What Do We Really Like?
The World's Largest Experiment in Human Behavior
The study of desire has never been for the faint of heart.
—Marta Meana, professor of clinical psychology
The year 1886 witnessed the birth of two remarkable scientific disciplines, each founded by a German. One scientist gazed outward at the hidden patterns of the physical universe. The other peered inward at the secret workings of the mind. One discipline has achieved stunning progress. The other, perhaps surprisingly, lags far behind.
Heinrich Hertz built the very first radio antenna in 1886. He wanted to test for the existence of electromagnetic waves as predicted by Scottish theoretical physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Hertz became the first person to successfully transmit and receive a radio signal, simultaneously proving Maxwell correct and inaugurating the field of radiophysics. The subject of this new field was a strange, invisible “wave” that no philosopher or priest had ever dreamed of in their most extravagant fantasies. Yet over the ensuing century, radiophysicists developed the lasers used in DVD players and eye surgery. They figured out how to scan the brain for tumors. They even listened to the lingering sounds of the big bang, the event marking the origin of the known universe.
We all have a more intimate and personal relationship with the subject studied by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a subject scrutinized by humankind since we yawped our first words in the valleys of Africa. In 1886, Krafft-Ebing published a landmark book. He deliberately wrote sections in Latin and chose a Latin title in order to discourage laypeople from reading it. The book was Psychopathia Sexualis. It addresses such arcane topics as clitoral stimulation, reduced libido, and homosexuality. The discipline Krafft-Ebing founded is known as sexology.
So in the 125 years since Psychopathia Sexualis initiated the scientific study of a very familiar activity, how do the field’s achievements match up to those of radiophysics? It’s rather like comparing the Olympics gold medal tallies of the United States and Fiji. Unlike the origins of electromagnetic energy, the origins of desire remain mysterious and controversial. There’s no consensus on which sexual interests are normal, abnormal, or pathological. Scientists can’t even agree on the purpose of female orgasm, whether there is such a thing as having too much sex, or whether sexual fantasies are innocent or dangerous.
Today, a wide variety of scientists study desire, including neuroscientists, psychologists, anthropologists, biologists, and pharmacologists. One of their most basic questions is: why do we like the things we like? This question has never been adequately answered, because we must first determine what people like. To steal an expression from American writer William S. Burroughs, we need to “see what’s on the end of everyone’s fork.” But stealing a look at men and women’s true interests has been far from easy.
While modern radiophysicists have discovered black holes and developed the means for communicating with extraterrestrials, scientists studying desire still struggle to identify basic differences between the sexual interests of men and women. Why is there such a gap between the achievements of the fields founded by Heinrich Hertz and Richard von Krafft-Ebing? One big reason is data acquisition.
The best method for acquiring scientific data is direct observation. Nothing beats watching a subject in action. But scientists have an easier time gazing at intergalactic quasars than peeking into someone’s bedroom. Quasars don’t close the curtains out of modesty or suspicion. In contrast, most of us are unwilling to let curious scientists photograph us as we tumble between the sheets. Radio waves may be invisible, but they don’t try to deceive curious physicists and they’re incapable of self-deception. Humans are guilty of both.
Since direct observation of sexual behavior is so challenging, most scientists acquire sexual data using self-report surveys. But are you willing to jot down answers to questions like “Have you ever felt attracted to your pet schnauzer?”—even if the unshaven young grad student surveying you insists, “Trust me—your answers are completely anonymous.”
The difficulties associated with acquiring sexual data are not limited to skittish subjects who don’t want to be studied. Many social institutions don’t want sex to be studied, either. Federal funding agencies, advocacy groups, ethics review boards, even fellow scientists all bring powerful social politics to bear on those researchers brave enough to investigate human desire. For example, in 2003, congressmen led by Pennyslvania representative Pat Toomey sought to block federal funding of four sexual research projects, including a study of the sexual habits of older men in New England and a study of homosexual and bisexual Native Americans. “To obtain grant money, my colleagues in mainstream psychology are free to invoke ‘basic research’ or say they want to ‘expand our understanding of human behavior,” laments Marta Meana, a clinical psychologist and sex researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and one of the world’s leading authorities on female sexuality. “But if you’re studying sex and want to get significant funding, you have to link your work to ‘health’ or ‘human rights.’ ”
Institutional sex taboos have stymied efforts to uncover the true patterns of human desire. In fact, since the publication of Krafft-Ebing’s book, only one scientist has managed to survey a large number of people on a broad range of sexual interests: Alfred Kinsey. Kinsey was an entomologist who spent his career studying the gall wasp. He collected more than 1 million of the tiny, reddish insects, pinning and labeling each one by hand. Mrs. Kinsey surely expected a life of placid stability, where the most exciting event might be an occasional wasp sting. But in 1940, Kinsey abruptly exchanged his wasps for the birds and the bees. He had become fed up with the moralizing and superstitions that abounded in sex education in the 1930s. But what really motivated him was his frustration with the complete absence of scientific data on what people were actually doing.
