Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

The Secret,Taboo Aspects of Male Sexual Desire

Might sexual interests be all the more thrilling because they’re illicit?

Through millions of anonymous Internet searches, men have repeatedly divulged some rather curious sexual interests. Exploring at length this most bountiful subject of human sexual desire, I’ve already discussed several of them. In this particular post, I’d like to focus on certain erotic predilections that most people would agree slip into the realm of the forbidden. And rightly or wrongly, such preferences are likely to be seen not as erotic but pornographic.

As in most things, there’s clearly a continuum operating here. Males’ most common X-rated computer searches are for youth. And although this preference may be a bit disconcerting, it hardly warrants being seen as perverted (as I’ve sought to explain earlier). Nor does men’s secondary, but substantial, interest in fifty-year-old women (which I’ve also attempted, rationally, to account for). But as we move farther out on the continuum — as we did in my last post, discussing heterosexual men’s attraction to transsexual porn — more eyes can be expected to roll ... or eyebrows to rise.

Here I’d like to start by adding another dimension to my earlier discussion of the curious popularity of “shemale,” “T-girl,”or “ladyboy” porn. Then I’ll move on to other sexual topics that, however unfamiliar (or unsavory) to us, a good number of men find arousing. At some point, it will be patently obvious that we’re well into illicit territory.

As in the rest of the posts in this 12-part series (of which this is number eight), most of my points will be rooted in the research reported in Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam’s comprehensive volume on sexual predilections: A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire (2011). And what these two neuroscientists have to say about men’s fascination with penises will help us better understand why transsexual porn, featuring all the positive visual cues of the feminine plus the strange bonus of an erect male organ, can be so intriguing to men generally.

While it’s no doubt hypothetical, these authors suggest that — evolutionarily speaking — the sexual stimulation that the erect phallus embodies for males can be traced back to our primate ancestry. In this context, the male sex organ is associated not only with male-to-male aggression and marking territory, but also with making sexual overtures to females. And as well-known biologist (and equally well-known atheist) Richard Dawkins has suggested, the erect organ may be a signal of a male’s general health as well. (p. 41)

Ogas and Gaddam also talk about primitive human tribes and their rites involving the penis, including ones that might well be regarded as penis flaunting. As these authors half-seriously opine: “Historically, male exhibitionism has been considered a mental disorder. If that is the case, the Internet suggests we are a planet of mentally deranged men” (!). (p. 42) Of course, the impulse to publicly display one’s erect penis and actually doing so are worlds apart. Still, it’s worth noting that such an impulse (as outrageous or shameful as it may seem) is probably much more common than males would care to admit.

The authors go on to offer additional biological and anthropological explanations as to why erect penises — particular large ones — would so beguile a great number of heterosexual men (not to mention gays and bisexuals). But it’s probably sufficient to say here, as do Ogas and Gaddam, that there’s abundant evidence pointing to “the penis['s] special power to activate the male sexual brain” (p. 218). And, ironically, there’s just as much evidence to conclude that, for women, this particular part of a male’s anatomy doesn’t rank very high as a sexual cue for them.

In an earlier post I mentioned that the category MILF (“Mother [or Mom] I’d love to f**k”) was one of men’s most popular Internet searches. In fact, on PornHub, the world’s most heavily trafficked adult video site, “mom” is the single most popular entry for users. And Ogas and Gaddam note that “more men search for 50-year-olds than ... for 19-year-olds” (pp. 26 -27). But since I’ve already discussed some of the (fairly normal) reasons for this preference, it’s time to go one big step further out on the “sexual-cue continuum.”

By now, most of us are familiar with a term roughly synonymous with the porn category MILF: namely, cougar, referring to an older, more sophisticated women “on the prowl” for younger men. Yet how many of us have heard of the category GILF? (“Granny I’d like to f**k”)? And here we’ve clearly set foot on “squick” turf (i.e., sexual interests that most of us can’t help but experience as repugnant). Strangely, this search designation turns out to be more prevalent than most people might suppose. In 2010, Alexa (a company measuring traffic to different Web sites) listed 313 granny sites among its 42,337 adult sites. Relatively, a small number but still ...

