Unique—Like Everybody Else

Personality, intelligence, and the differences that matter

Monster Porn and the Science of Sexuality

Can evolutionary psychology shed any light on the appeal of "monster erotica"?

Please note that this article deals with sensitive topics that some readers may find disturbing. 

Monster porn is a hot new trend in women’s erotic fiction that has gained attention recently. The genre, also known more politely as “cryptozoological erotica” revolves around stories of characters, usually women, having bizarre erotic encounters with all manner of mythical and fictional creatures, such as mermen, Bigfoot, krakens, extra-terrestrials, and just about any kind of creature one might imagine. John Horgan, a science journalist writing for Scientific American, recently blogged about this subject and the apparent inadequacy of modern science to explain such a strange and fascinating manifestation of human sexuality. Along the way he takes a swipe at evolutionary psychology, a bête noire that he has been attacking – and misrepresenting – for over twenty years.[1] It seems fair to say that evolutionary psychology along with science in general may not be able to explain absolutely everything about the vagaries of human sexuality. However, evolutionary psychology, properly understood rather than caricatured, may be able to shed a little more light on the subject than Horgan supposes.

A "capture fantasy" in progress?
http://www.pulpartists.com/Bio%20Materials/Senf/28-05,WeirdTales.jpg

Horgan says that the thing he loves about monster porn is that “It’s a wonderfully wacky reminder that human sexuality is too weird, wild and woolly to be captured by modern science, and especially by theories that reduce our behaviors to genes.” Apparently evolutionary psychology in particular is inadequate to explain something so wacky as monster porn because “Evolutionary psychologists assume that everything we do and feel must in some direct or indirect way promote our genes’ perpetuation (or have promoted it in the past).” (Emphasis added.) Obviously, it is hard to see how an erotic interest in mythological creatures might promote the perpetuation of one’s genes. On the other hand, evolutionary psychologists do NOT actually claim anything as stupid as that everything must somehow be related to perpetuating genes, or even try to “reduce our behaviors to genes.” Horgan’s statements reflect commonly held misconceptions about evolutionary psychology that persist among its critics in spite of having been repeatedly rebutted.

There are a number of good primary sources that explain what evolutionary psychologists actually believe and that are readily accessible to lay people. For example, the claim that evolutionary psychologists believe in “genetic determinism” has been explicitly rejected in a paper explicitly addressing such issues available here. The authors state: “Evolutionary psychology forcefully rejects a genetic determinism stance and instead is organized around a crisply formulated interactionist framework that invokes the role of the environment at every step of the causal process… Although evolutionary psychology clearly rejects a blank slate view of the human mind, it just as clearly rejects genetic determinism and instead provides a detailed interactionist framework” (Confer et al., 2010). Furthermore, regarding the popular misconception that evolutionary psychologists think that everything must somehow be related to perpetuating genes, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, pioneers in the field of evolutionary psychology, explicitly addressed refuted this claim in a seminal text available online here. They stated that only some characteristics people have are adaptations resulting from natural selection, and that others are incidental by-products with no adaptive functions of their own.

“Unfortunately, some have misrepresented the well-supported claim that selection creates functional organization as the obviously false claim that all traits of organisms are functional – something no sensible evolutionary biologist would ever maintain. Furthermore, not all behavior engaged in by organisms is adaptive... Moreover, once an information-processing mechanism exists, it can be deployed in activities that are unrelated to its original function – because we have evolved learning mechanisms that cause language acquisition, we can learn to write. But these learning mechanisms were not selected for because they caused writing.”

Hence, the mere fact that some people enjoy sexual fantasies that have no apparent adaptive significance, such as those involving monster porn, is hardly some sort of disproof of evolutionary psychology. An evolutionary psychologist could argue that while the capacity to have sexual fantasies is an evolved one, this does not mean that any and all manifestations of such a capacity must be adaptive ones. Just as the ability to write is the by-product of the evolved ability to use language, the ability to entertain bizarre fantasies might be a by-product of other evolved abilities. Sexual fantasies are of interest to evolutionary psychologists because they provide a window into a person’s desires in a way that behavior alone cannot. A person’s sexual behavior is constrained by opportunity and social restrictions, while fantasies are not thus restrained. Perhaps fantasies involving monster porn are appealing to some people because they build upon more familiar evolutionary patterns. Evolutionary psychologists have actually stated that: “…novel environmental stimuli, such as media images or pornography, may trigger, hijack, or exploit our evolved psychological mechanisms” (Confer, et al., 2010). They go on to state that novel stimuli can mimic “ancestral cues that the psychological adaptation was designed to detect” triggering responses that were originally adaptive in a different context.

