Our book A Billion Wicked Thoughts came out two and a half years ago. When we first embarked on our research into sexual desire as newly minted Ph.D.s in a completely disparate field, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. As outsiders to the science of human sexuality, when our findings proved to be so strange and surprising we couldn’t be sure which results mattered most.
Now, with the feckless benefit of hindsight, be believe we erred by placing so much emphasis on our discovery that many erotic interests considered to be rare or deviant are actually quite common, such as men’s interest in overweight women, older women, and penises. Such revelations are titillating and useful and certainly reassured many people that their carefully guarded tastes were actually quite normal, but one of the unfortunate results of this emphasis has been that our work is often viewed rather narrowly as a list of the prevalence of various fetishes.
However, since our book’s publication we’ve had the opportunity to discuss our research with many sex clinicians, sex scientists, and men and women struggling with questions about their own sexual predilections. These conversations have helped us refine our sense about where the real value of our research lies.
The eclectic field of sex science is scattered across many different disciplines. Biologists, animal researchers, evolutionary psychologists, and neuroscientists all study sexual behavior in a way that is more or less theoretical, or at least at a remove from the concerns of people wrestling with their daily sex lives. Their work holds the potential for the most important advances in our understanding of human sexuality, but their results often have difficulty getting translated into practical applications. Then there are the epidemiologists and especially the clinicians, the professional sex therapists down in the trenches who spend their days trying to make a difference in their client’s lives.
One of the challenges of sex science (one that is by no means unique to the field) is the fact that these different disciplines don’t always communicate with each other so well. Part of it is the great firehose of research and the fact that everyone is most highly motivated to keep up with their own niche’s stream of publications. But what surprised us the most about the field is a distinct challenge that may be more stultifying among sex researchers than anywhere else.
Moralizing is rampant within the science of sex, influencing just about every aspect of the field, from arguments to funding to tenure to basic decisions about which research to pursue. This perhaps should come as no surprise—we all have potent opinions about right and wrong when it comes to sex, rooted in our deepest emotional core, usually based upon our own experiences and values. Science, of course, demands that we leave our personal values at the door in the name of objectivity, an impossible demand that every scientist violates to some degree. The problem in sex research is that even basic decisions about subjects and methodologies and data collection are inevitably bound up with intensely personal moral convictions.
The reason this has constrained progress in sex research so sharply is that the intensity of many researchers’ convictions are often out of proportion to the empirical knowledge upon which these convictions rest. This can be seen most clearly when one realizes that many of the most urgent debates we are having today about pornography, the sexual treatment of women, sex addiction, and unusual sexual interests are virtually unchanged from the 1960s, when culture, behavioral science, and erotica itself was dramatically different than it is today. How can both sides be advancing the same positions about the dangers of pornography when talking about paying money to watch a vanilla 16mm stag film in a crowded theater in the red light district of a city and looking at 10 different videos of women’s feet on your iPhone for free in your office’s bathroom? The fact that arguments about paraphilias, dangerous sexual fantasies, and misogynistic porn have not progressed too much in a half century suggests that they were always rooted in emotions and morality rather than evidence.
The fact of the matter is that there’s never been very good data about people’s sexual proclivities, which is why the canvas of human sexuality has been such a Rorschach for us all to project our private fears and convictions upon. The fact that online data illuminates the true landscape of individual sexual behavior so brightly is certainly an important advancement, but what about this landscape is most revealing and useful?
We’ve generally thrown our lot in with the evolutionists over the culturalists for the simple reason that evolutionary theory does a pretty fair job of predicting online sexual behaviors, especially compared to the social constructionists. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of online sexual behavior that the evolutionists can’t account for and we believe one of the most important contributions of our work is a new framework for making sense of many sexual interests, an approach rooted in computational neuroscience that complements rather than contradicts evolutionary and cultural perspectives.
We are frequently asked what our work implies for sex addiction and the effects of porn viewing, and our data certainly has relevance to these questions, but to be honest we think the greatest value of our online findings lies in identifying entirely new lines of inquiry about sexual behavior, breaking out of deeply entrenched politics surrounding perennial debates by revealing entirely new issues worth considering.
To reveal these issues, however, requires that we talk about and show erotic material that makes many people uncomfortable, and this is a real problem. Another reason that sex research may have gotten so bogged down is because of the social pressure on researchers. There’s a lot of smart and serious people in sex research and sex therapy; sometimes we hear that there’s a lack of talent in the field, but we don’t think that’s the problem. Like every other scientist, sex scientists need to socialize with their families on Thanksgiving and teach courses to adolescent students and share their research with colleagues in other departments and talking about creampie videos and granny porn and sleep rape fantasies can make anyone feel like an outcast, like you’re wearing dirty overalls at a ballroom dance. Do you really want to tell your tenure committee that you spent a year analyzing the dialogue in bukkake porn?
And yet, we might need to analyze the dialogue in bukkake porn if we want the field to progress. This is still a science, after all, and everything should be open to scrutiny, even the messy, gross, disconcerting stuff. We’ve given talks at academic conferences of sex researchers and we’ve sometimes been asked to modify our slides to make them less graphic. This is understandable and we do recognize the risks of triggering a reaction in certain audience members—but at the same time this reveals the unique nature of the constraints in sex research. Imagine if astronomers declined to publicly show X-ray images of neutron stars out of a sense of modesty or decorum.
I don’t think sex research has any parallel in the rest of the sciences. It’s a field where the subjects are intensely hostile towards being studied, where the scientists feel the politics of their work in almost every aspect of their professional and personal lives, where there’s a widespread aversion to delving into many of the unexplored regions of the field. If you tell nuclear physicists that there’s a subatomic particle that nobody has ever seen, they will move heaven and earth and raise a billion dollars to build a machine to take a look. If you tell sex researchers that nobody has ever looked at CBT porn before (cock-and-ball torture), often the response is—maybe we shouldn’t take a look. It’s a truly peculiar field which we’ve grown to have tremendous affection for, and our appreciation for pioneers like Alfred Kinsey has soared. Kinsey, to our minds, is as much of a scientific role model as Galileo or Darwin.
In a series of videos, we are going to try to present out material in a way that highlights what we now think is most useful and interesting. When we first commenced this research, every colleague in our field tried to dissuade us, including the chair of our department, claiming that it would be a career killer. But, like many scientists, the reason we got into science in the first place was because of the opportunity to discover something new. We wanted to be the first to see something that nobody had ever seen before, and we figured researching online sexual behavior would give us the best chance of this, despite its professional and personal toll. Our hope is that the videos may convey some of this unmatched thrill of discovery.
Here's video #1: What REALLY turns people on?