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Also posted on Psychology Today

The true sexual predilections of Homo sapiens have always been tough to nail down. Most carnal activity takes place with the curtains pulled tight. We are reluctant to share our secret urges with prying neighbors or curious scientists. In fact, Alfred Kinsey was the first and only scientist to systematically document a broad range of erotic interests in a large group: about 18,000 men and women, mostly middle-class Caucasians. His reward? Unprecedented public vitriol and outrage-enough to prevent any subsequent researcher from extending his notorious survey for the past half-century.

What really turns us on? Surprisingly, this has been one of the great unsolved mysteries of modern science. Funding institutions are too fearful of backlash to sponsor investigations into the full diversity of desire. Ordinary folks are unwilling to disclose their intimate fantasies. To steal an expression from William Burroughs, scientists simply haven’t been able to “see what’s on the end of everyone’s fork.”

Until now.

Here is the raw, unfiltered record of one man’s sexual proclivities—his private search history from America Online:

And one woman’s:

These are fragments from an unprecedented new landscape of data revolutionizing our understanding of human desire. Hundreds of millions of people around the world now routinely use the Internet for erotic gratification. In a single minute you can ogle more naked bodies on PornHub than the most promiscuous Victorian viewed in a lifetime. Since all this online activity leaves a trail of digital crumbs—like the searches above—for the first time, scientists can finally see what’s on the end of everyone’s fork.

We gathered as many crumbs as we could, analyzing almost a billion web searches, a million Web sites, a million erotic stories, a half-million erotic videos, and more than ten thousand digitized romance novels in order to answer two questions: What do men really want? And the one that famously stumped Freud: What do women really want?

It turns out that men and women not only have different erotic tastes, they have astonishingly different tastes. As biological anthropologist Donald Symons explains, “To encounter erotica designed to appeal to the other is to gaze into the psychological abyss that separates the sexes.”

The two search histories above are a fair representation of what each sex tends to do online. Men seek out visuals and go straight for orgasm. Women prefer stories and often favor conversation over culmination. The five most popular adult sites for men are all within the top 100 most popular sites on the entire Internet. All are webcam or video sites featuring anonymous graphic sex, such as PornHub, the most popular adult YouTube clone, which draws about 13.9 million visitors a month. In contrast, the most popular adult video site for women, For The Girls, draws a meager 100,000 a month (and up to half of those visitors are gay men). All across the planet, with women free to access any erotic content they wish, they mostly seek out character-driven stories of sexual relationships: romance novels, erotic romance (sometimes called EroRom or Romantica®), fan fiction, slash fiction, gay romance novels, and erotic stories.

The most popular “erotic” site for women is fanfiction.net, featuring more than 1.5 million visitors a month and more than two million stories, about half of which are tagged as “romance.” The second most popular story site dominated by female visitors is adultfanfiction.net, featuring 150,000 erotic stories rated NC-17. Many sites dedicated to romance books and romance authors, such as StephenieMyers.com and eHarlequin.com, are more popular than all of the porn sites targeting women.

By combining this new ocean of online sexual data with ideas from our field of computational neuroscience, we can start to make sense of the striking differences in the way our sexual brains process arousal. In men, physical and psychological arousal are united. Men may be surprised to hear that this is not necessarily true for the ladies. A woman can be physically aroused yet mentally turned off—or downright disgusted—a finding replicated across dozens of studies. This disconnect explains why there is no “female Viagra”: you can’t arouse a woman’s mind simply by arousing her body.

So what might be the reason for this feminine “mind-body problem”? It’s part of the female brain’s solution to the unique problem of sizing up a prospective sex partner. The female cortex contains a highly developed neural system designed to unearth and scrutinize a dazzling range of informative clues that help a woman evaluate a suitor’s true character. This cortical system might appropriately be dubbed the Miss Marple Detective Agency.

Illustration by boymeetshero.com. Copyright 2011 Billion Wicked Thoughts.