Kinsey and a small group of research assistants interviewed thousands of subjects in person, asking 521 questions about a tremendous variety of sexual interests, including bondage, bestiality, and silk stockings. Even by today’s standards, the results were shocking. Before Kinsey, homosexuality was believed to be exceedingly rare, yet more than one-third of men reported having a homosexual experience. Women were believed to possess a very low sex drive, yet more than half of the women reported masturbating. Premarital sex, extramarital affairs, and oral sex all occurred far more frequently than anyone had guessed.
“Too darn hot” croons Paul in Cole Porter’s Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate, after singing about the findings in the Kinsey Reports. He wasn’t the only one feeling that way. After the publication of Kinsey’s landmark book on female desire, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the Rockefeller Center dropped his funding. Kinsey was denounced as a Communist and savaged by conservative and religious organizations. He became addicted to sleeping pills and developed heart trouble, dying at age sixty-two from pneumonia and heart complications.
The eighteen thousand men and women interviewed by Kinsey represent the most comprehensive scientific attempt at determining ordinary people’s true sexual interests. But the Kinsey surveys are now more than a half century old. Subsequent researchers, constrained by politics and social pressures, never followed up with large-scale replications of Kinsey’s inquiry into the variety of desire. Even Kinsey’s own data was limited in several respects. The subjects were primarily educated, middle-class Caucasians. The subjects were chosen opportunistically according to who was available, rather than being selected randomly or systematically. The survey data consisted of recollections the subjects chose to share, rather than verifiable information or direct observation.
The intellectual heirs of Heinrich Hertz have quietly studied
radar and X-rays without encountering push-back from society. In
contrast, many intellectual heirs of Richard von Krafft-Ebing have
been pilloried in the media, faced criminal prosecution, or been
fired from their jobs. Physicists can observe subatomic particles
and galactic superclusters. But human desire? What does desire
truly look like? 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.
---[later in the chapter]----
Sometimes it was difficult to immediately know whether a particular search expressed an erotic urge, such as “college cheerleaders.” Perhaps this search reflects the innocent interest of someone on the varsity squad scoping out the competition for the National Cheerleading Championship. In such uncertain cases, we turned to other data sets for guidance, including the AOL (America Online) data set.
In 2006, AOL released a data set containing the search histories for 657,426 different people. Each search history contains all the searches made by a particular AOL user over three months, from March 1, 2006, to May 31, 2006. For example, here’s the abbreviated search history for “Mr. Bikinis,“ our name for user #2027268:
cheerleaders in Hawaii
pics of bikinis and girls
the sin of masturbation
pretty girls in bikinis
girls suntanning in bikinis
college cheerleader pics in bikinis
christian advice on lust
A Tall Man with a Nice Tush
...We analyzed the text of more than ten thousand romance novels published from 1983 to 2008 to determine the most common descriptions of the hero’s physical appearance. Here are the seven most frequent masculine features:
And the seven most common adjectives used to describe masculine features?
...no synonym for penis appears in the hundred most common physical descriptors used to describe the romance hero. If we wished to describe the ideal-looking hero, we could use the most common two-word physical descriptions: the perfect hero boasts “blue eyes,” a “straight nose,” “high forehead,” and “square jaw” together making a “handsome face.” His head is framed by “dark hair” which accents the “white teeth” in his “sensual mouth” curved into a “crooked smile.” He stands tall with “broad shoulders,” a “broad chest,” “narrow waist,” “flat stomach,” “strong arms,” “big hands,” “big feet,” and “long legs”—though the heroine’s eye might ultimately be drawn to his “powerful thighs.”