To illustrate how monster porn might mimic “ancestral cues”, albeit in novel ways, consider the storylines of some recent titles listed here and here. A recurring theme seems to be that an attractive heroine (or heroines) is taken captive by a powerful creature who proceeds to ravish her erotically, giving her immense sexual pleasure in the process. Compare this to popular mainstream erotic romance fiction, which usually follows a stereotypical formula involving a setting in an exotic locale in which an attractive yet innocent young women is subjected to the attentions of an older man, who may be described as arrogant, highly dominant, even cruel, who repeatedly attempts to force himself upon her, with the story culminating in pregnancy and marriage (Coles & Shamp, 1984). Monster porn and mainstream erotic fiction, both of which appear to be written mostly by women authors, each prominently feature themes of bondage and domination, with the heroine initially resisting and then finally submitting to a forceful yet irresistible suitor. A number of commenters on Horgan’s article (e.g. comments 2, 3, 7, and 8) pointed out that monsters are characters with exaggerated masculine traits, such as aggressiveness, rudeness, physical power, and boldness, and that they embody raw animal passion. It seems fair to say that they are fantastic equivalents of the dominant male characters that are ubiquitous in mainstream erotic romances, who also embody all of these hyper-masculine traits. The popularity of mainstream erotic romances, with their themes of bondage and submission, has been attributed to their appeal to sexual fantasies that many (but not all) women enjoy (Bivona & Critelli, 2009). Virginia Wade, author of a number of best-selling e-books featuring erotic encounters with Bigfoot, in this interview attributes the popularity of her work to the allure of the “capture fantasy” – i.e. the excitement and danger of being kidnapped and ravished – along with women’s fascination with dark, dangerous and unattainable men. Hence, part of the appeal of monster porn to women seems that it mimics some of the essential features of popular female fantasies.

Erotic encounters with supernatural beings often feature in classical art.
A nightmare to some, a dream to others? "The Nightmare" by Henry Fuseli
http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/readArticle/48

Research on women’s sexual fantasies during the past forty years has found that fantasies about being forced to have sex against one’s will are reasonably common among women. A review of studies found that between 31 and 63 percent of women admit to having such fantasies at least occasionally (Bivona, Critelli, & Clark, 2012) and between 9 and 17 percent of women say that these are frequent or favorite fantasy experiences (Critelli & Bivona, 2008). This phenomenon is something of a scientific enigma. Women consider the reality of being actually raped or forced to have sex to be an abhorrent, traumatic experience. However, women who have fantasies of forced sex usually report them to be erotically exciting rather than frightening. A number of theories have been proposed to explain this, but researchers are in agreement that such fantasies emphatically do NOT mean that women have a desire to actually be raped in real life. A study on the content of such fantasies suggests that key elements include a scenario where an attractive powerful figure (usually male, but occasionally female) finds the woman so desirable, attractive, and seductive that he is overcome with passion and is unable to restrain himself and forces himself upon her. The woman in the fantasy resists, but quite often this is token resistance only or even just a pretence, and she may change from initial refusal to willing participation as the fantasy progresses. Hence, such fantasies tend to be highly romanticized rather than realistic depictions of a traumatic sexual assault. One proposed evolutionary explanation of forced sex fantasies compares them to a kind of mating ritual where the fantasy assailant demonstrates his power, dominance, and uncontrollable passion for the woman. If the woman was able to resist his advances, then his masculine power would be diminished. From the woman’s perspective, such a ritual provides evidence of the man’s reproductive fitness, e.g. his social dominance and effectiveness as a protector and provider. At the same time the woman’s own desirability as a mate is affirmed (Bivona, et al., 2012).

Fantasies about forced sex have also been linked to more positive accepting attitudes towards sex generally (Bivona, et al., 2012). Specifically, women who have an open, accepting, guilt free attitude towards sex (a personality trait known as erotophilia) tend to have a higher frequency of these types of fantasies, as well a higher frequency of consensual fantasies. Additionally, women who consider themselves to be highly imaginative (i.e. high in the personality trait of openness to experience, particularly the facet known as openness to fantasy) also have a higher frequency of fantasies about forced sex. This suggests that such fantasies may be an expression of an underlying desire to explore a wide variety of erotic experiences.

 Erotic encounters with non-human creatures feature in many ancient myths.
Zeus seduces Leda in the form of a swan: Erotic encounters with non-human creatures feature in many ancient myths.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MoreauLeda.jpg

The phenomenon of monster porn seems to involve elements of a fantasy of female submission to a hyper-masculine creature along with a willingness to explore varied and unusual erotic experiences, including ones that could not be enacted in real life. Monster porn might therefore particularly appeal to women who are both highly imaginative such as those who are high in openness to experience, particularly the fantasy facet, and high in erotophilia. Additionally, if it is true that “monsters” are a symbolic stand-in for males with hyper-masculine personality traits, this form of erotica might particularly appeal to women who are more strongly attracted to men with such traits compared to other women. These hypotheses could easily be tested with a survey study comparing the traits and preferences of women who enjoy monster porn with those who do not.