Noting that “there’s an active and well-defined community of granny porn enthusiasts,” Ogas and Gaddam confess: “The popularity of GILFs presents a serious challenge for evolutionary science” (p. 31). Consequently, these authors seek to explain this remarkable phenomenon by observing that in Kenya and England — the two countries that reveal the greatest interest in granny porn — inadvertent societal messages to youth likely account for its occurrence.

In Kenya, for example, young people are enjoined to take up sexual matters with their grandparents. So these much older confidantes can become to their grandchildren diffusely associated with erotic arousal. In the United Kingdom, the inferred dynamic would work rather differently. Here we’re confronted with a connection between a boy’s developing sexuality and corporally punishing elderly matrons at boarding schools, widespread in the culture. Ogas and Gaddam quote a veteran of the adult industry, who suggests: “‘When a lot of [these men] were schoolboys, they were spanked or slapped or pinched by a schoolmarm. It might have been their first intimate contact with a woman’” (p. 31). And going beyond this reasonable speculation, I might add that the buttocks are full of nerve endings, such that in being spanked the adolescent’s ripening eroticism may well have been sparked. (And in fact, this sort of “imprinting” is how many kinks and fetishes get started — say, getting turned on by being paddled.)

The next topic I’d like to cover is the sexually arousing cue of transgression: that is, outrageous acts that are inordinately exciting precisely because they’re so fraught with danger. Interestingly enough, though this post centers on men’s secret or forbidden desires, these powerful activators of erotic impulse seem to be equally shared by women. Which indirectly suggests that there’s something about abandoning ourselves to our id and behaving in ways that are physically or socioculturally risky that can powerfully turn us on. Since, fortunately, very few of us are actually so reckless as to carry out such unrestrained fantasies, we can generally indulge in them with impunity. And doubtless the Internet affords us — at a safe remove from reality — ample opportunity to do so.

Note that the cue for arousal here doesn’t have to do with sexually-related body parts (the chief catalyst for male arousal) but with something situational — the reason that such cues are understood as psychological rather than physical or visual. Ogas and Gaddam are unable to find a logical societal, cultural, or evolutionary explanation for this (well) “uncivilized” preference. So by default, they attribute the phenomenon (in both sexes) to “a strange quirk of our brain wiring” (p. 176). As they describe it, our sympathetic nervous system, which controls many unconscious processes, is what governs our fight-or-flight response. This system, when confronted by something that scares us, prepares us to act by speeding up our heart, increasing muscular blood flow, and deepening our breathing. But — surprise! — the sympathetic nervous system also controls another autonomic behavior: namely, orgasm.

An ingenious experiment by two Canadian psychologists (too involved to provide details of) tested the hypothesis that it’s this part of the nervous system that affects our being sexually turned on: that is, through engaging in (or imaginatively identifying ourselves with) precarious acts — whether they’re illegal, immoral, taboo, or simply dangerous. And the study’s results support the notion that the same part of our nervous system that’s sensitive to threats is also able to engender a sexual reaction. If that’s the case, then actually, or vicariously, taking part in acts of transgression represent yet another source of arousal — and in both sexes. As Ogas and Gaddam put it: “Transgression ... could be a counterintuitive enhancement of erotic feeling due to our quirky brain wiring—an evolutionary by-product, rather than an adaptation” (p. 179). As in so much I’ve described, what seems peculiar or perverted might well be ingrained (or “inbrained”) in us.

One act of transgression that deserves special attention is sexual betrayal. But oddly enough, in these scenarios it’s not the husband but the wife who’s the transgressor. Ogas and Gaddam single out the subject of cuckold porn as immensely popular on the Web. And the question naturally arises as to why such a genre would so appeal to men—why it would be the second most popular interest (following Youth) for straight males on English-speaking search engines. How is it that just the thought of their wives cheating on them could lead men to experience intense arousal?

