Want to know what really turns people on? Just ask Google

Freud be damned – the new authority on castration anxiety, infidelity and repressed homosexual desire is a lot more omniscient and decidedly less biased

05 November 2017 - 00:00 By Paula Andropoulos
You can lie in a sex survey, but not on your search history.
You can lie in a sex survey, but not on your search history.
Image: 123RF/ronstik

Sex surveys, and their ubiquity in magazines and online, bespeak the conflict that rages within a great majority of human adults in the 21st century.

On the one hand, people are eager to demonstrate that they are sexually liberated - albeit sexually responsible - and sex surveys facilitate a kind of performative sexual candour.

On the other, these surveys provide a comparatively anonymous yardstick, by means of which people can establish, once and for all, whether or not their long-concealed, potentially mortifying sexual preoccupations - with feet or dolls or urine exchanges - fall within the realm of the libidinously normal.

According to data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, the fundamental and inexorable problem with sex surveys is that people lie.

The wishful falsities that corrupt this species of data are, moreover, not limited to the specious respondents; frequently, researchers' assumptions and biases subtly underwrite the scientific neutrality of the questions they ask, especially where matters of sex are concerned.

As such, any information collated from a sex survey must be treated as something of a foregone conclusion - the outcome is, to a certain extent, always already rigged.

The most famous example of this infamous failing was the erroneous outcome of the first widely documented effort at erotic auditing. Dr Alfred Kinsey, of the oft-cited Kinsey Scale, claimed that his survey of American men in the late 1940s revealed that at least 10% of the male population was homosexual. But, as critics of Kinsey's findings said, his sample population consisted of an unusually high volume of male prostitutes and self-professed homosexuals.

The greater problem is that people are almost guaranteed to reflexively exaggerate their sexual prowess, and minimise their perversity.

And as it emerges, our whole methodology might be at fault: the truth behind the vanilla façade of healthy conjugal bliss is less evident in our answers to questions than it is in the questions we ask.

Stephens-Davidowitz, who used to work for Google, seems to have stumbled on to a solution for the sociological problem of sex surveys.

In his new book, Everybody Lies, he says that analysing the big data from search engines such as Google - and its depraved cousin Pornhub - provides incredible insights about the kinds of things that really keep people up at night.

Stephens-Davidowitz's findings, moreover, contradict an armoury of sexual stereotypes.

Women are more likely to Google "Is my husband gay?" than they are "Is my husband cheating?"

Straight women gravitate towards lesbian porn. Feminists watch violent rape fantasies.

In one respect, though, the big data is only fortifying a universal truth: men are morbidly obsessed with their penises. According to Stephens-Davidowitz, men search online for penis-related information more frequently than they do for information pertaining to most of their vital organs, combined.

They worry that aging will reduce the size of their penises. They worry that taking steroids will reduce the size of their penises. They worry that their penises were always undersized. They wonder if anything can increase the size of their penis. (It can't.)

It's legitimately sad - especially because, based on the big data, their prospective sex partners really don't seem to care.

It's a miserable phallic fallacy.