Where Does Desire Come From?

Are our brains “preloaded” or is there a tabula rasa, a blank slate?

Posted Jul 15, 2015

Where does desire come from?  Are our brains “preloaded” or is there a tabula rasa, a blank slate?

This is one of the big questions in psychology: When we experience sexual desires that are new to us, is it because our brains have just become activated for that particular desire, which slumbered latently all along? 

Or is it because new desires, which we never experienced before and which had no brain latency, have suddenly popped into our heads? Because only now have we found out about them. We might find out through the media, or through adult entertainment, or through bar conversations. But all of a sudden we desire something we had never previously dreamed of.

Psychology in general leans towards the former possibility: It’s all been somehow pre-implanted, and only activation is needed.

My own research on the history of sexuality is inclining me towards the tabula rasa: that as we are exposed to new forms of sexual behavior we never previously could have imagined, all of a sudden we think, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea! I want to do that.”

Consider some of the new forms of sexual behavior that have become widespread in the last thirty years:

Transsexuality is now red hot. Sixth-graders are talking about changing their gender identity and how they now see themselves as girls trapped inside boys’ bodies. Some schools are discussing separate washrooms for the transgendered. Thirty years ago, nobody ever heard of transsexuality. Where does this come from?

Anal sex is now huge. In the twentieth century, there has always been a certain interest in anal play. I described this in my book Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire (University of Toronto Press, 2005). But now it has become huge. Every porn film today has an anal loop, up from very few thirty years ago. And women are now buying considerable numbers of strap-ons in order to “peg” their partners. Thirty years ago this was something that only prostitutes did.

Speaking of women, the whole concept of female sexual dominance is looming very large on the radar: The woman on top. It would be surprising if this didn’t happen, given the new importance of women in the world of work and that they often make more than their partners. Why should they play the submissive bride when in fact they feel quite dominant?

In the world of adult entertainment, this new female dominance plays out in increased demand for videos featuring, not just pegging, but women (actresses) forcing the male leads to cross-dress (“forced feminization”), or to fellate other men under the supervision of the domme. This probably remains more fantasy than reality right now—but who would know? Nobody surveys this kind of thing. The surveyors would all die of embarrassment. Yet the demand for it is there in adult entertainment.

Historically, these are all new themes. None of this existed before 1970. Is this because men have always had a taste for female dominance—and women a desire for domination—slumbering deep within their breasts. Or have these tastes been newly implanted by the culture? By the Zeitgeist?

I’m currently doing research on the adult entertainment industry in order to sort these questions out. If anybody monitors desire closely it is the pornographers, because this is how they make their living. And the uptake of such themes as transsexuality in the world of porn is right now volcanic.

Female dominance? Just look at the sales of Fifty Shades of Grey: over a hundred million copies of the novel sold and now the movie is a box- office blockbuster. I know that Ana, in the novel, is submissive. Yet Fifty Shades has put the concept of the “transfer of power” on the breakfast tables of millions of couples where the female partner has read the novel, and all of a sudden she realizes that she can opt to be a bottom, like Ana, or a top . . .

The whole world of sex is in ferment right now. Some people find these changes baffling and fearful. Others find them exciting and invigorating for a sex life that both partners long ago had written off as dead.