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a billion wicked thoughts

22 july 2011

A Billion Wicked Thoughts, by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, is a thoughtful, sincere, well-written look at what Internet porn can tell us about human nature. It is not altogether didactic, and it shows the authors' wry sense of humor. So if I seem to be a little harsh on the book in the review that follows, put my remarks in that context. A Billion Wicked Thoughts is well worth reading, even if you have to keep an ample salt cellar at hand during the process.

Ogas and Gaddam often qualify their generalizations, but when you're talking about a billion of anything, overgeneralizations are unavoidable. Here, they start to mislead the reader in the subtitle of the book. "The world's largest experiment" is, first of all, not an experiment except in a highly figurative sense. The authors imagine the behavior of Internet porn users – as anonymized and quantified in various databases – as a de facto "experiment." If you could observe a billion human beings let loose to express their most secret desires, consequence-free, that would be a great experiment; and fortunately for those who study sex but can't get funding for the simplest true experiments, it's happening as we speak.

The conclusions that Ogas and Gaddam draw from porn-consumption data depend on two unstated warrants that underpin much libertarian thought about human nature in the Steven Pinker mode. (Pinker is invoked in the book, and a blurb from him appears on the dust jacket.)

First, human nature has been shaped by natural selection along extremely simplified Darwinian lines; in the sexual realm, this means the logically inescapable conclusion that men try to mate as often as possible and leave offspring everywhere, but women are choosy about their mates and opt for those males who will help out with the long-term investment in child care that pregnancy entails. Everything we do and are, at least when it comes to sexuality, hinges on maximizing individual reproductive success.

Second, contemporary liberal capitalism, by freeing the individual from artificial constraints of culture, religion, and conventional morality, has made it possible for people to behave in a way that most closely approximates the state of nature envisioned by warrant #1.

These warrants function together in a manner that is synergistic if not outright circular. Whatever we do in a state of untrammeled consumerism must be explainable by the optimizations of natural selection, and whatever we have been selected to do, we can't wait to log on anonymously and start doing.

So, to use one of the more safe-for-work examples in A Billion Wicked Thoughts, why do men search on the Internet so frequently for the terms "teen" and "butts"?

A woman's body accumulates its maximum percentage of gynoid fat during adolescence. This accounts for teenage girls' shapely bodies. Since these estrogen-fueled, gynoid fat-based ornaments are the best indicators of a woman's long-term reproductive value, youthful forms of these ornaments evolved to become the most potent visual cues for men. (57)
If that explanation sounds like it existed before the question did, you're clued into the argumentative mode of A Billion Wicked Thoughts. Over and over, the authors approach some Internet-porn phenomenon with standard principles from textbooks of human evolutionary sexology. "She's got a really hot butt" translates to "My DNA would be profitably spliced to hers in order to maximize my contribution to the gene pool."

Most of this "explanation" is both obvious and in large part obviously true; attraction to displayed gender differences fuels heterosexuality, which plays a certain role in reproduction. However, much of what people search for on the Internet has far less obvious connections to reproduction. Among the hundred most common porn-related searches are "tickling," "clown," "tattoo," and "feet," that harder-to-explain popular body part. And six of the top twenty don't involve reproduction at all: to name just one of the printable terms, "Gay" is the second most popular sexual search in the Ogas-Gaddam database (252).

To discuss homosexuality, and further to discuss what the brilliant sex columnist Dan Savage would call people's "kink cards," Ogas and Gaddam posit that all variations from maximally reproduction-oriented heterosexual vaginal sex have to do with faulty rewirings of the complex and easily-imbalanced human sexual instinct. Gay men are both hypermasculine and imprinted on non-standard "cues" (not "wrong" cues, mind you; Ogas and Gaddam are firmly in the "not that there's anything wrong with that" camp). Fetishists have become imprinted during a key early sexual event on something that displaces the standard drive to reproduce. Women are "flexible but generally prefer sexual submission" (207); males who get into the submissive role in BDSM play simply have over-feminized brains. The authors' lack of dogmatism or prescriptivism, again, is refreshing; they respect the vast number of possible manifestations of human sexuality. But at the heart of their analysis is the assumption that reproductively-directed sex is deeply normal, and other forms of sex are aberrations.

