Last May saw the publication of a new and somewhat controversial book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, written by two experts in the new and somewhat controversial field of computational neuroscience — a scientific discipline that uses software principles to understand the human mind.
The authors used available data from the internet – the largest such dataset ever collected — to find out what kinds of sexual material people were seeking online, when no one but Google is watching. They then speculated about the nature of men’s and women’s “sexual software.”
Comparing sex and software doesn’t immediately sound like such a good idea. Since its publication last May, the book hasn’t had an easy time.
The media quickly picked up on its more salacious bits such as “granny-porn,” completely ignored the authors’ theory of the sexual mind, and then lost interest entirely. The New York Times Book Review assigned the book not to a sex researcher but to a cultural critic, who called it a “farrago.”
On Amazon, the book currently carries a disappointing 3-star rating. Closer examination shows a barbell-shaped distribution of reviews, with 15 reviewers having given it only one star, a similar number having given it five stars, and very few votes in the middle. A quick glance at the Amazon reviews reveals a lot of very angry readers in the one-star camp.
Several of my colleagues have refused to read it, dissuaded by the negative press the book received. One prominent sexologist, who did read it, told me privately that he thought A Billion Wicked Thoughts was interesting and valuable. But that he would rather not say so in public.
Why the anger at this book? There are many substantive difficulties with the authors’ project, some of which I’ve discussed in previous articles. But I think the anger at the book may be more due to its style and presentation.
The authors are novices in the sex field. They seem to have been unaware that there are some things that it’s forbidden to do in a book on sex.
For example, it’s forbidden to claim that sex is in any way simple. The authors, thinking like the computer neuroscientists they are, attempted to do just that. They tried to characterize the “sexual cues” that men and women rely on to select mates, and they insisted that these cues must be rather simple and universal. That was bound to annoy a lot of people.
It’s also forbidden to make categorical statements about the differences between male and female sexuality. There is much intra-gender variability in men’s and women’s sexual natures. And certain differences in sexual expression may be the result of culture, rather than biologically determined. Which makes generalizations about men and women’s “true sexual nature” very problematic.
There will also always be exceptions to such generalizations about gender. And if you’re not careful, sometimes these exceptions will want to flame you on Amazon.
Sex is a serious matter for people. A certain gentle humor is certainly welcome; but the book’s fun-loving style, with its generous sprinkling of quotes from standup comics, almost guarantees that someone will be offended.
Because I believe that underneath all the muck, A Billion Wicked Thoughts offers some new and valuable insights about sexuality.
For example: How to understand new data showing that men and women — though it’s still politically incorrect to say so — tend to be more different sexually than we ever knew.
In the experiments of Meredith Chivers and others on the relationship between subjective excitement, genital arousal, and self-identified sexual orientation, men’s arousal appears to be relatively straightforward. When straight men look at sex videos featuring naked women, they tend to report feeling excited, and they get erect. Gay men tend to get the same subjective and genital result from watching sex videos featuring naked men.
For women, it’s more complex. In laboratory studies, most women’s arousal is often NOT category-specific. Statistically, women — whether self-identified as straight, gay, or bi – tend to get genitally aroused by viewing ANY kind of sex – even of bonobo apes making love.
Furthermore, women are often completely unaware of their nonspecific genital arousal. While a women is watching a video of bonobo sex, her body may react with clear signs of genital arousal, but she may not be aware of any subjective sexual excitement at all.
This relative disconnection between many women’s physical arousal and their subjective sexual excitement — what does it mean? How can we best understand it? No one knows.
A Billion Wicked Thoughts has an interesting theory about it. We’ll discuss it next time. And we’ll try not to say any of the things it’s still forbidden to say about sex.