What internet searches reveal about human sexuality

Polls never reveal who we really are. Google does.

What internet searches reveal about human sexuality
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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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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