21st Century Sex

Forget the Kinsey Report. A new study exposes the true nature of human desire.

| September-October 2011


Linda Zacks / www.lindazacks.com

What does desire truly look like? Science hasn’t come up with an answer, because most of us won’t let curious researchers watch us tumbling between the sheets, and surveys aren’t necessarily reliable. Are you willing to jot down answers to questions like “Have you ever felt attracted to your pet schnauzer?”—even if the unshaven young grad student quizzing you insists, “Trust me—your answers are completely anonymous”?

Only one scientist managed to survey a large number of people on a broad range of sexual interests: Alfred Kinsey. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Kinsey and his team interviewed thousands of subjects, asking questions about a tremendous variety of turn-ons, including bondage, bestiality, and silk stockings. But the Kinsey reports are now more than a half century old, and the findings were limited: The subjects were primarily educated, middle-class Caucasians; they were not selected randomly or systematically; and the data consisted of only recollections the subjects chose to share.

Today, a wide variety of scientists—neuroscientists, psych­ologists, anthropologists, biologists, pharmacologists—study desire, and one of their most basic questions remains: Why do we like the things we like? To answer that, we must first determine what people like, and stealing a look at men and women’s true interests has been far from easy.

Until the arrival of the Internet.

In 1991, the year the World Wide Web went online, there were fewer than 90 different adult magazines published in America. Just six years later, there were about 900 pornography sites on the web. Today, there are 2.5 million adult websites. It’s hard to imagine a more revolutionary development in the history of human sexuality. With a visit to an adult video site like PornHub, you can see more naked bodies in a single minute than the most promiscuous Victorian would have seen in an entire lifetime.

By examining raw search data, we can finally view an unfiltered snapshot of human desire. Take a look at the following list. Each phrase is an actual search entered into Dogpile (a popular “meta-engine” combining results from sources like Google and Bing) in May 2010: shemales in prom dresses, Twilight slash Edward and Jacob, black meat on white street, wives caught cheating on cam, best romance novels with alpha heroes, kendra wilkinson sex tape, spanking stories, free gay video tube, Jake Gyllenhaal without shirt, girls gone wild orgies. What immediately jumps out is the remarkable diversity of people’s sexual interests.

9/24/2011 11:02:11 PM

Interesting read. Some of this surprised me. I definitely agree that women need constant change to stay interested. Disappointed that there are 5 pages about what men are interested in and a paragraph about what women want. Sorry but werewolves and vampires really aren't that interesting. Not everyone is obsessed with Twilight.

8/31/2011 8:36:08 AM

And remember, it's not possible to generalize from the populations mentioned to all the rest of us.

8/30/2011 9:02:40 AM

Everyone knows that sex sells, so I guess Utne is resorting to that tactic. There's certainly no other reason to publish the O & S article, which has been soundly critiqued in other comments. It leaves out so much information it's almost laughable. Are they being paid to advertise for the sex sites mentioned?

Jill Davidson
8/29/2011 6:37:28 PM

I, too, am disappointed. "Trannie" and "shemale" are offensive terms because they dehumanize trans people. Surely an editor could choose a non-offensive term (see GLAAD Media Guide). Trans women are not "an erotical illusion". We exist. We are real people, and we are murdered at 10 times the rate of the non-trans population. The murder rate is higher among young trans women of color, many of whom are attracted to the underground economy, including sex work, in order to afford health care. A progressive periodical should be a source of sex-positive information that does not de-humanize society's most vulnerable people. And that's just this article's treatment of trans people. I could go on.

8/19/2011 2:28:32 PM

I'm very disappointed that Utne has chosen to feature this article so prominently, given the history of this "research", which has been widely documented elsewhere on the web. As other commenters have pointed out, this survey was carried out under unethical (and unscientific) conditions -- with little regard or respect for the community it claims to describe. These conclusions do not accurately represent the "research" subjects, their activities, or even their responses to the survey Ogas & Gaddam presented. (Which changed repeatedly, and which was offensive to the supposed subjects in question.) This research on human subjects was carried out without the oversight of an Institutional Review Board, and Boston University disavowed this research & removed Ogas & Gaddam's webpages/email addresses from their servers -- a clear indication that the university does not support these "findings". The conclusions drawn here conflate human & animal sexuality, ignore the sexuality of those who are not heterosexual, and are gender essentialist; I expected better of Utne.

8/18/2011 10:03:51 PM

So Utne has decided that the work of a pair of discredited hacks deserves to be the lead article? I can't say I'm impressed with that decision. These two have been disclaimed by Boston University, and they're known all over the web for their faulty, leading-question style of "research" and for their sexist, gender-essentialist, heterocentric biases. I mean, these are the guys who think human romantic and sexual behaviours can be deduced from rat sexuality--and then get even the rat facts wrong. It's an embarrassment to Utne to give them this space to spout their ill-researched, un-peer-reviewed, massively flawed ideas.

8/18/2011 9:15:59 PM

I agree with sasha above. I am extremely disappointed that Utne would run a 'science' article based on such ill-founded and unethically-derived research. This is clearly an effort by Ogas and Saddam to sell copies of a book they wrote based on terrible evidence, and one which was published only by a popular trade press. It is telling that their 'research' did not stand up to peer review.

8/18/2011 8:32:09 PM

A review by Peter Tupper says most of what I have to say about this book and its terrible excuse for "research": http://thetyee.ca/Books/2011/07/05/SexOnBrains/. I also wonder why the authors did not use an IRB (Institutional Review Board) to conduct this human-subjects research.