This insistence on the evolutionary perfection of the nominal sexual human, coupled with the recognition that practically none of us is nominal, leads the authors to make some strange claims. With perhaps regrettable archness, they keep referring to male sexuality as "Elmer Fudd" and female sexuality as "Miss Marple's Detective Agency." Men carry big guns and shoot at one kind of target, which the authors keep calling "wabbits." Women are patient, meticulous, and capable of infinitely subtle calculations in their hunt for Mr Right.

During human prehistory, women who blindly gave in to every sexual urge likely faced a host of daunting challenges . . . [Their] children would have a harder time surviving than the children of a woman who limited the expression of her sexual urges to a strong and decent man willing to invest in a stable, long-term, child-rearing relationship. All modern women are the fruit of feminine caution. The result of this whittling away of the impulsive branches of our ancestral maternal tree is a female brain equipped with the most sophisticated neural software on Earth. A system designed to uncover, scrutinize, and evaluate a dazzling range of informative clues. (72)
I'm impressed, but I immediately have to ask: if women's intuition is the pinnacle of evolutionary perfection, why do women keep falling for the exact wrong guys? Ogas and Gaddam don't stop to consider that rebuttal, even though much of their corroborating data is drawn from episodes of Sex and the City.

Most of the problems of A Billion Wicked Thoughts can be traced to having a theory that explains too much, and wanting to use it to explain absolutely everything – especially the manifold contradictions of human sexuality. And to be fair, Ogas and Gaddam realize this; they've simply written a strong, popular, provocative book that avoids the endless qualifications of academic discourse.

However, the "world's largest experiment" might deserve a more inferential and limited treatment that would introduce such qualifications. Ogas and Gaddam are sure that the vast, anonymous culture of cyberspace offers us a look at what humans really seek out. But the experiment has limitations they hesitate to fully acknowledge. Not everyone uses the Internet. Despite the fact that the Web seems to function mainly as a porn-delivery system, not all Internet users look at porn. (Women seem to look at so little that most of Ogas and Gaddam's theories about female sexuality are based on romance novels.) Those who do look at a lot of porn persistently might not be completely representative.

And those who do function in the presence of language, a system that constrains us as much as it frees us. Two of the most common searches for porn involve "youth" (a collocation of different terms that Ogas and Gaddam meld together) and "MILF" (a single and notorious term, and in the unlikely event you don't know what it means, the Internet will be glad to enlighten you). The modal ages invoked in Internet porn searches are 16 (I'm pretty sure that's illegal; please don't try it), 18, 50, and 40. A senior editor of Xbiz, Stephen Yagielowicz, offers context:

A MILF falls into the 35-50-year-old category . . . "Teens" can be 18-20. The 21-35s are just plain porn. (26)
To Ogas and Gaddam, this means that porn searchers are most eager for youth and age, and they have evolutionary explanations at the ready. To me, it suggests that porn consumers search for youth and age because they don't have to search for anything else. If you want a picture of a naked 25-year-old woman, you don't have to search at all. One is probably appearing in a pop-up window as you read this. Yet the paradoxical "invisibility" of the "unmarked term" leads the authors to conclude that the marked terms are what it's all about.

But on a larger scale, their assumptions lead Ogas and Gaddam to conclude that the unmarked term of reproductive heterosexuality is all that any of it is about. I'm not sure they're correct. But they've made a brave attempt to figure it out, and their unflinching, wideawake curiosity deserves commendation.

Ogas, Ogi, and Sai Gaddam. A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the world's largest experiment reveals about human desire. New York: Penguin, 2011.