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Why are people sexually attracted to cartoons? Evolution.

Nikolaas Tinbergen’s concept of “supernormal stimulus” explains why humans are attracted to a heightened version of reality.
Credit: Julian Mason / Flickr
Key Takeaways
  • According to Pornhub statistics, “hentai” and “cartoons” regularly rank among the most popular search keywords.
  • Such pornography is a supernormal stimulus, an artificial object that triggers an animal’s instinctual response more intensely than natural analogs.
  • Supernormal stimuli not only explain our heightened response to pornography, but also art, junk food, and social media.

Every year Pornhub, the world’s largest pornography website, releases annual statistics detailing the trends in online porn. Some takeaways from 2018? A staggering 4,403 petabytes of data transferred, the United States is the largest porn consumer (by a huge margin), and Stormy Daniels is the most searched for person (just brushing up on current events).

Nestled among the categories and search terms is a word that may seem oddly foreign: hentai.

Sexual cartoons

If you’ve never heard of hentai, you’re not alone. This loanword from Japan is less well-known than other Japanese words like sushi, samurai, tsunami, and typhoon, yet produces more Google results than any of them. In its mother tongue, the word denotes a perverse or extreme sexual situation. After the word leapt the Pacific, it came to represent erotic comics and animations in the Japanese style.

Despite its unfamiliarity to many, hentai was Pornhub’s second most searched for term of 2018 and one of its most popular categories. Some may dismiss this the popularity of sexual cartoons with a snide, “Yeah, but Japan, amiright?” But they are wrong.

Japan certainly has a history of illustrated erotica — shunga, such as “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Hokusai, is perhaps the most famous example — but it is hardly the only culture to compose drawings meant to stimulate more than the imagination.

Western culture has produced plenty of sexual cartoons. Examples include Marge Simpson’s turn as a Playboy playmate, 1950s pin-up girls, and Tijuana bibles — pulpy porn comics popular during the Great Depression.

Nor is this trend limited to the modern era. Medieval artists produced many ribald paintings, the Mughal Empire commissioned illustrated editions of the Kamasutra, and sensual frescas have been unearthed among the ashes of Pompeii. Artistic history, it seems, has quite the carnal cache tucked beneath its mattress.

Attraction to the illustrated human form clearly extends deeper into our psyches than some newfangled millennial kink. But before we look at why people are attracted to hentai, we need to take a slight detour to discuss songbirds.

A Japanese convenient store magazine rack featuring illustrated cheesecake alongside gravure idol magazines. (Credit: Danny Choo / Flickr)

Songbirds and supernormal stimuli

Nikolaas Tinbergen‘s long and celebrated career changed how we understand animal instincts and behaviors, discoveries for which he was awarded the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine alongside Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz. Among his many insights was a theory that evolution may not have imbued animals with an innate kill switch toward instinctual responses.

To test his theory, he created fake eggs that were large, saturated blue, and covered with black polka dots. He then placed these eggs in the nests of songbirds instinctually driven to sit on speckled, pale blue eggs. The birds quickly abandoned their natural brood to nurture the new arrivals, despite the artificial eggs being too big for them to lay on without sliding off.

He called this a “supernormal stimulus” — a phenomenon that occurs when an artificial object triggers an animal’s instinctual response more intensely than the natural object the instinct evolved to seek out. Because nature could never produce eggs like Tinbergen, the songbirds could not adapt evolutionary defenses to prevent the fake eggs from pulling so strongly at their instincts.

Tinbergen devised several other experiments to show supernormal stimuli affecting other species:

  • Herring gull chicks beg for food by pecking at their mother’s long yellow bill with contrasting red patch. When presented with a fake bill sporting three red patches, the chicks pecked much more furiously at it.
  • Male stickleback fish will ignore real rivals if presented with a wooden fish flourishing a brighter red ventral.
  • Male grayling butterflies will attempt to mate with fake butterflies more than real females if the dummies are larger, darker in color, and flutter “enticingly.” Shape does not matter. Graylings will try to make it with a rectangle if it flutters with enough come-hither.

Supporting Tinbergen’s experiments are supernormal stimuli we’ve created accidentally. Turns out, beer bottles are exactly what an Australian jewel beetles looks for in a mate (and then some). These beetles treat trash piles like a singles bar and can become so enamored with the bottle of their dreams that they will die trying to mate with it.

Some animals have even evolved ways to use supernormal triggers to their advantage. Studies have suggested that the cuckoo chick, a brood parasite, acts as a supernormal stimulus to its host parent. The cuckoo chick’s gape-colored skin patch is thought to trigger the host parent’s visual instinct, causing it to favor the parasitic chick over its natural offspring.

The why of sexual cartoons

Hentai and other sexual cartoons act as supernormal stimuli that trigger people’s sexual instincts. Specifically, men’s sexual instincts. *

In The Evolution of Desire, evolutionary psychologist David Buss argues that evolution imprinted men and women with particular instincts for finding mates. Such instincts were forged in response to the challenges we faced in our evolutionary environment and remain largely within us (evolution is slow and steady).

Since evolutionary success is predicated on passing on one’s genes, ancestral men came to value women who could bear children, while ancestral women preferred men with the status and resources necessary to care for children. Because the ancient savannah lacked fertility clinics, men relied on other methods by which to judge suitable mates. They used their eyes.

