A Billion Wicked Thoughts

The world's largest experiment on human desire.

The Truth about 50 Shades of Grey and Futanari Porn

A response to Robinson & Wilson's critique of Billion Wicked Thoughts

Why do women obsess over 50 Shades of Grey and men ogle transsexual cartoons, and not the other way around? Why do middle-aged women become erotically infatuated with Adam Lambert rather than Chris Brown, to the point of penning Glambertina fantasies? Why do men masturbate over pictures of women's feet, but not women's hands? Why do women—but not men—get physically turned on by watching monkeys have sex?

We can answer all of these questions by considering the design of our sexual brain. But if we want useful answers--ones that can improve our sexual relationships and reduce needless shame—we require a nuanced understanding of the brain. Reducing the sexual brain's design to highly simplistic and moralistic ideas about addiction will not illuminate a single one of the questions posed above. 

Marnia Robinson and Gary Wilson recently wrote a very thoughtful critique of our book Billion Wicked Thoughts. I do share something in common with Robinson and Wilson: the desire to help people enjoy more fulfilling sex lives. But when it comes to our ideas about the nature of erotica, we diverge sharply.

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R&W lump all the varieties of erotica together as porn and warn that watching porn inevitably provokes a dangerous "escalation to bizarre porn" which they claim is the result of addiction and novelty-seeking. In support of this view, R&W take issue with our search data and argue "the lion's share of these searches could well be coming from a disproportionately small number of users"—specifically, novelty-seeking porn addicts. 

R&W mistakenly believe that our data consists solely of aggregated web searches. We actually analyzed quite a variety of online data. In addition to the 55 million sexual searches we collected from the Dogpile search engine, we analyzed the search histories of 657,426 individual AOL users, which allows us to determine which search patterns are common, such as the search history of user #2027268...

college cheerleaders
cheerleaders in Hawaii
pics of bikinis and girls
pretty girls in bikinis
girls suntanning in bikinis
college cheerleader pics in bikinis

...and which patterns are rare, such as the search history of user #1016354:

girls kissing girls tgp
family nudist camps
vanna white photos
old grannie sex tgp
incest cartoons tgp
teeny virgins tgp
bestiality flash videos

Most men search for the same erotic content over and over again. In fact, the majority of people who searched for sexual material on AOL searched for fewer than four different interests. Less than 1% of users who searched for sexual content searched for more than eight interests.

It's even possible to say a few things about those individuals who do search for a wide variety of erotic material—individuals who probably match R&W's concept of a novelty-seeking porn addict. There are three specific sexual interests which reliably appear in their search histories: incest, granny porn, and bestiality. It's not clear what's special about these three interests—perhaps their transgressive nature—but if you find yourself searching for these three interests, odds are high you're searching for brand new sexual interests all the time.

It would certainly be worth studying the brains and life experiences of these novelty-seekers to figure out what makes them different. It could be some kind of overactive dopamine reinforcement system similar to what R&W posit, they might be wired with a high global threshold for stimulation, perhaps their autonomic nervous system (which controls both flight-or-fight and sexual arousal) has a lower threshold. We've only spoken to three of them ourselves, too small a sample to draw any conclusions. They were all successful professionals who viewed themselves as possessing normal sex lives; they presumed everyone shared their tastes. None of them attributed their polymorphous sexual tastes to porn. 

In fact, there is no evidence that viewing porn activates some kind of neural mechanism leading one down a slippery slope of seeking more and more deviant material, and plenty of evidence suggesting that adult men's sexual interests are stable. In addition to the AOL data, which supports the stability of men's erotic interests, we looked at adult website billing data (including data from both gay and straight sites), private data from adult sites (including PornHub, at the time the most popular adult video website in the world), online sex-seeking ads, web traffic patterns, and the ratings, tags, and clicks on millions of videos and stories. None of this data suggests that users steadily escalate the "hardcore-ness" of the material they seek. Men purchase subscriptions to the same type of fetish website over and over again. When men visit tube sites, they view the same genres of videos over and over again. Men tag the same kind of videos again and again, and read the same kind of stories again and again.

R&W endorse the view that pornographers are always "pushing the envelope by introducing new, harder themes" which "they must, because their customers are building up a tolerance to the content."

This is not supported by evidence from the adult industry nor actual online behavior. Even a superficial examination of the relative popularity of the different genres of visual erotica for men reveals they have remained stable over time. In fact, the most popular adult video sites have actually reduced hardcore content (eliminating rape and bestiality material) in order to broaden their appeal. Videos and images portraying young, healthy women having heterosexual or lesbian intercourse, engaging in oral sex, or simply appearing nude, have never been threatened as the most popular kinds of erotic content for men. Internet porn has not been a rush to the bottom; just the opposite: a small handful of tube sites featuring a relatively narrow range of mostly mainstream interests now accounts for the vast majority of online sexual traffic in every country. 

You can certainly find a mind-boggling diversity of sexual content online, including material that R&W would surely consider bizarre and deviant, but traffic to these sites is relatively shallow and tube sites usually offload such material to sister sites that specialize in hardcore interests. There are pornographers who do constantly seek out "new, harder themes"--Evil Angel has purportedly found great success with anal gaping videos--but this is a way of attracting and temporarily monopolizing the small minority of individuals who are true novelty seekers. PornHub and RedTube aren't losing eyeballs to such sites: novelty seekers never went to the vanilla tube sites to begin with.

