NEUROSCIENTISTS SAI Gaddam and Ogi Ogas have been called revolutionaries. For their groundbreaking book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, the duo studied the online sexual behaviour data of more than a 100 million people across the world, analysing a billion web searches, millions of personal ads, tens of thousands of digitised romance novels, and a million websites, erotic videos and erotic stories each. It is one of the only systematic studies of human sexuality since Dr Alfred Kinsey investigated 18,000 white middle-class subjects in the 1950s. Give two neuroscientists masses of anonymous data and you will get to know, for instance, why gay men have bigger penises than straight men or why men fantasise about cheating wives. Sai Gaddam, 30, spoke to Yamini Deenadayalan about why their discoveries about our sexuality have been so unsettling, politically incorrect and downright baffling to many readers.
Edited Excerpts From The Interview
On Google Trends, sex-related searches and ‘how to’ questions on sex have the highest hits in India, Pakistan and the Arab countries. Why?
They indicate sexual naivety. Conservative cultural mores leave our youth without much sexual education. Our censor board members and mothers accompanying daughters to the theatre still want us to look away when the onscreen couple locks lips. No wonder we turn to the Internet to slake our curiosity with basic, instructional searches. It’ll be a welcome step forward when that most popular search evolves into “How to kiss *well*”.
Which findings surprised you the most?
That male and female sexual brains are so utterly different. And straight male and gay male sexual desires are so parallel. Our erotica underscores the very interesting and fundamental principle that physical arousal and psychological arousal are united in men and separate in women. To appeal to a man, whether straight or gay, it’s enough to entice his body with visual images. To appeal to a woman, you have to speak to her mind and seek approval from it.
Why is ‘Cheating Wives’ such an unexpectedly popular erotica category? Why are men turned on by watching their partners with another man?
‘Cheating wives’ consists of wives and girlfriends having sex with other men. This erotica taps into one of the cues unique to the male brain — the sperm competition cue — which is a stimulus consisting of another male mating with a female. It’s called this since it generally triggers the male to produce more sperm to outcompete the competing male. But in human men, this sperm competition cue has generated a remarkable variety of online porn. With culture-specific interests, like the Indian interest in belly buttons or the Japanese interest in a narrow strip of exposed skin under a skirt (Zettai Ryouiki), an explanation invoking social learning is reasonable.
Why is porn involving older women so popular?
More than a quarter of all men report that their first sexual fantasy was triggered by a sexy older person, and MILF porn features aggressive older women who seduce young men. There’s a popular notion that older women (colloquially called ‘cougars’) are more aggressive at pursuing sex than younger ones. Our very own homebrew erotica Savita Bhabhi details the adventures of the lusty, buxom housewife Savita, who seduces salesmen, milkmen, neighbourhood youth and others while her husband is away at work.
MILF is a fantasy genre where the woman takes up the onerous work of seducing a partner. In the real world, men do the chasing — and population genetics studies suggest that a vast majority fail — and women do the choosing. This role reversal appeals to submissive sexual cues in the male brain.
You discuss how people don’t actually want to experience their fantasies — rape, for example, which is all over porn. Does increased access to porn co-relate to fewer rapes? Do steps like the relaxation of obscenity laws in Japan help?
While correlation doesn’t imply causation, an increase in the availability of porn and erotica has been accompanied by a decrease in rapes (even after controlling for potential confounds like alcohol consumption, poverty and unemployment rates). This is probably due to the availability of alternatives for sexual release, and not because exactly parallel sexual fantasies proliferate online. Gaming enthusiasts who like first-person shooter games don’t yearn for bloodbaths in their offices, nor do they not want their neighbourhoods to turn into post-apocalyptic battle zones. Sexual fantasies, like their non-sexual counterparts, allow for the safe and creative indulgence of our imagination and basic sexual tastes.
Do you think evolutionary patterns are changing? For instance, you discuss how women globally have bigger breasts than ever before. Since this isn’t limited to one country, it can’t be related to nutrition.
Anthropologist Greg Cochran and biologist Henry Harpending have argued in their book, The 10,000 Year Explosion, that human evolution has actually accelerated since the advent of agriculture and social life. Perhaps — I must add qualifiers as a neuroscientist with limited knowledge of the latest in evolutionary science — the lower threshold for survival in modern societies will mean that sexual selection will dominate other evolutionarily selective mechanisms (and the global increase in breast sizes might suggest so). What this means is that we choose attractive suitors over competent and dependable ones, and this will result in a world populated by those who are more like John Abraham and Katrina Kaif and less like Narayan Murthy and (I’ll use a fictional character here) Jassi Walia from the Indian version of Ugly Betty. For a more amusingly dystopian, non-scientific prognostication, I suggest Mike Judge’s under-appreciated satire Idiocracy, which imagines a future population resulting from such rampant sexual selection.
‘An increase in porn availability has been accompanied by a decrease in rapes (even after controlling for alcohol, poverty and unemployment)’
You find gay men’s sexual desire more similar to that of straight men than women; gay men have a larger average penis size than straight men; bisexual women or women with higher testosterone levels are more socially dominant and exhibit ‘male pattern’ sexual desire. How do you explain all this?
Human sexual diversity is actually the result of the significant divergence of the sexual software of men’s and women’s brains. As men and women evolved to become more and more different in their sexual cognition and desires, the neural circuits supporting these differences diverged, meaning that there are more prenatal opportunities for these circuits to get swapped. Homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, and just about everything else seem to be different combinations of male and female sexual software getting transposed.
