WARNING: Adult material ahead!
“The sexual brain is guaranteed to upset the politically correct, the socially conservative, and just about everybody in between.”
I chuckled over Ogas and Gaddam’s warning in their preface to A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships. It was an amused chuckle because I was excited to dive into a book that promised to share “the truth about what men and women secretly desire – and why” (xvii). As someone who has always stood on the threshold of human sexual experience and never stepped through, I have always wondered why sexual desire has driven people to desperate, wonderful, crazy, stupid, and terrible actions. What do people want? Why do people want it? And even more importantly, what does the brave new world of the Internet tell us about people’s desires?
Ogas and Goddam first begin with discussing the mode of data acquisition on which they are basing their findings – Internet data-mining. Pointing out that science (and its related disciplines) have always had to contend with the difficulty of data acquisition, Ogas and Goddam, two neuro-scientists who graduated from Boston University, discuss how researching human desire has always had particularly large obstacles.
“Science hasn’t been able to answer this question because there just hasn’t been a way to observe the natural sexual behavior of large numbers of women and men.
According to Ogas and Goddam, internet anonymity released humankind into a new arena of freedom to explore and satiate personal forms of desire. To explain why male and female desire appear so different (generally speaking) [See Note 1], Ogas and Goddam dip into evolutionary science and basic biology to explain, quoting Donald Symons:
“It is clear that human beings evolved psychological mechanism for detecting and assessing cues of mate value that are independent of other people’s preferences and are highly resistant to cultural modification. These mechanisms account for a very large proportion of individual variability in attractiveness.” (22)
Using Dogpile (a form of data-mining), Ogas and Goddam set out to see if Symons’s theory about cues of desire held.
The rest of the book is an engaging, clearly written summation of their findings. In Chapter 2, they discuss Male Visual Cues; Chapter 3, Male Desire; Chapter 4, Female Desire; Chapter 5, Female Psychological Cues I: The Hero; Chapter 6, Female Psychological Cues II: The Heroine; Chapter 7, Gay Cues; Chapter 8, Female Visual Cues; Chapter 9, Male Psychological Cues; Chapter 10, Human Psychological Cues; Chapter 11, The Creative Power of Cues; and then, Conclusion.
I enjoyed this book quite a bit, particularly when I realized that a quarter of it had been dedicated to detailed references and extra notes. The result of the experience reading this was that of intrigue and discovery, secure in the knowledge that research had been done. So for me to go into detail about my reactions to all of it would take quite a bit of time and perhaps another book altogether!
However, I will set some space aside here to take note of some things that particularly stood out to me.
What struck me most was something I had known (both consciously and unconsciously) for a long time – men and women are fundamentally different when it comes to how and why their desires are processed. Ogas and Goddam suggest: “It wasn’t just the behaviors of men and women that seemed different – their brains seemed different, too. Why did so many Big Pharma and biotech companies fail to find female Viagra? The answer also explains Hatfield and Clark’s dramatic results” (68).
Physiological and Psychological Connections
Citing a study run by Meredith Chivers from Queen’s University, Canada, Ogas and Goddam discuss and conclude that when it came to viewing erotic pictures, for women, “there was a dissociation between the conscious arousal of the mind and the unconscious (or semiconscious) arousal of the body” (69). On the other hand, for men, “If a man was physically turned on, he was also psychologically turned on” (69). As a result, Meredith Chivers (and Ogas and Goddam) conclude: “psychological and physical arousal are usually linked in men, but in women there’s a disconnect. It’s as if the carnal signals from a woman’s body somehow get cut off before they enter her conscious awareness. Male sexuality, in contrast, is like the knee-jerk reflex: a message of arousal from the body triggers instant mental desire. Elmer Fudd readies, aims, fires at the slightest hint of a wabbit” (70).
Elmer Fudd and Miss Marple
Using two metaphors to describe general male and female physical desire processes – Elmer Fudd and The Miss Marple Detective Agency, Ogas and Goddam delineate what prompts men and women. Elmer Fudd, triggered by specific visual cues (like “booty” or “boobs”), has an “knee jerk reflex” that leads to psychological and physical desire (70). Both are linked strongly, which is why picturing something disgusting directly affects a man’s desire. On the other hand, women, using The Miss Marple Detective Agency, require something more, consciously or unconsciously: security, intimacy, and information.
“Booty is so strong there are dudes willing to blow themselves up for the highly unlikely possibility of booty in another dimension. There are no chicks alive willing to blow themselves up for a penis.”
-Joe Rogan (71)
Ogas and Goddam trace this process to our evolutionary past: “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” (73). They break the Agency down into FOUR detectives: the emotional, the social, the cultural, and the physical detective (74).
