "Twilight's" Edward and Jacob in slash fan fiction
Artist renderings of some of the most popular sexual archetypes: A "bear," a "MILF" and "Twilight's" Edward and Jacob in slash fan fiction

For proof that human sexual desire is a funny animal, you need only look as far as the Internet. Consider this snapshot of one man's America Online search history:

college cheerleaders

cheerleaders in Hawaii

pretty girls in bikinis


christian advice on lust

The Web may allow our sexual psyches to gambol about with seeming anonymity, but we leave behind an amusing -- and sometimes disturbing -- record of our exploits. The new book "A Billion Wicked Thoughts" by neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam mines some of that evidence -- including a billion Web searches, like the ones above, and millions of websites, porn videos, online erotica and personal ads -- for insights on desire.

The book bills itself as the only systematic investigation of sexual desire since Alfred Kinsey's survey of some 18,000 Americans in the 1950s -- a dubious claim. But the book is certainly groundbreaking in terms of its unfathomable survey size: The researchers wrote a computer program to capture sexual queries in publicly listed catalogs of Web searches. They later categorized the searches and did some number crunching. They estimate that their research reflects the online behavior of 100 million people. The survey also avoids the usual guinea pigs: undergrads looking for college credit. There are limitations to this mode of sex research, though. The results reflect people's fantasies -- not necessarily sexual acts that they engage in. Also, it's worth keeping in mind that this data exposes the erotic minds of those who seek out titillation on the Web; we don't hear from those who explore their sexual imagination offline.

I hungrily devoured "A Billion Wicked Thoughts" because it is smart, readable and handles even the most bizarre fetishes with both humor and respect -- but also because since puberty I've engaged in some very unofficial personal online research on the male sexual psyche. Ever since mid-'90s AOL chat rooms -- and the middle-aged men found within -- introduced me to the dark side of human sexuality, I've wanted to probe those depths like a naughty Nancy Drew. The Internet was, and still is, a phenomenal tool for exploring this terrain. My youthful pursuit was disillusioning, but also oddly humanizing -- and this book is much the same.

I recently spoke with Ogas about straight men's penis worship, X-rated "Twilight" fan fiction and why scientific discovery sometimes requires watching "nasty porn."

Why take this approach to studying sex?

Well, we're computational neuroscientists, which means we view the mind as software. People in our field usually study the higher functions of the brain -- memory, vision language and things like that. But we thought we could use the same software modeling approach to study the lower functions, in particular sexual desire. No one in our field had done this before and we thought it might provide some new insight.

Which of your findings were most interesting?

Well, we all know that male and female sexuality are different, but just comparing male erotica and female erotica, you really see how vastly different they are. The other interesting thing was how similar gay men and straight men are. We only found two significant differences between gay male sexuality and straight male sexuality. One, of course, is that gay men like men. The other is that gay men are more likely to enjoy the sexually submissive role than straight men. But other than that, their sexual behaviors and interests online are virtually identical.

How so?

It turns out that straight men's sexual interest parallels gay men's sexual interest. For example, there are overweight women, which are called BBWs in straight porn; in gay porn there are "bears," which are big, burly guys. Just like there are MILFs for straight men, there are DILFs or daddies for gay men. There are "grannies" for straight men and "grandpas" for gay guys. The biggest interest for straight guys is teens and the biggest interest among gay guys is "twinks," which are basically teens. The body parts most preferred by both are chests, butts and feet. And both gay guys and straight guys love penises.

In terms of the frequency with which they access porn, gay men access it more frequently but that's probably simply due to the fact that there's no women involved. For straight men the limiting factor is probably having the wife or the girlfriend preventing them from watching porn or they have to do it in secret. Gay men are much more accepting of porn and they often watch porn together. That said, we certainly encountered many gay men that don't like porn.

What did you find in terms of women's sexual behavior online?

The dominant modes of erotica for women are character-driven stories of romance and sexuality. The most popular erotic site for women is fanfiction.net, which is a collection of amateur written stories [which are often written about male characters found in pop culture, like Edward from "Twilight"]. Women's erotica is a social enterprise; for men it's a solitary enterprise. In fan fiction, women love to discuss the erotic stories, the characters, the emotional nuances -- that's part of enjoying and participating in fan fiction.

