Critiquing "The Online World of Female Desire," a Wall Street Journal ArticleThat Ain't So Sophisticated

I am going to write about an April 30th article titled, The Online World of Female Desire, in the Wall Street Journal online. Check it HERE. I saw it when a couple friends shared it on Facebook, saying it was interesting or something of that nature. I would like to point out that this was in the Wall Street Journal and that random people in the Midwest were accepting and sharing this information with their friends. This article and articles like it are influential and respected. This is not fringe science. This is the type of "science" that people are regularly exposed to. This is pop science, and that is why I think it's important to critique it.

This article was written by one of the men who wrote a book called A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire, and he is telling the readers what insights they may find in the book. The researchers compiled tons of data from online service providers about who went where on the internet; particularly where women went for erotic thrills and where men went for erotic thrills. Conclusion? Don't be too surprised when I tell you that men went for explicit sexual depictions and women went for character driven romance. This difference among men and women demonstrates, the authors tell us, the differences in the female and the "much simpler" male brain. Apparently, the female brain can be equated to the old timey literary sleuth Miss Marple because it is made to gather clues and make conclusions about which man is Mr. Right and which is Mr. Wrong. This, we learn, is the source of "female intuition," and is "designed to solve a woman's unique challenge of determining whether a man is committed, kind and capable of protecting a family." The author  clearly feels that the data he gathered exemplifies innate brain differences in the way men and women approach their sexual outlet. This author goes on to tell us, "Only if Miss Marple gives her stamp of approval do physical arousal and psychological arousal harmoniously unite in the female brain." In other words, our lady brains won't let us simply seek sexual arousal for sexual arousal sake the way man brains can.

Okay, I will accept the following things:

1. Internet search engines have a sophisticated way to track people and where they go, so I can accept that these researchers do have a massive amount of data about where women and men go on the internet, and it is more accurate than not.
2. More women than men hit up romance stories and more men than women hit up explicit porn sites.

Yeah, and that's it. I'm a little uncomfortable with the scientific credibility of identifying the cause of "women's intuition" largely because "women's intuition" is an idea that has no clear definition. It seems a little silly to assume a cause for something when one doesn't know what exactly that something is or frankly if that thing even exists. I mean people talk about beginner's luck a lot, but does that really exist?

I'm also uncomfortable with the conclusions the researchers have made from the internet history data they have compiled. Yes, the data shows women are by far the largest consumers of Romance Novels and Fan Fiction, just as the article says. However, my problem is what the researchers have concluded from their data, particularly 2 things.

1. The researches make a clear assumption that when women are consuming Romance Stories and Fan Fiction, it must be as part of their sexual outlet process.

Take this excerpt below.

Fan fiction also reveals another fundamental difference between male and female sexuality. Men almost always consume pornography alone. But in the fan-fiction community, the online discussion of a story is as important as the story itself. This reflects one of the primary investigative techniques of Miss Marple: soliciting information from other detectives.

Whereas the typical comments beneath videos on websites for men are mostly brief ("Hot!"), women want to discuss in probing detail the emotional qualities of a story, the authenticity of its characters and the nuances of the relationships. Remarking on a story set in the Harry Potter fandom, one fan observes, "Oh, and, on a side note, would Ron really use the expression, 'hooking up'? It sounded very Muggle, very American and very post-early '90s to me." Another fan comments: "I liked his surges of anger every now and again, made for a more compelling and realistic Harry. I also thought his spat with Ginny was done very appropriately."
Fan Fiction and Romance Novels are a diverse set. They do not always include explicit sex scenes, and the ones that do almost always have way more story than sex. Could it be possible that the researchers are just making a bad assumption here? Could it be that sometimes women partake in Fan Fiction and Romance Novels because it's a story they like to read (that may also include sex) and not because they want to get aroused or get off? It seems to me that a good researcher would first want to establish which types of Fan Fiction and Romance Novels are used for arousal purposes or if these types of writings are used for arousal purposes at all. If this isn't established, then comparing men's use of explicit porn to women's use of these writings is, well, stupid, now isn't it? Bond movies have hot women and sex, but I don't think a sensible person would describe men's consumption of these as comparable to their consumption of explicit porn. Could it be, dear researchers, that the female brain (or what you have lovingly dubbed the Miss Marple Detection Agency), is not soliciting information from other women about whether Harry Potter would be a good provider so as to make some emotional connection that will then turn the key allowing her body to become aroused. Maybe the female brain, in this case, is just enjoying and critiquing a story written within a sort of uniquely female, fanatic, underground community that is the world of Fan Fiction. (p.s. The Fan Fiction community actually had a run in with these researchers during this investigation. Google "surveyfail" to see what Fan Fiction Folk have to say about all this.)