The emotional detective attempts to understand what the man is “really feeling” (74-77). Ogas and Goddam, citing three sources, say that women think about/over negative experiences more often, recall memory more quickly, recall their lives more deeply, and express their emotions more expressively than men (75). Most of this is due to biological differences within the brain (76).
The social detective attempts to understand the man through social networking (either talking to him or talking about him with other people). This is one of the reasons why women dominate social networking sites like Facebook and Classmates (78). After further discussing the woman biological brain, Ogas and Goddam add, “There are also more connections between the female language centers and the subcortical reward systems, suggesting that talking is more rewarding for women than for men. Female brains also have have greater connectivity between the two cortical hemispheres, leading some neuroscientists to speculate that the female brain is designed for more effective processing and production of language” (78).
The cultural detective is most easily seen on female porn sites which have more political and socially positive messages than their male counterparts. “Keenly attuned to cultural values and social rules, the Detective Agency asks: Which behaviors and relations are celebrated – and which are frowned upon? What values should I endorse when it comes to sex and relationships? Women are sensitive to messages on magazines and television shows, even indirect messages, such as a model’s body weight, the car a politician is driving, or a celebrity’s views on mental health – subjects that elicit more online comments from women than men. […] Women are also much more likely to attribute sexual anxiety to social pressures” (79). Ogas and Goddam cite Baumeister who suggests that women playing it safe is the result of a long evolutionary (and historical) trend that allowed women to stay home, choose the best man, and reproduce her genes. This has resulted in 80 percent of women reproducing their genes versus 40 percent of men (80-81).
The physical detective evaluates the woman’s physical readiness for sexual intimacy and reproduction. Stress, shelter, safety, and nutrition are important factors for a woman’s choice. This is not the same as men, who often experience enhanced desire under physical threats (74).
Image vs. Language
Another interesting thing that is detailed in the book is an extension of explication on the woman’s “social detective” and how it relates to the woman’s language-focused centers of processing. Unlike men who are more image-focused, women are more likely to turn to literature for fulfillment of their desires. This language-focused processing in women has resulted in a very specific cultural trend: romance fiction/fanfiction (85).
“According to the Romance Writers of America, romance fiction generated $1.37 billion sales in 2008. The romance genre has the single largest share of the fiction market. More people buy romances than detective novels, thrillers, science fiction, or science nonfiction. At least 74.8 million people read a romance novel in 2008… and more than 90 percent of these readers are women. To put these numbers in perspective, about 100 million men in the United States and Canada accessed online porn in 2008 – just slightly more than the number of romance readers. However, though women don’t pay for porn, they happily pay for romance. Accurate sales figures are impossible to come by in the adult industry, but there is little doubt that online pornography generated less revenue in 2008 than romance publishing” (87-8).
Ogas and Goddam note that not all romance novels have sexual content, and even erotic romance novels (books with sex as a primary component) “would never be mistaken for the emotionless graphic raunch of male-targeted erotica” (90). They also trace a common trend in both fiction and fanfiction romances: an alpha male hero.
Psychologists Maryanne Fisher and Tami Meredith discuss the presence of strong male images in female romances, noting the “ten most common professions of the hero”: doctor, cowboy, boss, prince, rancher, knight, surgeon, king, bodyguard, and sheriff (94-5). “Conspicuously absent from the list of romance heroes are blue-collar works […], bureaucrats […], and traditionally feminine professions” (95).
“All of the hero professions are associated with status, confidence, and competence. As Henry Kissinger famously said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Power is a reflection of a man’s rank in the dominance hierarchy, and women are attracted to men near the top. The man at the very top is known as the alpha male” (95).
Being wealthy, competent, a bad-ass, protective, and gentle (within) are key factors for the ultimate man – if you judge the content of the average woman’s romance novel. I don’t know about you, but suddenly the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey makes sense.
I could go on about the contents of the book even more – how “male ego” and “female self-esteem” are represented in (110), how the desire to be irresistable may be the source of rape fantasies (113-115), how gay men are a combination of female AND male desire processes (131-133), and how vampires and werewolves represent the desireable male in female romance novels (220-225) – but I need to stop here. Suffice to say, whether you agree with Ogas and Goddam’s reasons for why things appear to be the way they are – or whether these processes do in fact exist – or not, this book is a must read as a source of challenge and an interesting perception on male and female desire. This story is ages old – and the Internet carries it onward, resulting in a hair-raising, eye-opening analysis.
Note 1: In the following post, when discussing male and female desire, the concepts presented are “general”, that is, the majority of men and women behave a certain way. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, and the entire system (as it were) of cues and desires is complex. I highly recommend reading the book to see the detailed lists of cues and stats.