[ You can watch Part III in our video series about the new science of sexual desire here. ]

Our research into online erotica turned up one finding that probably comes as no great surprise: the global popularity of the facial shot. But why is the “moneyshot” so universally esteemed by men of highly diverse cultures and backgrounds? It’s a curious matter. Both ivory tower academics and amateur sexologists frequently opine on the subject with the majority of interpretations linking the popularity of the facial to some version of men’s preference to sexual dominance, whether rooted in biology or reinforced by a patriarchal culture.

It’s equally curious that women don’t share men’s enthusiasm—when sssh.com, the Internet’s longest running commercial erotic site for women, polled its lady members and asked them to rate the type of scenes they wanted to see in the site’s pornography, facials came in dead last.

The fact that the moneyshot is so highly popular (in terms of traffic, ratings, and downloads) in countries as varied as Japan, India, Russia, Mexico, and Sweden—despite being utterly taboo to display in public or in the media—calls out for a scientific explanation. In academia, there are two broad categories of explanation of human sexual interests: evolutionary theory (based upon Darwin’s theory of natural selection) and sociocultural theory (rooted in behaviorism and social constructionism). An evolutionary account of men’s interest in breasts, for example, might argue that since breast size and condition are related to estrogen, which in turn is related to fertility and health, an interest in breasts is selected for because it provides a reproductive advantage by directing men to women more likely to bear healthy children. A sociocultural account might argue that since breasts are displayed prominently and positively throughout our culture—in movies and magazines and music videos—that men are socialized to pay attention to breasts.

Both kinds of explanation are useful in different circumstances and sometimes they can both contribute to the understanding of the same sexual interest, but they each have their limitations, too, both theories failing to predict many of the most prevalent sexual interests in the global population, including shemale porn, granny porn, and slash fan fiction. These interests require a different kind of explanation than evolutionary theory and sociocultural theory can offer and so it’s worth considering a third approach, one that complements rather than contradicts the two classic accounts: the theory of erotical illusions. 

This framework for explaining sexual interests is rooted in the perspective and methods of computational neuroscience and focuses on the brain’s computational processes. (An introduction to erotical illusions is provided here.) Erotical illusion theory accounts for sexual interests in a manner similar to neurocomputational explanations of optical illusions, perceptual phenomena which defy both evolutionary and sociocultural explanations but can be elucidated at the neural level. Erotical illusions combine basic, innate sexual cues in novel or unusual ways. Since men and women have different cues, unlike optical illusions we expect the same erotical illusion to work differently on male and female brains. The facial shot may be one example.

Men are aroused by the expression of specific female emotions. Female submissiveness is certainly one of them, but so is aggressiveness, enthusiasm, promiscuity, and youthful innocence, as measured by the frequency of these patterns of expression in the most popular varieties of online pornography. Obviously some of these emotions are mutually exclusive (they are not the only paradox of human sexual arousal) and even if these cues were designed by evolution their effect on each individual man is heavily influenced by culture and experience. But what matters here is the fact that the male sexual brain is highly responsive to the expression of female emotion—and there is no more potent and expressive signal of female emotion than a woman’s face.

We would argue that the reason the moneyshot is so popular is because it is an erotical illusion that combines two disparate sexual cues into a single gestalt (like the Mona Lisa smile): (1) male ejaculation and (2) a vivid female reaction, whatever that reaction may be. In other words, the facial is a kind of pornographic emoticon.

The Facial is a Sexual Emoticon

What is so often overlooked about facials in male-targeted pornography is the variety of women’s expressions. Yes, you’ll find women reacting submissively—but you’ll also find delight, fear, surprise, anger, girlish giggles, and aggressive demands. Different men have different sexual tastes in terms of what female emotion is most arousing in a sexual experience but the facial is a flexible perceptual canvas that provides tremendous erotic freedom to link together a preferred female emotional expression with a male climax. (Incidentally, in the highly popular heterosexual male genre of large penis pornography, the focus is also on the woman’s reaction, whether joy, anxiety, or puzzlement—women’s faces are as prominent if not more prominent than the oversized phallus itself.) More sophisticated contemporary pornographers understand the importance of providing female emotional expression to accompany anatomical shots; more and more pornography uses a split screen where one image shows a close-up and the other shows the woman’s face.

Evolutionary theory has no persuasive account of the facial, because no matter what kind of Darwinian gymnastic one might employ there is no reproductive advantage from facial ejaculations. Sociocultural theory falls short because of its overemphasis on the role of submissiveness (when so many facials do not feature female submissiveness; just consider MILF porn—or gay porn) and the fact that men are not exposed to this sexual stimulus in public culture (any more than they’re exposed to bestiality, incest, or granny porn, other popular sexual interests).

No matter how you look at it, the facial is a very peculiar interest, one that appears to have no analogy in the Animal Kingdom. Women, of course, have their own peculiar erotical illusions, such as undead bloodsucking heartthrob Edward Cullen.


Video #3: Male Turn-Ons: The Surprising Role of Age

About the Authors

Sai Gaddam, Ph.D.

Sai Gaddam, Ph.D., studies biologically inspired models of machine learning. He is co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts.

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