Ogas and Gaddam provide an evolutionary explanation for this seemingly masochistic fantasy. To them, it’s sperm competition (see pp. 182-84) — a physiological and behavioral adaptation “found in a dazzling variety of species” — that best accounts for the phenomenon. A man’s believing that his mate may have had sex with another male may compel him (because of such an adaptation) to have intercourse with her as soon afterwards, and as forcefully, as possible. His very jealousy may drive him to perform with a lust absent earlier, culminating in a quicker ejaculation and a “larger load” being deposited inside her, unconsciously calculated to oust the other males’s sperm.

As interesting, and possibly valid, as this analysis may be (and I’ve condensed it somewhat), I’d like to propose a simpler, non-evolutionary hypothesis for males’ common obsession with cuckold porn. This is one that seems to have been overlooked by these authors (and others as well). Let’s assume that the male’s relationship with his partner (1) is no longer novel (and novelty itself can incite substantial sexual excitement), and (2) is a committed one, with all the conflicts and complexities such a union inevitably brings to light. In such instances, he can’t really regard his spouse two-dimensionally — as a sex object. And as I’ve noted in previous posts, men generally are wired to be most turned on by women when they’re able, reductively, to “objectify” them. If my hypothesis is correct, then through imagining other males relating to their wife as really “hot” — and their spouse as wildly turned on (another key determinant for male sexual arousal) — through such “illicit” fantasizing (or, we might say, through bringing their “mirror neurons” into play) they can regenerate a sexual excitement that may have all but disappeared from the comparatively mundane circumstances of their married life.

As in my previous examples of secret or taboo male sexual preferences, I see cuckold porn as yet another clandestine interest. For how many men would be comfortable sharing such a predilection with their mate? One where, symbolically, not he but she is acting wrongfully and — much more than this — that he finds her sexual betrayal intensely arousing?

Doubtless, most males would also tend toward secrecy as regards disclosing their attraction to the submissive (vs. dominant) role in sexual interactions. As Ogas and Gaddam intriguingly point out: “Both males and females in several mammal species appear to possess both sexual dominance and sexual submission circuitry,” noting further that “both types of circuits are wired to the pleasure centers of the brain” (p. 199).

These authors observe that the joint category domination and submission represents the sixth most popular search topic on the meta- engine Dogpile. And it may well be that though most people prefer one mode of sexual interaction over the other, their preference is rather more flexible than fixed. Most fascinating, perhaps, is the fact that while sexual domination sites are unquestionably popular, sexual submission sites are more popular still — and have a majority male audience (!). These sites include a considerable variety of (we’ll call them) “submission specialties.” And some of them, frankly, depict scenes that are particularly degrading, humiliating, or squicky. (see p. 202) I’ll spare you the distasteful names for many of these sites, while simply making the point that virtually all of them display role reversal: a dominant female exploiting or abusing a submissive male.

To Ogas and Gaddam, the likeliest “neural” explanation for this anomaly — since, both biologically and socially, men are programmed for sexual dominance — is that “male fans of sexual submission porn are accessing the female submissive circuitry their brains share with women” (p. 203), a circuitry wired to their brain’s reward centers.

But whatever circuitry is responsible for such distinctly “unmacho” imaginings, it’s almost guaranteed that most men would strongly prefer their partners be kept in the dark about them.

NOTE 1: Perhaps males’ most bizarre erotic interest is transformation fiction (i.e., reading stories about men turned into women — and ultimately enjoying the sex change). This odd arousal cue is more suitably taken up, however, in my next-to-last segment (see below).

NOTE 2: Here are the titles and links to each segment of this 12-part series:

NOTE 3: If you found this post informative (and maybe even illuminating), I hope you’ll consider sharing it with others.

© 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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