Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Internet Rule #34—Or, What’s Normal in Sex?

There’s—naturally—an extraordinary diversity in human sexual desire.

“If you can imagine it, there’s porn of it.” That’s about the simplest definition of this most evocative of Internet-linked axioms. If you doubt this rather freaky precept and decide to google it, you’ll immediately discover various overlapping definitions. Such as the slightly more nuanced one that on the Web, “pornography or sexually related material exists for any conceivable subject.”

True, Rule #34 is not without exceptions. As also stated in the Urban Dictionary: “It is accepted that the rule itself has limitations and you cannot be too specific on the content of the item in question.” Still, as one contributor commented: “I invoke Rule 34 on lunch . . . . Oh, my god, is that actually a Mountain Dew can f**king a sandwich?" (And I checked this out, so you wouldn’t have to . . . and, gulp, it was—a ham sandwich, at that.)

And then, of course, there’s the extension of Rule #34 (called—what else?—#34b): namely, “If porn hasn’t yet been made of an object rule34’d [and yes, it’s a verb, too], porn will be made of it just as soon as your request is processed.”

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Point taken. . . ?

This post will describe (though very selectively) a few examples of unusual Internet porn, inevitably coming to the conclusion that what’s considered normal—and what deviant or kinky—may relate more to matters of political correctness, polite society, or purported good taste, than to the rather stark reality that all kinds of things seem capable of turning us humans on.

Even Rule 34 Can Be "Violated"!
Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam are the authors of the many-faceted, Internet-based research project A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire. And it’s this volume that constitutes the chief source for my present series of posts on the intricacies of male and female sexual interests. Their own characterizations of Rule #34 are worth quoting: “Today, [it] thrives as sacred lore on blogs, YouTube videos, Twitter feeds, and social networking sites,” offering the actual example of someone’s remarking on how he “rule 34’d Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell on the judging table” (!).

These authors also cite comedian Richard Jeni’s over-the-top remark that “the Web brings people together, because no matter what kind of a twisted sexual mutant you happen to be, you’ve got millions of pals out there. Type in ‘Find people that have sex with goats that are on fire’ and the computer will say, ‘Specify type of goat.’”

But not to comically overstate the case, what are some instances of the seemingly aberrant images and behaviors pictorialized or written about on the Web? And to what degree do they deserve to be regarded as deviant when they may not be all that uncommon—however peculiar, weird, or bizarre they seem?

The additional question of whether we’re obliged to view such material as pathological if it is rare is something I’ll take up in my next post. There I’ll consider the fact (by now pretty much scientifically verified) that finally—whether we’re male or female, straight or gay—we can’t much control what turns us on. But now I’d like mainly to explore the prevalence of sexual material that we may have considered just too eccentric, extreme, or exotic to fit within any reasonable definition of sexual normality.

The reason that Ogas and Gaddam’s findings on our libidinal predilections are often so revelatory is that in the private, largely anonymous world of the Internet, people feel much freer to divulge, or search for, sexual subjects they find most titillating. Which is why the authors creatively refer to search engines as “marvelous digital genie[s]” (p. 13), happy to grant (at one remove from reality, as it were) almost an infinitude of erotic desires.

Their inventory of the leading sexual inquiries (p. 16)—derived from the meta-search engine Dogpile (which amalgamates results from Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and other major search engines)—shows that of the five most popular (encompassing no less than 55 million searches!) number “1” was Youth (13.5%)—followed by Gay (4.7%), MILFs (i.e., “Mothers I’d Like to F**k,”[ 4.3%]), Breasts (4.0%), and Cheating Wives (3.4%). This very partial listing is suggestive. And at first blush (maybe literally), some people might be inclined to view as “not normal” four of these five preferences. Assuming that the majority of searches were undertaken by adult males (vs. adolescents), why, for example, was Youth the leading category? Should it have been? That is, could Internet porn mostly be the province of the perverted?

Doubtful. In fact, upon closer inspection nothing about these top choices need be seen as particularly startling—or even abnormal. And that such images or videos are turn-ons for so many hardly means that we’re the weirdest species occupying the planet (or that at least males must be).

To begin with, let’s look at the age category of Youth. Clearly, males’ aesthetic/erotic/sexual pursuits on the Internet peak with teenage girls (and the particular age searched for most is 16-year-olds . . . and yes, I know). Barring complex elucidations of this preference, it could be argued—non-psychologically—that they can be the freshest-looking, cutest, most fetching, beguiling, and attractive of all females.

After all, consider non-human organisms. Virtually everyone, I think, would agree that the appearance of a rose is most pleasing before it’s in full bloom—still “virginal” in that its petals haven’t yet fully opened. Physically, puppies and kittens are regularly regarded as adorable and lovable, cuddly and appealing, before they’re fully grown. As are cubs of all species. Surely the perennial popularity of teddy bears suggests something of the universal attraction to that which hasn’t yet fully developed or matured. Moreover, innocence and vulnerability have long been associated with the allure of the young.