Regarding homosexuality, the fact that gay men have larger penises (along with a variety of other data) suggests that prenatal steroid hormones play a significant role. The very divergence of male and female sexuality appears to have resulted in the remarkable and glorious diversity of human sexuality, more varied and sophisticated than in any other species.
You say that ‘paranormal characters are like cream cheese sushi for the woman’s brain.’ Why are erotic illusions so popular, such as transsexual porn for straight men and vampires for women?
Computational neuroscientists have figured out how many optical illusions trick our brains. By combining multiple visual cues in ways that are not encountered in our natural environments, we can trick our brains into perceiving a whole that is greater than the sum of its components. Consider autostereograms that combine two slightly different images seen individually from each eye to convincingly suggest depth, or traditional motion pictures that combine a rapid sequence of still images to offer the illusion of motion.
It turns out that our brains are also tricked by erotic illusions. By combining (or distorting) multiple sexual cues into novel patterns, it’s possible to evoke bewilderingly intense sexual arousal. Transsexual porn appeals to straight men by juxtaposing anatomical cues of femininity with the visual cues of a penis. A genre of anime porn called Futanari reveals what app eals to straight men about shemales. Futanari cha racters are drawn with hyperfeminine bodies, typically very young, with large round breasts and hourglass figures, large eyes with long eyelashes and beautiful faces. They also possess giant horse-sized penises.
Similarly, vampires, who are now the rage in romance novels and other female erotica, combine several female sexual “superstimuli” into one erotic concoction. The vampire Edward Cullen from the enormously popular Twilight series is ultra-alpha and features the sexy body of a youth governed by the experienced, confident mind of a century-old man. He endlessly desires Bella for her blood — but forever demonstrates the reality of his love by never giving in. He uses his supernatural strength and speed to protect his beloved from all manner of danger. He is the sexual version of an Oreo cheesecake.
Why is research on sex so difficult? How did you acquire all this data, especially the gender-specific Internet search data?
Emotion and morality are intimately woven into our thinking about sex, making it a difficult subject to study dispassionately — and for people to discuss honestly. Previous sex research has relied on surveys of small pools of subjects, asking them to respond truthfully about their most intimate and secret desires. As you can imagine, this has limitations.
Now for the first time in human history, we are leaving behind fossils of our behaviour with our digital footprints, our searches and click streams. As hundreds of millions of people use the Internet to express their desires and seek out fantasies, they offer an unprecedented, raw, and unfiltered glimpse into these desires. Most of the data we analysed was harvested from public sources and some datasets were shared with us by private companies. All our data is anonymous: we neither requested nor received identifying information about individuals. The publicly available data — a billion web searches, content from the million most frequented websites in the world, millions of erotic videos, erotic stories, and online personals — were obtained using a data mining technique called ‘scraping’. We used automated bots to trawl these sites and snag all publicly available data — in much the same way that Google bots trawl the Internet and index content to make it searchable.
As this data is anonymous, the gender of the user is not included but imputed from other sources like credit card purchases (according to CCBill, the largest billing company of the adult industry, about 1 out of 50 porn site subscriptions are purchased with a woman’s name — rare enough that they flagged such purchases as potential fraud, since they were often followed by an angry mother or wife demanding a refund), analytics, and data collected by the adult site owners themselves. Analytics services like Quantcast and Alexa provide aggregate demographic information about website visitors, indicating the relative popularity of erotica genres among men and women. Additionally, we used search histories — a collection of all searches made by an individual over a time period — to gauge gender from the individual’s non-erotic searches and websites subsequently visited after the search.
Your book details every aspect of sex from an evolutionary point of view — women look for alpha male providers, men try to spread their seed in the youngest women available, why ‘cheating wives’ porn is such a hit among men, etc. One might argue, for instance, that homosexuals are selected against. Isn’t it depressing to look at sex this way?
Not at all. It’s only depressing if these are compulsions and not desires. Just like our basic tastes don’t limit us to a finite palette of foods or make us gorge desserts and gulp sweetened colas all the time, our sexual tastes don’t constrain or compel us. It’s by treating desires as mysterious forces that we enable them to hold us captive. We are all here because thousands of generations of our ancestors managed to find harmony between emotion and reason, the subconscious and the conscious, to use our formidable intellect, creativity, and imagination to harness basic desires and impulses, to fashion extraordinary artifacts from them, and indulge in them healthily.
[As for] the statistical arguments we make about men and women, straight and gay — as we stress, while we share these basic, universal sexual tastes, each one of us is also a wholly unique combination of desires and the experiences that exists nowhere else. There is a lot of intricacy and individuality within the broad brush strokes we make. (Note: The evolutionary perspective on homosexuality is not completely hashed out yet. There are theories like kin selection that suggest gay people can still spread their genes in indirect ways.)
Your colleagues dissuaded you from studying sexual desire. What’s the most outlandish criticism you’ve received?
Our research underscores what should be obvious but is ignored in the haze of morality and deliberate ignorance. Our desires are rooted in the brain, and we can and must understand their neural underpinnings. Most of the criticism is from readers who are responding passionately to rumours and allegations on the Internet, and characterisations of our work in media, which are often rushed and broad. The more nuanced picture is in our book, but seeking out information contradicting our cherished convictions, even if un substantiated, is not something we are good at. And such convictions abound when it comes to sexuality. I’ve been accused of white-male privilege, which, if true, would be a clinching example of cultural messages overriding my genetic heritage.
Yamini Deenadayalan is a Features Correspondent with Tehelka.