Studying sexuality, one mouse-click at a time
The new and controversial world of internet sex research
Posted May 04, 2011
(Second in a series of articles discussing A Billion Wicked Thoughts, a controversial new book by neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam that uses the internet to study human sexuality in some new and unusual ways.)
Dr Kinsey meets Masters+Johnson
Since Alfred Kinsey and his associates published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, most sex studies have consisted of questionnaire interviews asking people about their sex lives. Just as Kinsey did.
Kinsey was well aware of the limits of this technique. He understood that verbal reports about sex are no substitute for direct observation of the real thing.
This is a problem in sex therapy as well. It's hard to get really good data about couples' sexual problems when you're relying just on verbal reports. Many a sex therapist has wished she could just spend an evening seated by her patients' bed, getting a more accurate and objective picture of the situation.
Late in his career Kinsey began to experiment with gathering sexual data more directly by filming couples having sex, in the attic of his home. For the sake of science, of course.
This kind of direct sexual study would later achieve public legitimacy in the work of Masters and Johnson. Masters, a gynecologist, was able to use his authority as a physician (doctors still had some clout back then) to get permission to film and study actual people masturbating in his lab.
The Masters+Johnson tradition of direct sexual observation continues to this day. But it has its own problems. It's labor-intensive. Its results are often difficult to interpret. And as Leonore Tiefer and others have pointed out in critiquing Masters and Johnson's original work, the kind of person who might volunteer for such a study might not be typical of the population at large.
How might it be possible to get large numbers of individuals, as the neo-Kinseyans do with their questionnaires, while at the same time studying real sexual behaviors, as the Masters+Johnson types do in their laboratories?
Thinking outside the box
Here's where A Billion Wicked Thoughts breaks new ground. As the authors explain in their Preface::
"What would really benefit researchers is a machine that unobtrusively recorded people's private behavior in real time in their natural environment. It would be great if the machine could operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even better if researchers could install these machines all around the world, to record behavior from a true diversity of humankind. Better still if the machine could record the activities of large numbers of people - maybe ten thousand. Or a million. Or, in our most preposterous fantasy, a billion.
Such a machine exists. It's called the internet."
As I discussed in "The strange new science behind A Billion Wicked Thoughts," Ogas and Gaddam's database contains the records of 55 million sexual internet searches, by 2 million individuals. That seriously dwarfs Kinsey's collection of 18,000 subjects. And even more - unlike Kinsey and more like Masters+Johnson, it shows real behaviors in real time - not just questionnaire data.
A Billion Wicked Thoughts will rub many people the wrong way. The authors are computational neuroscientists - experts on the application of computer software principles to the study of the human brain and mind. They are not psychologists or sex therapists. Neither of them has ever treated a patient.
Sex is complicated. Sexuality operates at many levels - biological, psychological, social, cultural, economic, and political. The book strip-mines through this terrain without addressing many of the fundamental complexities. It generalizes too broadly about the differences between men and women.
And it's written as a popular book, not a technical one. So sex specialists who read this book may wish to spend more time with the 56 page Notes section at the end - where the data are presented somewhat more completely. Even then, one wishes the authors had gone through the more usual scientific process of peer review.
Having said that, though, let's acknowledge another reality - The authors' huge and unique database is one that many people involved in sexuality research or practice will be very eager to get their hands on.
So what did they find?
Some of the authors' findings confirm what we'd expect. In their database of internet sexual searches, "Youth" was far and away the most popular internet sexual search category. Almost three times as popular as its closest competitor.
There are some immediate surprises as well. "Cheating wives" was the fifth most popular category. And despite the popularity of "Youth" mentioned above, "MILFs" (google it if you don't recognize this abbreviation) was the third most popular - right behind "Gay," and just ahead of "Breasts."
But wait, you say. These authors aren't really studying sexual behavior at all. They're not doing research on actual lovemaking, as Kinsey did in his attic. Or even studying masturbation, as Masters+Johnson did in their lab. These are just clicks on a mouse.
Good point. But think about it - what motivates those mouse clicks? Sexual curiosity. Sexual fantasy. Sexual excitement, or the wish for it.
A Billion Wicked Thoughts, while not a study of people's actual partner sex experiences, offers something perhaps more interesting - a glimpse of the deeper sexual motivations of the human mind.
Stay tuned as we wrestle with this unique and interesting book in the days ahead.
Copyright © Stephen Snyder, MD 2011
www.sexualityresource.com New York City
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