Q&A: The Researchers Who Analyzed All the Porn on the Internet

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Searching all the porn on the Internet might not seem like the most scientifically productive activity, but computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam did it anyway.

For their new book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire, Ogas and Gaddam analyzed the results of 400 million online searches for porn and uncovered some startling insights into what men and women may really want from each other — at least sexually. I spoke recently with Ogas.

Why did you decide to analyze online porn searches?

I’m a computational neuroscientist. I view the mind as software. Most computational neuroscientists study higher functions like memory, language and vision. We wanted to apply the same techniques to a lower part of the brain, the sexual part.

So is “Rule 34″ true — that if you can imagine it, there’s porn of it?

When we first started, Rule 34 was almost a guiding idea. The Internet has every kind of imaginable porn; searches are going to reflect immense diversity. We quickly realized that [the data] didn’t really support that.

Even though you can find an instance of any kind of porn you can imagine, people search for and spend money and time on 20 sexual interests, which account for 80% of all porn. The top five are youth, gays, [sexy mothers], breasts and cheating wives.

(More on TIME.com: Hooked on Addiction: From Food to Drugs to Internet Porn)

Why are cheating wives so popular? You’d expect that would not be something men would like to think about.

It’s one of the top interests all around the world. Men are wired to be sexually jealous. And, certainly, men can fly into murderous rages, but simultaneously they’re also sexually aroused.

This is an example of what biologists call a sperm competition cue. Across the animal kingdom, when males see other males mating, it tends to provoke arousal. If he is going to compete with the other male, he has to produce more sperm

Human men also respond like this, if a man sees a woman — including his partner — with another man, he becomes more aroused.

(More on TIME.com: Mind Reading: Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman on the Good Life)

There’s been a lot of concern that porn is getting more violent and more misogynistic and that the Internet is making it harder for women because porn makes men want more extreme sex. What does your research show?

It’s not at all more violent or misogynistic. We really looked at all porn searches. Truly violent pornography is extremely rare. It truly is rare and the kind of people who watch it are a clearly identifiable group.

So why do we keep hearing that it’s getting worse and worse?

I wouldn’t say there’s a trend. It’s been pretty consistent. There’s lots of male dominant porn. He blackmails the woman into having sex; the professor seduces a student, they’re having sex to get cash for schoolbooks. We think all of these are creative variations to trigger male-dominance cues [which are sexually arousing to men].

Why do the themes of dominance and submission keep recurring?

Women are often aroused by women being submissive. It’s more complicated for women because of the separation between physical and psychological arousal. Women have very mixed feelings when [it comes to sexual submission]. But rape fantasies are extremely prevalent.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean that women want to be raped, but doesn’t the prevalence of forced sex in porn make men think that they do?

It’s not teaching men to be misogynistic; it doesn’t spill over into social life. It’s really no different from looking at large breasts. But women react to these psychological elements and understandably and accurately see them as a kind of misogyny.

However, we’re talking sex and arousal, not social politics. A rape fantasy doesn’t mean a woman really wants to be raped — it’s just something that turns [her] on [in the bedroom].

(More on TIME.com: Mind Reading: How to Use Quirks of the Mind to Change Behavior)

There are real concerns, though, that Internet porn will increase sex crimes because of the way it portrays things like that.

Anybody can do a simple thought experiment [to refute that]. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, feminists were saying that porn trained guys to be rapists. That was before home video, and there were probably only 100 different porn magazines in the country. You had to go to [sleazy places to watch porn]. Now there are a million websites where you can get it for free around the clock.

You would expect rape to skyrocket. There are more guys watching more porn more often. But, in fact, rape has gone down in America. Also, in Japan in the mid-’90s, they loosened their obscenity laws. Now rape is down there too. It certainly seems to be case that more access to porn is associated with less rape. Rather than making people want to go out and rape, it satisfies the urge.

What types of porn are most popular for men?

It’s youth by a wide margin, like cheerleaders. But we were surprised to find that even though men prefer youth mostly, there’s also a very significant interest in porn with women in their 40s, 50s and even 60s. That’s called granny porn.