Now, that being said, I'm not denying some women use some Fan Fiction to arouse and get off. I am pointing out, though, that the researchers have not established that they understand there may be different types of these online stories or that there could be a problem with comparing these online stories (that may or may not include descriptions of explicit sex) and explicit porn. Never the less, they saw no problem in making definitive statements about what the use of these items say about the nature of the male and female brain. It seems like sloppy research at best, and to channel my father for a second, their assumptions just may have made and ASS of of U and ME.

Okay, on to the other conclusion I am a bit uncomfortable with...

2. This article makes the clear causal connection that women as a group choosing more often to use written internet erotica (in whatever form it may take) as part of their sexual outlet, and men as a group choosing more often to use explicit photo/video pornography as a part of their sexual outlet, is caused because women's brains are innately different than men's brains.

As I pointed out before, I'm skeptical about whether all the Romance Novels and Fan Fiction visits in the researcher's data are used in arousal or as a sexual outlet of any type, but I would allow that there are types of these that are used in this way (although the researchers, in their infinite wisdom don't seem to care which are and which aren't). So allowing that in general more women use written erotica over explicit porn for their internet sexual outlet, I would argue that there are plenty of experiential differences among men and women that could help explain why men and women choose different erotic material. In fact, I would argue that these experiential differences are so large that they would absolutely have to be accounted for before any type of useful investigation could be made about innate difference in brain capabilities that exist between men and women. However, these experiential differences are not accounted for, and definitive conclusions about innate differences are made anyway. Let's just talk about explicit internet porn for a minute.

Porn is made for and by men. Any porn made for and by females is a tiny fraction of what is available. Don't roll your eyes. It's true - yeah I'll be bold about that (Watch Science Sex and the Ladies. I discuss this in more detail - promise). I can't say this enough, and I can't believe how often this is overlooked. Heterosexual women are not men. Although it may overlap in many places, the things we ladies find erotic can be quite different from what a man finds erotic. Scientists don't measure how interested hetero men are in explicit sexual imagery by measuring how many of them go to gay male porn sites. Yet way too many scientists think it's perfectly fine to measure how interested women are in explicit sexual imagery by how many go to clearly male focused porn sites. It's just really stupid. It's mind-boggling to me that scientist seriously let that slide.

Honestly scientific community, do you really think that watching a man come on a woman's face or in a woman's mouth (and yeah she always sticks out her tongue to show the viewer the semen is really there) is as interesting to a woman as it is to a man? Don't you think that this oh-so-common porn act might actually actively repel women from these sites? Did it ever occur to any scientist studying gender and porn that women might gravitate towards things like Fan Fiction and Romance Novels because it is a place that has erotica more in line with their taste. You know what sexually explicit fan-fiction has a fair amount of? Male on male action...written by ladies. That's right. We gals want our fakey, geared-towards-our-own-voyeur-pleasure-more-than-the-participants-pleasure gay sex just the same as men seem to want their fakey lesbian sex scenes. And, BTW, have you ever tried to look for MMF threesomes on the internet - ones where the males actually touch each other's penises? It's usually from a past decade or you have to pay for it - cause that's a hetero female fantasy more than a hetero male fantasy. You know what romance novels (the ones with explicit scenes) have? They have sex scenes where the woman's pleasure is the focus. Nothing is jammed down her throat to the point of gagging and no one comes on her face.

Frankly, if you ask me, I think, there's a completely different way to look at the popularity of erotica within Fan Fiction - a way the researchers did not consider. I think one could conclude that the explicit sexual fantasies of Fan Fiction erotica are so popular because they grew from a mostly female, grassroots, writing community. I think women are desperate to find something truly erotic (and non wince inducing) on the internet, so once there was a community of edgy, critical female writing on the internet, real uniquely female sexual fantasy began to emerge, and the ladies love it.

Here's the other thing though...women actually do go to explicit porn sites. Not all ladies are Miss Marple heads I guess. If one were to read the last 2 paragraphs of the article, that little piece of information would be revealed...and then dismissed as kinda irrelevant.