A potentially relevant finding based on evolutionary psychology is that the prevalence of personality traits such as openness to experience is inversely linked to the prevalence of infectious disease (Schaller & Murray, 2008). Specifically, in regions that have historically experienced high levels of infectious disease, people have lower average levels of certain personality traits including openness to experience, extraversion, and sociosexuality (willingness to engage in uncommitted sexual behaviour). The proposed reason for this is that these personality traits are associated with behaviours (such as seeking novel experiences and sexual promiscuity) that increase a person’s risk of contracting an infectious disease. On the other hand, in regions where infectious disease is less prevalent, such behaviour may confer certain reproductive advantages, hence such traits become more common. If monster porn is related to traits such as openness to experience and a generally accepting and exploratory attitude towards sexuality, then a corollary might be that interest in monster porn is greater in regions with lower rates of infectious disease and decreases in more disease-prevalent regions. This conjecture could be tested by correlating data on sales of this material with geographic factors.

As I stated earlier, it may well be true that science in general and evolutionary psychology may ultimately be incapable of fully explaining all the vagaries of human sexuality, including such unusual products of the human imagination as monster porn. However, what I have hoped to show is that scientific perspectives can begin to make some attempt to explain this phenomenon, even if only partially. More particularly, theories based on evolutionary psychology are at least capable of generating hypotheses that could be tested. Even if the hypotheses I suggested here turn out to be false, at least we might learn something interesting about this phenomenon. Some people accuse evolutionary psychologists of making up “just so” stories that cannot be tested. On the contrary, hypotheses that can be falsified through empirical study are therefore testable and hence by definition are not “just so” stories. I believe that applying existing knowledge to understanding new phenomenon is likely to be more productive than John Horgan’s approach which mischaracterises what evolutionary psychology is actually about and offers little in the way of guidance about how to generate new knowledge.

NB: The purpose of this article is to discuss the topic from a scientific perspective and is not intended in any way as either an endorsement or a judgment of erotic fiction. Nothing herein should be construed as in any way condoning, justifying or excusing actual behaviors involving forced or non-consensual sex. 

Footnote

[1] See this article by Robert Kurzban for details of Horgan’s history of misrepresenting evolutionary psychology in spite of carefully written rebuttals by experts in the field. Horgan’s response to this article (see the comments section) was to gratuitously insult Kurzban and his colleagues without responding to the substance of their concerns. 

Please consider following me on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. If you are viewing this article on any site other than Psychology Today then it has been ripped off without my consent. 

Other posts I have written about sex and psychology

Porn Stars and Evolutionary Psychology

The Personalities of Porn Stars

Are Sex and Religion Natural Enemies?

Does Oral Sex have an Evolutionary Purpose?

Infidelity Detection and Women’s Interest in Oral Sex

The Pseudoscience of Race Differences in Penis Size

Semen an Antidepressant? Think Again

Further reading on Evolutionary Psychology
Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. This is the article referenced earlier and is an essential read for anyone interested in understanding the scientific basis of the subject. 

Tooby and Cosmides response to Gould - debunks widely believed misinformation about the subject that originated with biologist Stephen Jay Gould, e.g. the false notion that evolutionary psychologists think that "every behavior is an adaptation" which John Horgan still seems to believe.

 References

Bivona, J., & Critelli, J. (2009 January-February). The nature of women's rape fantasies: an analysis of prevalence, frequency, and contents. The Journal of Sex Research, 46, 33+.

Bivona, J. M., Critelli, J. W., & Clark, M. J. (2012). Women’s Rape Fantasies: An Empirical Evaluation of the Major Explanations. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(5), 1107-1119. doi: 10.1007/s10508-012-9934-6

Coles, C., & Shamp, M. J. (1984). Some sexual, personality, and demographic characteristics of women readers of erotic romances. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 13(3), 187-209. doi: 10.1007/bf01541647

Confer, J. C., Easton, J. A., Fleischman, D. S., Goetz, C. D., Lewis, D. M. G., Perilloux, C., & Buss, D. M. (2010). Evolutionary psychology: Controversies, questions, prospects, and limitations. American Psychologist, 65(2), 110-126. doi: 10.1037/a0018413

Critelli, J. W., & Bivona, J. M. (2008). Women's erotic rape fantasies: an evaluation of theory and research. The Journal of Sex Research, 45, 57+.

Schaller, M., & Murray, D. R. (2008). Pathogens, personality, and culture: Disease prevalence predicts worldwide variability in sociosexuality, extraversion, and openness to experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(1), 212-221. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.95.1.212

Scott McGreal is a psychology researcher with a particular interest in individual differences, especially in personality and intelligence.

more...

Subscribe to Unique—Like Everybody Else

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.