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What internet searches reveal about human sexuality

Polls never reveal who we really are. Google does.

Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images
  • In Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz discusses how Pornhub and Google data provide a window into human sexuality.
  • Large, anonymized data sets are more reliable indicators than polling or other traditional methods.
  • More people report having sex than actually having sex, Stephens-Davidowitz reports.

Polls are not the best indicator of reality, as was shown in the 2016 presidential race. There are many reasons. People might not want to admit the truth. They might purposefully fib in order to skew data. They simply lie. Everybody lies, as data scientist and economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz claims in his 2017 book.

What polls will not reveal can be discovered with another data source: Google searches. Or, as Stephens-Davidowitz spends a fair portion of his book covering, Pornhub searches. The internet delivers a treasure trove of data impossible to secure with other means (such as polling). Acquiring data sets in the thousands can be prohibitively expensive; with Google, Pornhub, and others, you can secure data sets in the billions, often at no expense beyond time.

Of course, such large data sets come with their own problems. A big one, which Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier address in their 2013 book, Big Data, is that we have to leave behind our fascination with causation—a biologically hard-wired feature—and settle for correlation.

"In a big-data world...we won't have to be fixated on causality; instead we can discover patterns and correlations in the data that offer us novel and invaluable insights."

Everybody lies; Google searches are the truth. In the comfort of our own home angels and demons appear, naked and honest. Search giants anonymize the data, yet these sets pull back the curtain enough to allow us to reckon with the animals that we truly are. As Stephens-Davidowitz puts it,

"Sometimes we need internet data to correct our instinct to pat ourselves on the back."

You have doppelgängers. They’re quietly influencing your life. | Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

While he reports frightening data on white nationalism and racism—"n word" queries and Trump voters match up nearly perfectly across the nation—it is our—yes, male and female, though mostly male—fascination with pornography that offers clues to the nature of human sexuality.

Before continuing, let me state that I take no issue with people's sexual preferences. The point isn't shame; it's curiosity regarding the distance between what we present ourselves to be and who we really are. That said, the increasing numbers of child pornography available online—over 45 million reported cases last year alone—is a serious issue that involves every one of us. Living in a world where this flourishes does not bode well for the future of sexuality and, therefore, the entire race.

The other reason this is important is to further the cultivation of honesty in relationships. Too many people cheat and lie to their partners; others cannot properly express their desires and therefore feel intimately and sexually unfulfilled, a topic beautifully explored in Daniel Bergner's book, The Other Side of Desire. Opening up about desires can be therapeutic and should not be condemned, but condoned. Ambitious, certainly, though possible.

Until then we have a massive influx of pornography, which has long been a technological driver. It pushed forward the development of the camera. It is one of the reasons that VHS crushed Betamax, as well as an influence behind the mass adoption of the internet. Even still, many won't fess up. Stephens-Davidowitz writes that more people search for "porn" than they do "weather" even though only one-quarter of men and 8 percent of women admit to it.

Old school ideology from Alfred Kinsey states that 10 percent of American men are gay. Surveys believe the number is between 2-3 percent. Using a wealth of Facebook data, including location information spread across more tolerant and less tolerant states, Stephens-Davidowitz states that the number is closer to 5 percent, not including closeted homosexuals.

Women are 10 percent more likely to search on Google for "Is my husband gay?" than "Is my husband cheating?" Women wonder if their husband is gay eight times more than if he's an alcoholic and ten times more than if he suffers from depression. The states where this question is most asked are South Carolina and Louisiana.

Speaking of female sexuality, 20 percent of all videos watched by women on Pornhub show lesbian scenes.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz pauses to have his portrait taken while he works on his elections predictions at his apartment.

Photo by Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On the animated show, "Big Mouth," Missy loves humping stuffed animals. There is precedent: while it's not a particularly popular search on Pornhub, women do look for such videos.

Twenty-five percent of female searches involving heterosexual porn on Pornhub involve pain and/or humiliation. Five percent search for nonconsensual sex. Women are twice as likely to search for these topics as men. As Stephens-Davidowitz points out, we should differentiate between fantasy and reality when considering such searches. Still, data don't lie.

Using Google data, it turns out that searching why a partner doesn't want sex is sixteen times more popular than a partner unwilling to talk. With unmarried partners, not wanting sex is five-and-a-half times more popular than not texting back. Women are twice as likely to search for boyfriends not wanting sex than the reverse.

Men Google about penis size more than all other body parts combined. Women rarely look it up. In fact, for every one woman that searches, 170 men enter it into the search field. Even then, 40 percent of women complain that it's too big. Yet only 1 percent of men seek information on how to make it smaller.

Men disproportionally ask how to make sex longer. Women search for making their partner climax quicker as much as they want to stretch out the experience.

For women, breast size is a much more common search: seven million breast implant queries a year. When it comes to their behind, until 2014 the searches always dealt with making it smaller. In 2014, that switched: in every state, women searched for a bigger behind more often.

The number one search for women and men when dealing with female genitalia concerns smell.

Finally, what turned out to be one of Stephen-Davidowitz's favorite pieces of data, and one that does not fly in the face of convention but rather confirms it:

"Men make as many searches looking for ways to perform oral sex on themselves as they do how to give a woman an orgasm."


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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