Some female readers might be thinking, "This doesn't describe me at all!" And, in fact, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the visitors to the major pornography sites are women. Our data suggest that these women probably have a higher sex drive than other women and that they are more socially aggressive and more comfortable taking risks.
For most women, however, Miss Marple is the master sleuth. Her fact-finding mission must be completed before mind and body are united in sexual harmony.
So 25 to 33% of explicit porn users are women. Well, if women's brains are different than men's brains, and those differences are the reasons men like the explicit porn and women like their "stories," then what would explain these women who like explicit porn? Oh. These women are "socially aggressive," "more comfortable taking risks," and have a "higher sex drive." In social science speak this means these women are not like women. They are like men, even though they are women and they are like that. But, whatever, basically the researchers are insinuating that their "data" shows that these women display characteristics that traditionally more men display than women display (what this data is, I don't know). They assume that if they point out that the female porn watchers are more "like men" then the readers will automatically assume that the point still holds...women who are "like women" still have Miss Marple on the brain just like their theory says.

As I discussed before...just because differences in behavior can be found in general between males as a group and females as a group, does not mean that those behavioral differences are caused by inborn differences between males and females. Yes, having testicles is largely caused by the innate genetic qualities of maleness, and the biochemical basis for this is clear. However, a researcher would need to make some good arguments to prove that watching explicit pornography versus reading Fan Fiction is caused even a little by the innate qualities of maleness. To begin an argument like that, the very first thing a researcher would need to do is fully acknowledge and assess how differences in experience might account for the differences in behavior. This is not controversial, any scientist would tell you experience affects behavior, yet somehow that is forgotten to some degree when it comes to male vs. female sexuality. In the case of why less women watch explicit internet porn, I have pointed out that the ubiquitous depiction of men ejaculating on women (and various other common aspects of modern porn that I could discuss in a later blog) could reasonably elicit a very different type of response from a male viewer versus a female viewer. This means men and women may be experiencing very different things (say, arousal vs. disgust) when viewing porn. That means these, and so many researchers like them, should be taking those experiential differences into account before ever concluding that these differences are caused innately. I mean, it's not like ladies aren't watching the porn. It's just that a lower percentage of women are vs. men.

I may be crazy, but I think that could be attributed to the fact that porn is so male centric. Some women, not gonna lie - myself included, will watch explicit porn despite the rather un-arousing parts; despite the fact that the female porn stars have ridiculously annoying hour long orgasms during acts that are obviously not orgasmic for actual women while men are actually having real orgasms; even though the nature of much of the banging looks literally painful to the woman; and despite the plethora of fellatio that ends with gagging, watery eyes, maybe some come in the hair, oh I could go on. What I'm saying is that maybe another angle the researchers could have examined was why the women that do watch this stuff even do. I mean once a woman sees a porn clip where a woman is wearing a toilet seat over her head while she's giving a blow job, I mean, why did she continue on in her quest for porn amongst adversity such as that? I'm just shooting ideas here, but maybe the angle the researchers could be taking is that ladies have such a high sex drive that some of us, despite the adversity, still gotta find some nasty stuff to get off to.

I have created a whole movie (you might know it, Science Sex and the Ladies) accepting that women as a group and in general do orgasm less, masturbate less, think about sex less, watch porn less, admit less interested in one night stands, and associate sexual feeling with emotion more, yet I still argue that women do not have an innately lower capacity for sex drive. It's a pretty damn solid argument if I do say so myself, and honestly it's not that hard of an argument to make. Most of the research that is done regarding female sex drive is like what we've just discussed here. It ignores that things like porn are not the same experience for men as they are for women, yet creates evidence and conclusions as though they are.

Here's what I'm saying. These scientists, and in fact most scientists who study gender and sexuality, are comparing male and female sexuality, but within a culture that is geared towards the sexual needs and wants of men. We, ladies, are inevitably going to come up short. When our interest in sexually explicit visuals are measured by seeing how interested we are in porn made for and by heterosexual men (who literally have the opposite sexual interests of hetero women), then we seem uninterested. When our interest in the emotional component of sex is measured against men, we are actually comparing an activity that results in orgasm almost always for men and almost always for only about 1/3 of women. These are 2 different activities really, and yeah, it makes sense ladies take more interest in the parts of sex (like the emotional side) that they find pleasure in. Assuming that men and women experience the same things when partaking in activities that are related to sexuality is naive to say the least, and inadequate scientific inquiry to say a bit more. And, this is what really gets me. If scientists; who should understand that correlation does not mean causation and who are trained during their considerable schooling to look at a problem from all angles and to consider a variety of possibilities while deciding what kinds of conclusions can be made from their data; if these people aren't able to see that basing female interest in explicit sexual imagery on their interest in male driven porn is at the very least, suspect; and if normal people read these scientist silly conclusions without question, then how clueless are we as a society about female sexuality?

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