Men tend to search for the same thing over and over again. If you like ladies' feet, year after year you're going to ogle feet. You aren't going to switch to knees, then move up to hips, climb over breasts, then escalate to earlobes. Neither will you start with a taste for teen feet, drift to leather-whipped feet, and escalate to whipped midget granny feet. On the other hand, there is a type of person whose sexual tastes do constantly change: women.

If one felt compelled to apply R&W's "dopamine desensitization" framework, the evidence suggests it is women and not men who are constantly developing new tastes. Women's sexual searches roam all over, such as this search history from user #2976906:

fake nude jane seymour
sexy vanna white
older men younger women
celebs pics
why are single women attracted to married men
free rape movies
anal sex benefits
honeymoon sex
george clooney nude
nude construction workers

Women's erotica is far more complex, diverse, and demanding than men's. The most popular erotic artifact for women is the romance novel in all its variants, such as 50 Shades of Grey—stimuli that requires a significant investment of time and mental effort to consume, then leads to many more hours of discussion and analysis with other fans. In contrast, the most popular erotic artifact for men is the 90-second video clip. Which exhibits greater signs of addiction: watching a few minutes of video before getting back to work, or spending hours upon hours getting lost in a fantasy world? If we were to believe R&W's dopamine hypothesis regarding porn desensitization, one could make the argument that women's sexual tastes are the ones on a slippery slope to "harder themes," considering that the first blockbuster product to arise out of online erotica for women is a novel celebrating bondage and submission.

Of course, such an argument would also demonstrate a severe lack of knowledge about human desire. Themes of domination and submission are not just common but fundamental to women's erotica—just as they are to men's pornography. Humankind's attraction to these themes has not been manufactured by online erotica, but unveiled.

It's also worth considering the single most popular kind of online erotica for men, since it's completely ignored by R&W: webcam sites. LiveJasmin.com gets a jaw-dropping 30 million visitors each month, crushing all other adult sites. That's about 1 out of every 50 human beings on the global Internet. Men greatly prefer to interact with real, live women, even online. But that's not all: most men attempt to pursue offline romantic relationships with these women. Porn star fan mail mostly consists of men offering to save them and love them within an exclusive long-term relationship. Now, falling in love with a porn star may not be the most healthy and pragmatic activity, but it's a much different neurocognitive process than getting a Pavlovian squirt of dopamine and its certainly not an escalation to bizarre porn. If the tube sites are losing eyeballs at all, it's to cam sites; that's why all the online adult mega-companies have at least one cam site in their portfolio. The Internet is not driving men to more hardcore material, it's driving them to greater degrees of interaction with adult performers. 

R&W conclude by stating:

The assumptions of Ogas and Gaddam rest on the mistaken conviction that all sexual tastes are unchanging and that no matter how porn is delivered to our brains, our tastes will conform to our innate, unchanging proclivities. 

Obviously, we don't believe anything like that. We do believe that adult male interests are far more fixed than adult female interests. Men's sexual interests typically get imprinted during a critical period in adolescence then exhibit little variation across the lifespan. For reasons that are not clear, a small minority of men seem to remain open to a true diversity of sexual experience into adulthood. Though men's specific interests remain stable—such as an interest in MILFs or busty redheads or male submissive erotica—men constantly seek novel variations of their specific interest, such as user #5083529:

corridas transexuales
transexuales muy hermosas
transexuals cum
semen transexual
transexuales calientes
transexuals sperm
eyaculacion transexual
orgasmos transexuales

Particularly intense and narrow sexual interests--what are commonly termed fetishes or paraphilias—manifest far more often in men than women; women are more likely than men to develop romantic/emotional connections to objects (objectum sexualis). Women's erotic interests are much more fluid and dynamic than men's and change across their lifespan.

Most tellingly, R&W suggest that some sexual tastes should be considered sick and deviant, even if widespread, because such tastes go against our biological design. There's some obvious counters to this naturalistic fallacy—homosexuality must then be considered sick, since it goes against biological design, as does lifelong monogamy—but even if we do limit our definition of healthy tastes to those based upon biological design, we must include some hard-wired tastes that many people would consider downright unsavory: foot fetishes, cheating wife fantasies, rape fantasies. 

What continues to strike us the hardest about the sexuality of Homo sapiens is the potency of the human sexual imagination. Our sexual brain is a creative brain: inventive, curious, iconoclastic and politically incorrect. The kaleidoscopic variety of human erotica is simply breathtaking. 50 Shades of Grey and futanari porn are highly original works of sexual art forged in the furnace of our sexual brains, unparalleled in Nature. Some might call them addictions. Others describe them as magical. We view them as invaluable data about our sexual nature.

Gay cuckold porn

There's a lot more to "porn" than meets the moralizing eye. Or, to paraphase Shakespeare, there are more things in Twilight slash and cuckold porn, Robinson, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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[ Watch our presentation at Idea City 2012 about erotical illusions. ]

 

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

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