(More on TIME.com: Mind Reading: Using Peer Pressure to Change the World)

That’s fabulous for older women who seem to have been written off by evolutionary psychology. Seriously, though, the interest appears to be completely counter to evolutionary predictions that overt signs of fertility are crucial.

Yes, we found something that overturns narrow evolutionary psychology predictions. Some of our findings require other explanations than evolutionary ones.

What do women prefer?

Women prefer stories to visual porn by a long shot. The most popular erotica for women is the romance novel. That has more punch than any other kind of erotica. The second most popular would be fan fiction. This is something that has really exploded on the Internet. These are stories written by amateurs, mostly women, about characters from pop culture, movies, books, etc.

Is this the kind of thing in which Kirk and Spock from Star Trek would have an affair?

Yes, that’s called slash. Stories about two male characters are very popular. But the most popular fan fiction is about Harry Potter by a wide margin, followed by Twilight.

Why do women prefer stories and men prefer visuals?

There are two reasons. Both come down to fundamental differences between the male sexual brain and the female sexual brain. One of the most basic differences is that the male brain responds to any single sexual stimulus. A nice chest, two girls kissing, older women — if that’s what they’re attracted to. Any one thing will trigger arousal in a male.

(More on TIME.com: The Secrets to Long Life: Worry, Work Hard and Marry Well (If You’re a Man))

Female desire requires multiple stimuli simultaneously or in quick succession. It takes more stimuli and more variety of these stimuli to trigger genuine arousal.

For a guy, the most common form of [masturbation material] is a 60-second porn clip. For a woman, it can be a 250-page novel or a 2,000-word story. That’s the way to get multiple stimuli. Stories have greater flexibility to offer a greater variety of stimuli.

In male erotica, sex appears in the first one-quarter of the story [or film]. For women, it’s halfway in. There’s more time to develop the character before sex.

How else does male and female sexuality differ?

Another fundamental difference between men and women — perhaps the most important defining difference — is that in the male brain, physical and psychological arousal are united. If a man is physically turned on, he’s mentally turned on too.

(More on TIME.com: Mind Reading: How Our Brains Predispose Us to Believe in God)

With women, physical arousal and mental arousal are separate. [Research finds that women get physically aroused sometimes even when they find the situation disgusting.] The female brain is designed to be cautious, most likely because historically the woman who slept with the first guy she met might have a harder time raising children; he might not stick around. Women are designed to be cautious and gather more information.

That’s why fan fiction is all about exploring the emotions and character of the hero. In romance novels, the heroine learns about the secret inner life of the hero. That’s especially true in slash: that’s doubling up. There are two men — two masculine, strong alpha males who reveal their tender side. The emotional process of revealing true character is what’s so appealing to women.

Why would straight men want to watch lesbians, and why would women write stories about gay men?

[Straight] guys are turn on by lesbians because it’s a doubling of visual cues. And one psychological cue for arousal in men is female sexual pleasure. Seeing lesbians kissing doubles that too.

For women in slash fiction, it’s the psychological cues of a man’s character, stature, passion and emotional communication — slash doubles those.

(More on TIME.com: Mind Reading: How the New Science of Adult Attachment Can Improve Your Love Life

What’s up with men’s interest in mothers?

It’s not so much that they’re moms, but that they’re older women. They are usually portrayed as aggressive and seductive. They are not timid. They’re quite confident and bold. Men who like that like the idea of an innocent younger man being seduced or taught by an older woman.

Did you find evidence that porn is addictive?

We looked at individual search histories for half a million people using an AOL data set [which does not identify the users]. It seems to be less than 2% of people, among the people who search for porn, who have a significantly elevated number of searches.

And there’s a [shared] characteristic among these searchers: they search for a really wide variety of porn, which is atypical. Usually, people search for the same things over and over. But these people who search for notably more porn tend to search for [many different things].

Two things tend to show up in these searches, oddly: bestiality and granny porn. There’s clearly something different about that group. Having said that, there isn’t overwhelming evidence that porn addiction exists. Probably the best way to define whether it’s a problem is if you want to stop and you can’t.

22 comments
MaryDillon
MaryDillon

Men who regularly masturbate to porn are far and away worse lovers than men who don't.  Here is CS Lewis on Porn:

"For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another, and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself…. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.

