The pop psych book that attempts to deduce our true desires by analyzing millions of search-engine queries is riddled with flawed reasoning and all-too-convenient conclusions.
211,000 Facebook users can’t be wrong: men like women’s asses.
That, anyway, seems like the logical conclusion to draw from the “Pippa Middleton Ass Appreciation Society” that recently appeared on Facebook. Surely so many guys wouldn’t—ahem—get behind Miss Middleton, sister of the recent royal bride, if they didn’t have a biological urge to look at women’s asses. And let’s not stop there: we can also deduce that women must be biologically predisposed to like men ogling their asses. Why else would Miss Middleton wear such a form-fitting dress in the first place?
That might sound like a stretch, but it’s essentially one of the arguments presented in the new book A Billion Wicked Thoughts by Sai Gaddam and Ogi Ogas (Dutton, $26.95), the latest, tiresome addition to the field of “adaptationist sexology,” or, more broadly, evolutionary psychology. Don’t be fooled by the fancy names: I can guarantee you’ve come across one or both before. You know those magazine articles that claim men are “wired” to cheat, while women are “wired” to be monogamous? Bingo.
The logic behind such studies goes like this: when humans “were evolving” a few thousand millennia ago, natural selection favoured some behaviors over others, which we should still be able to observe in modern humans. For instance, Gaddam and Ogas say, cavewomen who carefully chose who they had sex with were most likely to find reliable “husbands” and hence pass down their genes. Because of that evolutionary heritage, women today are still harder to get into bed than men.
And yes, a reliable husband can make having a child easier if you’re a pregnant woman in 2011, living in a big city far from your family and lacking any other sources of support. But critics have pointed out that if you were a woman living in a small hunter-gatherer society 70,000 years ago, where you always had relatives nearby and where food got shared among the community anyway, there’d be very little benefit to having a monogamous partner. Actually, it might have been better to have sex with lots of men, so that more would be willing to help.
Both scenarios, of course—the monogamous women and the polyamorous ones—are little more than educated guesses, based on assumptions about “what would have been best” in prehistoric circumstances of which we have no direct knowledge. But like many evolutionary psychologists Gaddam and Ogas nonetheless pronounce their guesses with an irritating certainty: men’s brains and women’s brains, they say, run fundamentally different kinds of “desire software.”
Men, in this theory, are “Elmer Fudds”: simple-minded horndogs who will “fire at” (read: try to have sex with) any “wabbit” (read: attractive woman) they come across. Women, meanwhile, are “Miss Marples”: sophisticated detectives who will scrutinize every aspect of a man’s suitability as a father before finally announcing whodunit (read: who they will have children with).
That basic theory, you’ll notice, explains only heterosexual desire, in its antiquated, sexist way, but homosexuals appear in the book, too, as extra proof of the different male and female softwares. Gay men, say the authors, come installed with some male programs and some female ones, the implication—heck, the explicit argument—being that gay men are part female and hence, in some sense, not “normal” men. Gay women, meanwhile, are mentioned mostly when it’s convenient, and otherwise not at all. (They must not buy a lot of software.)
In a lot of ways—and this is a common criticism of evolutionary psychology—A Billion Wicked Thoughts is using science to try to justify cultural stereotypes: men are horny, women are emotional, gays are weird, etc., because our genes make us this way. (These arguments, tellingly, are often made by straight, single men.)
As I pointed out earlier, this kind of thinking only works if you imagine our ancestors in extremely similar social arrangements to the ones that exist in 20th century America. But I find A Billion Wicked Thoughts more problematic for the same reason Pippa Middleton’s Facebook fans can’t tell us much about what men and women want: much of Gaddam and Ogas’ evidence comes from an unreliable sample of internet users who use search engines to find porn.
This is a valuable source of data, say the authors, because the internet is anonymous, and when given anonymity people are more likely to go after what they really want—so porn searches must provide an unusually honest glimpse into what turns people on. That’s fair enough, up to a point.
But it’s also worth remembering that, technically, it’s only an honest glimpse into what turns on internet porn users who use search engines. Obviously these searches won’t reflect the desires of the 70 percent of the world who don’t have internet access, and even among the 30 percent who do, this study self-defeatingly selects for porn users’ desires; if you’re not turned on by web porn you won’t necessarily search for “a date with my wife” instead—and even if you do, Gaddam and Ogas’ methodology excludes non-sexual turn-ons from the results. (They try to compensate for that bias by looking at romance novels and female fan fiction, but this only creates further problems: of course women appear to value emotion more than men when you compare male porn users to female romance readers.)
Despite all that, however, Gaddam and Ogas still claim that their data can teach us about basic human desire, because its two million subjects represent people from all over the world. Never mind that two thirds of them still come from within the United States. (Would you accept the results of a presidential election where Texas accounted for two thirds of the total vote?) Never mind that the people with internet access still represent a fairly homogenous slice of the population. No, these two million porn searchers, most of them from the U.S., are a stand-in for all humanity.
Well, sorry, but I don’t buy it. Partly, I’ll admit, it’s because I find distasteful the suggestion that all men are simple-minded, sex-obsessed assholes, and only women are capable of complex, emotional thought. Partly it’s because I’m suspicious of any research with this many logical leaps that also coincidentally supports hundreds of years of Western cultural stereotypes.
But mostly it’s because, as Gaddam and Ogas admit, there are “endless variations of sexual identity that defy easy labeling.” That being the case, I don’t see the benefit of applying labels like “Elmer Fudd” and “Miss Marple,” that are restrictive, subjective, and insulting. If we tell ourselves that all men are idiotic sex-hogs—“designed to objectify women,” as Gaddam and Ogas put it—and that women have biologically different, more emotional desires, there’s no incentive to find common ground.
But if we acknowledge that sexual desire is contingent on many factors, several of them under our control, and that all humans can feel complex psychological desires at the same time that they feel intense physical ones, we can work towards a world where everyone’s a little happier. That doesn’t mean people can’t keep ogling Pippa Middleton’s behind if they want to. But it does mean they’re capable of a whole lot more.
More from Sex Week at the Good Men Project:
Amanda Marcotte: What Women Don’t Tell You
Ed Fell: 10 Secrets to Satisfying Sex
Charles Allen: Why I Hate My Giant Dong
Emily Heist Moss: Does Size Matter?
John DeVore: Multiple Inches of Love
Joshua Matacotta: Do Gay Men Fear Intimacy?
Hugo Schwyzer: Mythbusting Bisexual Men