What do we know about the appeal of fan fiction?

One of the most basic differences between the male sexual brain and female sexual brain is how they respond to sexual stimuli. For men, any single stimulus triggers arousal. But for women they need multiple cues simultaneously to cross a certain threshold to feel arousal. Most female erotica includes multiple cues and a real story line -- there's usually a time element involved in female arousal.

I want to acknowledge, though, that a minority of women does like pornography. Somewhere between one in three and one in four visitors to adult video sites are women, and our data suggests that we can even say a few things about these women. In general, they tend to have a higher sex drive than other women; they tend to be more socially aggressive than other women; they tend to be more comfortable taking risks; and they seem to be more open to bisexual experiences.

As far as men's interest in pornography goes, what of your findings were actually surprising? Because a lot of it -- like the interest in large breasts -- is totally expected.

I'll give you the top three. No. 1 is that men prefer overweight women to underweight women. There are almost three times as many searches for fat women as there are for skinny women, and lest you think that's some way we treated the search data, this is also reflected in popularity on adult sites. There are many more video sites devoted to overweight women than underweight women. Now, I should say as a caveat that men prefer healthy weight women overall. But if the choice is between a woman with a few extra pounds or a few less pounds, most guys will choose more pounds.

Another big surprise was the age of women that men search for. As expected, the dominant preference was for young women as close to the teen years as possible, but to our surprise there was also very substantial interest in older women in their 40s, 50s, even in their 60s and 70s. In fact, there's a particular genre of porn called "granny porn," which is just like it sounds. Though it's not nearly as popular as teen porn, it's one of the 50 most popular interests among men. So clearly there's something going on there, and it's something completely not expected by conventional wisdom or the contemporary science on sexuality. [Editor's note: Keep in mind that plenty of porn searches don't include any age specification, and youth may be implied in a search for, say, "hot women."]

The third big surprise was the parts of anatomy that men prefer. It turns out that heterosexual men very much like looking at penises.

There's pretty overwhelming evidence for it: Men search for penises almost as often as they search for vaginas. There's about a thousand heterosexual sites dedicated to large penises, and large penises are a category of erotica in all the major porn video sites. We think the reason for this is because it's actually from our evolutionary heritage. If you look at all the other primates, the penis is a prominent and versatile social tool used for many different purposes -- to indicate aggression, to mark territory, to indicated sexual interest. The penis may also function as a sperm competition cue. That is a very specific hard-wired cue for men to trigger arousal -- basically if a man has a reason to think that a woman recently had sex with a man it makes him more aroused and the penis must play a role in that.

What would you say to someone that reads the book and comes away feeling a little depressed about the gaping chasm between men's and women's sexualities?

Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that it's always worked just fine. Our very existence tells us that our ancestors had no problem getting together sexually. We're designed to appeal to each other so there's not really a need for us to have identical interests.

Different interests pull us together, so I don't think it's anything to be afraid of; rather the more you understand your partner the more satisfying a sexual relationship you can have. If you can get past the illusions and ignorance and fears and hang-ups, I think good information about how these things work can help all of us have more fulfilling sexual relationships.

That's interesting because the book definitely plays that role in laying bare the human sexual psyche. I'm curious what it was like for you as a researcher to spend all this time looking at these porn sites. What was the process like for you?

I think I was particularly well equipped to do this because the truth is I'm a bit of a prude and I'm not particularly interested in any kind of unusual sex. It was just because of the way my brain is, it's very easy for me to detach myself from watching pornography. I can look at it like I'm watching apes in a zoo or something. A lot of our discoveries came about just because we were willing to go watch nasty porn and talk to people that liked it.

For both political and personal reasons there are barriers to doing that. You can't tell your colleagues, you know, "I'm gonna go watch some gay porn for research." You have to do it in this very formal, structured way, and I don't think there's funding to do something like that. There are these social and political constraints that are preventing the study of sexuality from advancing.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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