What 55 Million Sex Searches Tell Us About Desire
A Billion Wicked Thoughts describes a novel collection of data representing 55 million sexual internet searches by some 2 million individuals. But is it really science, or something else entirely?
There’s reason to wonder. A quick glance at the book’s bibliography shows that the authors have never presented their sexological findings in any scientific forum. The authors’ data and conclusions have not been subject to peer review. It’s certainly not ordinary science.
The authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts are not sex experts or even psychologists. They’re computational neuroscientists (more later on what that is exactly), interested in applying computer software principles to the human brain and mind.
The work that led to A Billion Wicked Thoughts consisted of two inter-related projects. The first was to gather data, from sources as diverse as people’s internet sexual searches and the texts of romance novels, that might be relevant to the study of human sexual desire.
Modeling the Sexual Mind
The second was to organize this data to create a model of how what one might call “the software of human sexual desire” actually works. Apparently this “software modeling” technique has already been applied to mental operations such as visual processing and speech production.
But attempting to do the same thing with sexuality is a huge leap. Even if, as the authors have clarified, they are not focused on sexual behavior per se but are solely interested in what triggers desire. As I mentioned in a previous article, “Studying sexuality – one mouse click at a time,” sexuality operates on many levels — biological, psychological, social, cultural, economic, and political — in a way that visual processing does not.
Furthermore, how one organizes such a large and diverse bunch of data will depend on one’s prior assumptions about sexuality. There’s always the question of having simply found what one was looking for.
Then there are problems with the authors’ unique dataset. For instance, we know very little about the individuals that Ogas and Gaddam studied in their large sample of two million people who did internet searches for sexual material. We don’t know their ages, their genders, or their sexual orientations. All we have are their mouse clicks. Is this sample a valid representation of a population we’re interested in? Is it representative enough that we should base a model of human sexual motivation on it?
The only population that we can say with certainty this sample represents is itself – a very large collection of individuals who do internet searches for sexual material. We should be wary of generalizing to people who don’t use the web for sexual purposes.
And Yet . . .
Yet the data are compelling. Having read the book a few times now, I’m convinced there’s a lot here that’s useful. And the model the authors propose, though over-ambitious, suggests some new and interesting ways to understand the sexual mind.
The authors’ model — which we’ll talk about next time — states that men’s and women’s sexual minds function differently, but that both are fundamentally rather simple in their goals and how they operate. That alone will already put off many of the professional communities concerned with sexuality, since (1) it involves binary thinking about “maleness” and “femaleness,” and (2) it reduces something very complicated to something simple.
Despite these objections, I think the model is worth considering in detail. And that it may turn out to be largely correct.
It would be curious if these authors, outsiders to the field of sex research, making some questionable assumptions about sexuality, and working under a deadline to produce a popular book, nevertheless ended up making a significant contribution to our knowledge of the sexual mind. Yet I think it’s necessary to acknowledge that this might be the case.
My suggestion — let’s put aside any pre-conceptions and let the authors’ work speak for itself.
Next time, we’ll get into their model of the sexual mind. As I said, it’s very ambitious.