A Billion Wicked Thoughts

The world's largest experiment on human desire.

We are all sexually intolerant

Why ideology leads to condemnation, and condemnation leads to ideology.

To paraphrase Churchill, science is the worst method for acquiring knowledge about the universe—except for everything else. Though we often idealize science as a noble pursuit hoisting new balconies upon the edifice of truth, in everyday practice it's often dogmatic, combative, and nasty. And the nastiest, most combative, most dogmatic pursuit of all is the science of sex.

The academic landscape of sexual psychology is charred from ideological warfare, one of the primary reasons the field has progressed so embarrassingly slow. It's also one reason we believed we could make a contribution: we don't have any dog in this fight.

From a moral perspective, we have no stake in how the brains of men, women, homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals actually turn out to operate. Whether male homosexuality is caused by genes or by Martian fairy dust makes no difference to their right to same-sex marriage. Whether Mother Nature bestowed men and women with identical brains or the evil demon Kracklefax fashioned female brains from sawdust and male brains from popcorn makes no difference to women's right to equal opportunity. Whatever our neural wiring, we all have the right to equal justice under law.

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When we first started our research on sexual desire, we were guided by one overarching principle: to treat all theoretical agendas with the same sense of curiosity and skepticism. We pondered the conservatives and liberals, we contemplated the Pick-Up Artist community and the feminists, we listened to the evolutionary psychologists and the social constructionists. This allowed us to observe unexpected similarities between competing ideologies. One of the bigger surprises was the ubiquity of sexual intolerance.

Just about every human being—man, woman, straight, gay, bisexual, transsexual—has a fairly developed sense of sexual intolerance, believing that some legal sexual interests are just plain wrong. These deep-seated, irrational, and often gender-specific and ideology-specific varieties of intolerance are almost certainly one primary means Mother Nature used to keep us focused on safe and fertile modes of sexual reproduction. In our modern high-tech, law-abiding democratic societies, however, most of these varieties of intolerance are obsolete. They provoke strife and hostility, instead of protecting us and our genes. One example usually associated with conservatives is intolerance of homosexuality. One example usually associated with liberals is intolerance of dominance-themed erotica for men, the subject of two of our previous posts.

Several women have written to us insisting that the varieties of dominance porn found on the Internet--drunk porn, hypno porn, sleep porn, spanking porn, exploitation porn, teachers seducing students, coaches seducing cheerleaders (along with the erotica that self-identifies as rape porn)—are "actually rape, by definition. It's a legal fact." Ignoring the difficulties in applying legal definitions to works of fiction ("Hamlet, Batman, and Simba the Lion King are murderers, by definition. It's a legal fact."), it's certainly unhelpful to use such a moralizing, ideological label when trying to figure out the underlying neurocognitive mechanisms of sexuality. Many conservatives, including Laura Schlessinger, label male homosexuality as a "biological error" insisting this "is a statement of biological fact."

Both "definitions" are rooted in fear—an authentic, instinctive, deep-seated fear. Conservatives fear that homosexuals are going to do terrible things to children. Liberals fear that male viewers of dominance porn are going to do terrible things to women. Fortunately, both of these fears can be tested empirically, and the jury is very much in. Gay men are no more likely to be pedophiles than straight men, being exposed to gay people doesn't make you more likely to be gay, and kids raised by gay couples don't turn out much different than kids raised by straight couples. And despite intense research efforts—including presidential commissions—studies have failed to demonstrate any link between viewing dominance porn (or porn in general) and the motivation to harm women.

We certainly want to prevent rape and reduce violence against women. But we can work for such goals without putting moralizing labels on other people's erotica. Getting turned on by a sexual fantasy of dominance does not lead one to hurt women. Research has demonstrated that just about every one of us has at one time or another fantasized about murder. (Sai and I have even received emails directing such fantasies towards ourselves.) We dream of killing our boss, lover, or competitor. Yet our ubiquitous, natural, and highly vivid fantasies of murder rarely turn into reality. Women have rape fantasies, yet have little trouble not acting on them. Those people who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality are known as schizophrenics, and they have much greater problems than watching porn.

The problem with insisting on labeling all the dazzling variations of dominance-themed erotica as rape is that it leads to unhelpful and distracting (not to mention previously settled) questions about whether men want to rape and whether dominance erotica is dangerous. As scientists, we're not interesting in analyzing the legal reality of erotica, we're interesting in figuring out the underlying biological reality, which probably has very little correspondence with legal definitions. Instead of applying ideological labels to unfamiliar erotica, we prefer to look for patterns of correlation between different types of erotica, to discover empirical categories of porn based upon individual sexual activity. This approach reveals not only that violent rape porn is actually a quite uncommon sexual interest, but that an interest in violent rape porn (with knives, blood, abduction, ropes, etc.) is correlated with an interest in other kinds of violent porn but is not highly correlated with most other varieties of dominance-themed porn. In other words, men who seek out violent rape porn seem to be a class apart from men who seek out most dominance-themed porn—a fact obscured by lumping them all together according to some moralistic legal definition.

There's an awful lot of labeling in the academic study of sex. These days, liberal sexologists are worse culprits than the rare conservative ones. Perhaps because it's easy for them to see the sexual intolerance in labeling homosexuality as "biological error" but difficult to see it in labeling male dominance-themed erotica as "rape porn" or labeling the investigation of differences in male and female desire as "heteronormative."

Ogi Ogas, Ph.D., studies computational neuroscience. He is co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts.

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