The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce, art. But it has also a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions etc. which ought to be sought outside in the real world—e.g. picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of earning and saving. Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic matters and thereby encourages a similar abuse of it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison."

pondering
pondering

Would a man want to see amateur videos of his wife with another man, if it was made prior to getting together? It could spark the arousal of the sexuality of his wife and the competition of another as mentioned in the article. I think that could be a test of the theories. I find it hard to reconcile porn based on being married (and lovingly so) or having kids as with milfs to being such a highly chosen premise for sex. Would cheating wives tend to have highly aroused or sexually satisfied husbands? If so should we re-think all the marriage premises?

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

It is truly amazing how some women whom are both Stupid and have some 'faith based morality' will ignore any evidence that conflicts with their narrow minded beliefs which revolve around a poorly written book full of fables and 11 shades of crazy... The idea that Men and Sex is far different from Women and Sex is far too complex to compute for your poor brains that got scrambled by the insanity of religion.

You women will take an article here and deny its reality as some sick story without truth because you are unable to use evidence that contradicts your assumptions about reality to CHANGE your beliefs... You are the type that despite 200 years of biology your wee little minds think species wink into existence with a puff of smoke rather than even consider how stupid that is and the thousands of pounds of papers reflecting that Evolution is True.

The difference between you scumbags and a woman with a mind that works is that people with minds 'admit they might be wrong' and take the data to create new understanding... You ignore it because data like this reflects a reality you wish was not true and thus you deny it.

doyle.cla
doyle.cla

As much as I'd like to believe that pornography is a rather innocuous phenomenon, I find the "impressions" of these two researchers a bit overly rosy.  My take on pornography & other forms of prostitution are that porn & prostitution are to sexual intimacy as Refined white sugar is to food. Each of us has to decide how nourished we're going to be.

keepjapanalive
keepjapanalive

Go to Anti-pornography.org. They have real information from real ex-porn stars. Why listen to this garbage when these people don't have any background in the porn industry! When you've done it for awhile, you get enough experience to report on it. These people are probably paid off by the porn industry. Maybe not, but it sure sounds like it. If they paid you money to report on this, well, something is missing -- like the real facts. Just go to antipornography. org. Real ex-porn stars run that site.

keepjapanalive
keepjapanalive

Were the researchers paid off by the porn industry to conduct this or what??

CharisseSchaefer
CharisseSchaefer

This was a terrible attempt at a predetermined/naturally bias study!!!!!! To have been supported by the Time Magazine Co. is truly disgusting. Our Nation needs to eliminate pornography, maybe the government could take some of the funds of those companies, just the way they do with cigirett taxes! Now that would be a healthy way the Nation could take some money!!!!!!

Mondschein7
Mondschein7

I'm sorry I wasted my time reading this crap, but I'm even more sorry that somebody's money went to finance this "study"

grousefeather
grousefeather

Based of the results of this study the premise of the authors seems to be that ALL men are much different then ALL women when it comes to what stimulates them sexually. 

DesmondLuna
DesmondLuna

Now that was a well-written article about how two computational neuroscientists (Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam) came to distill the human interest in porn into several distinct "areas of interest". It would be good to know in general HOW they went about setting the criteria, gathering & sorting data ("this setting belongs here, this interaction belongs there..."), arrivinng at conclusions. Liike: was it correct to conclude that majority of women like some form of slash fiction because there's a lot of it on the Web? Or could it be that there just happened to be so much slash fiction (or granny porn, or cheerleaders) on the 'Net, that they reached their conclusion as it was - just like the guy in NYC who said he's wearing a red bandanna to keep elephants away, and to his friends' astonished remarks that there are no elephants on the streets of NYC, he replied "See? It works!"  I'm also curious: did their co-worker scientists not wonder what all those images were doing on their lab screens? 

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@doyle.cla 

How is it not rosy? ... The more access to porn the fewer women that end up raped.

As for content the act of cleaning out the pipes is like any other function of the body in that just like pooping it has to be done and is not thus 'dirty'.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@CharisseSchaefer 

You take the access to porn and more women will be raped... Men need to 'get off' once in awhile just like you need to poop once in awhile should that be once a week or once a day... 