It’s also well known that even though humans may sexually fantasize about something, that doesn’t mean they’d ever be prompted to turn their imaginings into reality. Unquestionably, many men experience arousal by looking at faces and bodies (moving or still) of young, just “budding” girls (and this can actually include those fully dressed, as well as those posing in the nude or possibly engaged in sexual acts). In itself, such fascination doesn’t warrant seeing such “spectators” as all potential child molesters. Additionally, it would be foolish to deny that some underage females project a certain eroticism or charm (and sometimes consciously at that). So despite the circumstance that such an attraction isn’t politically correct, males—day-dreamingly—might well be aroused by such pictures. And this alone could explain why Youth is the most popular search topic for males (who search for Internet porn far more than do women).

Ogas and Gaddam, however, are inclined to adopt at once a neuroscientific and evolutionary approach in explaining what perhaps may be adequately understood through common sense. Still, there was a time in history when marrying a girl shortly after she’d reached puberty was much more the norm than it is now—such that being attracted to young girls might be ingrained in males’ sexual brain. Citing the pioneering work of Donald Symons on sexual desire, these authors state that it’s not so much youth cues as fertility cues that lead men to find visual images of the young so attractive. That is: “Men evolved to generally prefer long-term, child-rearing relationships over short-term sexual liaisons” (p. 55).

The evidence their book provides for this position is reasonable enough. But here what I’d like to emphasize is that, worldwide, sexual searches for adolescent females are by far the most common of all searches. And what this demonstrates is that we’re obliged to see such a male attraction as altogether normal. Some readers might wish to question the appropriateness, or morality, of this preference. But its very predominance indicates that, like it or not, it can’t be dismissed as aberrant.

The same thing is true with the category of MILFs (typically, 35-50 year-old women). Ogas and Gaddam refer to evolutionary psychologist David Buss, who discusses “mixed mating strategies” in describing the dynamics of the males’ brain—which leads him to flexibly pursue both long- and short-term heterosexual relationships. Perceived in psychosocial terms, older women (already with a family of their own) may prefer having sex with a much younger male to avoid romantic complications . The younger male himself is aroused by the idea of being seduced by a more experienced, and less inhibited, woman. And typically the mutual objective isn’t to cultivate a long-term relationship but to indulge in a noncommittal one-night stand. Strange? Unnatural? Unethical? . . . Maybe. But whether or not you approve of such pursuits (whether in reality, or just in fantasy), they do appear to be the way of the world—not just some transient cultural phenomenon.

Given space considerations, I won’t go into the different explanations as to why searches for Cheating Wives are so popular. But the fact that the subject is sought out more frequently than vaginas, penises, butts, and (ahem) cheerleaders definitely indicates that, once again, what might seem peculiar is actually somewhat commonplace. Such that this sexual appeal can’t legitimately be written off as deviant. The illicit psychological urges that this interest taps into may not be laudatory, but neither are they incomprehensible.

Also surprisingly popular are males’ interest in viewing transsexual images or, as it’s better known, “Shemale Porn”—#17 on the list of most searched sexual topics on Dogpile. This women-with-penises category—as strange or offbeat as it sounds—is yet reported by Ogas and Gaddam to be “internationally popular and profitable” (p. 16). And its fans clearly outnumber those interested in more mainstream topics, such as Celebrities (#23) and Asians (#29). I’ll talk more about this fascinating anomaly in later posts. Here it’s sufficient to say that, like many sexual topics traditionally considered beyond the pale, this interest—given males’ innate wiring—actually has its own logic.

All sorts of fetishes, kinks, and “squicks” (i.e., kinks that really gross you out) are searched for on the Internet. And with Internet Rule #34 apparently alive and well, there’s a good chance you’d be able to access most of them. As Ogas and Gaddam observe: “When it comes to our kinks, we all have a lot more in common than you might think” (p. 17). And further, “The vast majority of our desires are shared by crowds of other people” (p. 18). What this speaks to is the considerable variety of people’s sexual predilections: a diversity that the latest discoveries from sex research and neuroscience seek (I believe successfully) to make coherent sense of.

Here I’ve focused on seemingly aberrant preferences on the part of males. But, as I’ve already described earlier and will expand further in later posts, females appear no less imaginative in seeking out what provokes their sexual desire—although their interests usually involve a psychological and emotional dimension notably absent in males. Still, the fact that many heterosexual women can be drawn to such stimuli as gay porn is highly suggestive. And note, incidentally, that the cutting-edge movie Brokeback Mountain was based on a short story written by a woman and had as its largest audience not the gay community but straight women. This generally overlooked feminine interest seems in some ways almost perfectly to counterbalance heterosexual males’ well-recognized interest in lesbian porn.

These topics, and more, will be further explored in future posts. To conclude the present post, however, I’d like to quote from the introductory chapter of Ogas and Gaddam’s book. Realizing that the territory they’re investigating is about as controversial as it is uncharted, they make the point that though many different scientists have studied sexual desire—from neuroscientists, to psychologists, to anthropologists, to biologists, to pharmacologists—still, “there’s no consensus on which sexual interests are normal, abnormal, or pathological” (p. 2).

Hopefully, reading this post has made you more aware of how the extensive assortment of human sexual cues out there are more widely held than you might ever have imagined. And that with such increased sophistication, you’ll be more tolerant of others whose preferences differ from your own. (If, that is, they’re so bold as actually to share them with you!)

NOTE 1: Here are the titles and links to each segment of this 12-part series:

NOTE 2: If you found this post in any way instructive (and maybe even enlightening), I hope you’ll consider sharing it.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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