When author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz sought to find out more about human sexuality, he went to an unlikely place: porn sites. Unlike typical researchers, who rely on questionnaires to gather data, Stephens-Davidowitz thought he could get closer to the truth by evaluating online behavior. This is because, as he noticed, and we can all probably attest to, “people lie on sensitive topics such as sex.”So, he went right to the source, petitioning Pornhub (apparently this is a popular website, never heard of it myself, of course) for their user data, a request to which they complied. While some of the most celebrated sociologists in the world simply “had no interest” in such information, Mr. Stephens-Davidowitz mined the data for some unlikely, and yet unsurprising, insights.
While all this can all be found in his book, Everybody Lies, in which he takes on many more social questions using Google search data to reveal what we keep hidden from each other, he also recently sat down for an interview with Vox’s Seth Illing. The two discuss some of the more raunchy tidbits from from Stephens-Davidowitz account while keeping in mind that, no matter how much eyebrow-raising we do at the desires of others, “all of humanity,” and that includes you, “is united in its weirdness.”
At this point I’m sure you’re starving for some juicy tidbits, so here’s some of the best takeaways from the exchange:
- We Are All Disgusted By Each Other- “Probably thirty percent of people,” Stephens-Davidowitz tells Mr. Illing, “exclusively watch stuff that you would find disgusting.” The keyword here is exclusively; it’s not just that some of the things we do online would gross others out, its that for some people, everything we do online would gross them out.
- We’re Worried About the Wrong Things- “Women are eight times more likely to ask if their husband is gay than if he is an alcoholic and ten times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is depressed,” according to Stephens-Davidowitz. The problem here? “It is far more likely that a woman is married to a man who is secretly an alcoholic or secretly depressed than secretly gay.”
- We Align Our Desires With Societal Expectations- Comparing porn searches to dating site profiles, Stephens-Davidowitz finds that what we find attractive in our fantasies, and what we will actively pursue in reality, are often far apart. For example, “one in 100 porn searches” are for videos featuring elderly participants. Meanwhile, many fewer than one in 100 relationships involves younger men with elderly women. Similarly, porn featuring overweight women is “surprisingly common” among men, yet data from dating sites shows that “about all men try to date skinny women.” If we define being in the closet as “picking partners based on what society wants rather than what you want,” Stephens-Davidowitz makes clear, “many people are in the closet.”
- There Is a Taste For Everything- “There are women who just watch porn featuring short, fat men with small penises,” as well as men prefer porn with “women with enormous nipples.” If it exists, apparently, there is someone thinks its sexy; our explicit cultural values are not as widespread as they often seem.
- Fetishes Can Be Nationalistic- “In India,” Stephens-Davidowitz reveals, “Google searches looking for breastfeeding advice are about equally split between how to breastfeed a baby and how to breastfeed a husband”; porn featuring breastfeeding is more popular their than anywhere else. Japanese men, meanwhile, have become “obsessed with tickling porn,” accounting for more than ten percent of their Pornhub searches.
- Coastal Liberals Aren’t Any Gayer Than The Rest- While men in the South routinely respond questionnaires as being less frequently gay than the rest of the nation, Stephens-Davidowitz found that “gay porn searches are about the same everywhere.”
Takeaway: It’s time to let your freak flag fly. It’s not just that we, as content creators, can feel free to produce work which caters to tastes which are socially discouraged, but also that we, as consumers of content, are likely freaks as well. This isn’t because we’ve been driven to fetishes by a sterile mass culture which fails to elicit any affective responses, but simply a result of the fact that the unanimity of opinion which appears to constitute social values–and our sense of which becomes increasingly heightened through the multiplication of avenues for, and rapidity of, telecommunications–is nonexistent. The “mainstream” is merely of an elaborate act put on by each of us as we conform in public, only to later venture outwards in the privacy of our Google search bars. The only thing we are wholly united in is, as Stephens-Davidowitz attests, our “weirdness.” So go out there and be weird, you’re not alone.