You dont see how it really works do you when facts show your beliefs are wrong do you? You just ignore them like a sheep.

Relationships are INDEED more rewarding but this has nothing to do with how people interact socially and has everything to do with the ancient reptilian part of the brain that wants action and wants it now. I know women like you with 'stupid factor' dont understand how the male urge to mate is tied up within our evolutionary desire to procreate... Of course women like you infected with 'stupid factor' insists reality is really best explained using a dusty old book full of fables you insist is reality despite the evidence collected from 200 years of biology and science collected by minds better than yours showing us that your religion is one gigantic lie.

Of course I admit there could be a God but with 101 religions out there what kind of moron would claim what such an alien God would be like? There really could be a God via a remote chance but the idea of an Afterlife is so stupid that the only reason many believe it is they wish it were true.

I could be wrong about reality but the difference between us is that my reality is based upon the evidence around me and thus could change... Your reality is based upon ignoring anything that conflicts with your 'beliefs' and could never admit they could be wrong... 

Think about how closed minded you are in your beliefs if your brain could manage such a complex task would you?

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@CharisseSchaefer 

An idiot like yourself whom is unable to spell 'cigarette' (even with a spell checker you just like showing off the stupid eh?) is the kind of person that displays such magnitudes of stupid they aught not to be entitled to an opinion. Who needs data anyway when you have faith in a bible full of fantasy skewing reality anyway?

CharisseSchaefer
CharisseSchaefer

Be a decent person, and find a special someone. A real wife/husband, girlfiend/boyfriend, friend and practice in the real world, with REAL people! No better study than that!!!

yque
yque

@DesmondLuna What happened was they got caught looking at porn at work and when confronted about it they came up with this "study". If they really think that it isn't addictive then they need to go to a sexual compulsive addiction recovery program b/c they will find a ton of people there that are literally addicted to porn. I know this b/c I am a sexual compulsive. Plus- people addicted to porn do not use search engines because they already have their favorite websites that they frequent. 

MaryDillon
MaryDillon

@Hadrewsky @CharisseSchaefer Please check out, www.yourbrainonporn.org   There are things about porn that you ought to be made aware of.  It can damage your brain and ruin your chances of truly bonding in love with a real woman.

yque
yque

@DesmondLuna Oh- and another thing: my sexual compulsion has its roots deep in porn. I was first exposed to porn when I was 6 years old. As a teenager I spent about 3 hours every day looking at porn. I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Schaefer when she says that we need to get rid of porn. It is unhealthy to society and breaks up marriages either due to the porn itself or to adultery. I have met many divorced men that can point to porn as the pathway that led to infidelity. The attitude of these researchers that is inferred by this article is sickening: porn leads to less rape- no negative effects noted. Again- this is what the article attempts to imply- for all I know a lot of the negative effects that they did find were left out of the article. 

Porn = short term pleasure and long term misery - period.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@yque @DesmondLuna 

Meh

you just happen to have been born a little soft headed somewhere in your mind.. 9 of 10 men like myself will use porn when they 'need to get off' the same way you find that sometimes you need to poop...just another bodily function and the data despite your beliefs shows us that in REALITY (as opposed to what you wish it was) porn is not very addictive and there are many things more fun to get addicted to.

Personally i think you are an act made up like these other idiot women whom see data that conflicts with their beliefs thus denying it is true. Beliefs should reflect the data but you and your sheep friends insist upon only accepting something if they AGREE with it regardless of morality.

I admit porn addiction happens but so does addiction to sniffing glue... The people whom fall into such pathetic traps were born a wee bit defective.

Bill334
Bill334

@yque @DesmondLuna 

 Like cigarettes, pot, women buying shoes and clothes, expensive cars and houses you can't really afford,  blah, blah, blah.   You're blaming the medium rather the psychological rationale for addition and replacement theory.   What's next, guns kill people?  You're operating on a strictly superficial level of thought not remotely connected to the reasons for human behavior.  Bug off, you f'n knowitalls and  leave my porn, cars, house, clothes and drugs alone..