Human desire is a complex thing. In A Billion Wicked Thoughts, co-authors Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam follow in Alfred Kinsey’s footsteps and look at our sexual groundwork through more than a billion anonymous online searches, website hits and classified ads. The result is an eye-opening journey through fan fiction, MILFs, and the differences in male and female sexual cues. We talked with Ogas to talk over his findings on sex in the Internet Age.
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I really want a portion of the book's motivation to have been the desire to get paid to look at porn.
[Laughs] Well, it's true that I can use any porn subscriptions that I have for a while as tax write-offs. Unfortunately, the scope of the project required me to also spend time looking at a lot of things that I wouldn't ordinarily seek out on my own.
Was there anything in the data that surprised you?
Oh, yes. The original title of the book was Rule 34—after an Internet meme that basically states, “If it exists, there's porn of it”—because we expected to see this hugely diverse search history. But what we found was actually quite different. We found that the top 20 most common search parameters accounted for 80 percent of the content. We wound up with a list of 500 or so search terms, but really everything after that first 20 is a tiny percentage. We were also surprised by some of the things that were among those top 20 and just how popular some things were that we never expected. Cheating wives, for example, is an immensely popular search term. All across the world, more men are searching for “cheating wives” than for “butts.”
With women, we were very surprised by the popularity of “fan fiction.” Again, it wasn't just an American thing. Rather, all across the world, we were finding extremely popular sites where women were writing and posting these erotic stories about characters from books and TV shows. Stories about men falling in love with men but that focus much more intensely on the emotions, rather than graphic depictions of sex. In fact, just the other day, I read a short news release about some young women in China who were arrested for writing “homosexual stories.” The authorities were afraid that they were writing stories for homosexual men, but I immediately knew that it was fan fiction for women.
When you and Sai [Gaddam] started work on the book, was there a division of labor already in mind?
There were definitely areas for us to best use our strengths. He's much more tech savvy than I, he's a much better programmer. I had more experience as a writer; I'd already been published, while this is his first book. So, he was able to gather and organize the data much faster than I would, while I did most of the writing.
You talk early on in the book about how scientists looking into sex tend to get marginalized within the scientific community. Was that your experience as well?
Absolutely. There is a segment of the scientific community that believes our culture dictates our sexuality, and there's a segment that believes those cues are biological. [Gaddam] and I both have backgrounds in neuroscience, so a number of clinical psychologists expressed doubts about the project because our approach was different from theirs. But even on our own side, other neuroscientists would kind of look down on us like, “Why are you bothering with that?”
Which brings up a question that Kinsey had to deal with as well—what is the point?
Well, the most obvious is just a better understanding of what we like and want. Women and men are designed to like one another, but we're not designed to have the same sexual cues.
But I also see it as a means of getting better information to people in the field. We found that clinical psychologists are dealing with a great deal of information that's either incomplete or just wrong. For example, there's a list clinical psychologists use that details the 20 most common fetishes. Once we started looking at the data, we found it was almost completely wrong. Things that are extremely popular online were left off the list completely, and some of the things that were on the list were things we weren't finding anywhere online.
Finally, it's a way of contextualizing the things we like. We all would like to have better sex. We'd all like to understand our partners better. I think a step toward that is being able to see that many of the things we might initially perceive as rare or troubling are actually quite common.