“Beauty may be in the eyes of the beholder, but those eyes and the minds behind the eyes have been shaped by millions of years of human evolution,” Buss writes. “Because physical and behavioral cues provide the most powerful observable evidence of a woman’s reproductive value, ancestral men evolved a preference for women who displayed these cues.”

Visual cues denoting reproductive value include youth, health, and social status. In short, men are primed to seek attractiveness in mates. While attraction varies from culture to culture, its more common features include “full lips, clear skin, smooth skin, clear eyes, lustrous hair, and good muscle tone, and features of behavior, such as a bouncy, youthful gait, an animated facial expression, and a high energy level.”

Hentai takes these visual cues and dials them up to 11. The female characters in these movies morph the natural cues men have evolved to seek in mates to levels beyond what is sustainable in nature. Basically, they are polka-dotted eggs for the heterosexual male mind.

To keep us squarely in SFW territory, let’s consider Jazz-Age sex symbol Betty Boop. Boop checks all the boxes Buss notes clue men into health and reproductive value. She has smooth skin, full lips, good muscle tone, and large, clear eyes. She’s bouncy and displays vast amounts of bubbly, youthful energy.

In fact, her youthfulness represents an unnatural extreme, with features exaggerated to absurd, neotenic levels. Her head is impossibly large, her legs too long given her torso, her arms too short, and her hip-to-waist ratio would prevent her from walking. A real-life Betty Boop surviving to puberty would be a medical marvel. As a cartoon, she has lived on as a sex symbol for nearly 100 years.

If you think the phenomenon is limited to only illustrated figures, guess again. One study showed that even high heels can elicit a supernormal response.

Artistic evaluation

Even when artistic bodies aren’t designed to be sexually stimulating, people still find an exaggerated form to be more pleasing. That’s the thesis of Dr. Nigel Spivey, classicist and art historian, in his BBC program How Art Made Us Human.

Spivey argues the art world overflows with supernormal representations of the human body for the simple reason that we prefer them. This preference appears throughout our artistic history. Consider the stylizations of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the heightened perfection of Greek sculptures, and the many Venuses passed down to us from prehistoric people (most famously the Venus of Willendorf).

In an interview for the show, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran directly links prehistoric art like the Venus of Willendorf to Tinbergen’s herring gull experiment. For Ramachandran, our ancestors produced supernormal forms focusing on what mattered most to them. Given their ice age environment, fertility and stoutness were likely prized in mates; therefore, prehistoric peoples distorted their Venuses accordingly. This would, according to Ramachandran, heighten the brain’s “aesthetic response to that body.”

And men’s bodies weren’t immune to this anatomical embroidery, as demonstrated by the Riace Bronzes. At first blush, these Greek bronzes appear incredibly lifelike; however, upon inspection we realize that no man could ever reach such physical majesty. Like Betty Boop, they are anatomically impossible.

Their waist and back muscles, Spivey notes, are more defined than physically possible. To create symmetry with the upper body, the legs were made extra-long. And they lack a tailbone to improve their backline.

“In reality, we humans don’t really like reality — we prefer exaggerated, more human than human, images of the body,” noted Dr. Nigel Spivey. “This is a shared biological instinct that appears to link us inexorably with our ancient ancestors.”

One of the Riace Bronzes. It may look like the sculptor attempted to create a realistic Greek man, but the bronzes are supernormal in their anatomical embroidery. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

A supernormal world

While sexual cartoons may offer one form of supernormal stimulus, it hardly stands alone. Today, people have an unprecedented level of control over our environment, and we’ve used that advantage to imbue our environments with a fleet of supernormal stimuli. Pornography, advertisements, propaganda, the internet, video games, the list goes on.

In her books on the subject, Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett argues that supernormal stimuli helped produced the modern obesity crisis.

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For our ancestors, calorie-rich foods were scarce, so their instincts prompted them to seek out sources of sugar, proteins, and fat. The drive for such foods remains strongly linked with our brain’s reward center, yet our environment teems with supernormal versions of these foods. High fructose corn syrup sweets food more than any natural fruit. A hamburger and fries pack more sodium and saturated fat than anybody needs in a single meal. For Barret, Tinbergen’s supernormal stimulus explains the unnaturally strong pull Skittles and McDonald’s have on some people.

But Barrett’s thesis isn’t all bad news: “Once we recognize how supernormal stimuli operate, we can craft new approaches to modern predicaments. Humans have one stupendous advantage over other animals — a giant brain capable of overriding simpler instincts when they lead us astray.”

While a supernormal trigger is likely at the heart of hentai’s attraction, that doesn’t mean everybody who comes across it will become a raving horndog. For many people, it will be baffling how someone can be sexually attracted to what is essentially ink sketched to resemble a member of the opposite sex. In the same way, many people don’t find McDonald’s enjoyable.

But as Pornhub’s data shows, for many others, sexual cartoons can cut right through the reasoning portion of our brains and directly toward our baser instincts.

It’s worth noting that we’ve simplified the discussion because more men report watching porn more frequently. Women watch porn too, are susceptible to sexual supernormal stimuli, and may be underrepresented in the data due to lingering social mores. However, data also show that men respond to visual sexual stimuli more than women.

There’s still much research needed to bridge the social and biological causes for the so-called “porn-gap,” but common presumptions surrounding the subject means the majority of porn media, animated or otherwise, targets heterosexual men and their subconscious triggers.

This article was originally published on Big Think in February 2019. It was updated in June 2022.


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