Evaluating Sex Research On The Internet

How reliable is the internet as a tool for sex research? This write-up on a new book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, summarizes the research and asks some questions about the methodology. In my opinion, though, the study is not as sound as it’s made out to be.

The authors let themselves be guided by the most popular internet queries about sex, and from there conducted some interviews and hung out in topical web forums. However, the authors had some shady strategies, as detailed in this Neurocritic article on the study. The authors did not have Institutional Review Board approval for the study of human subjects, which is basically mandatory for scholarly research that involves living people. Their surveys were not consistent across various groups, and they claimed to be studying the neural functions accompanying sexual arousal… based on internet surveys that by definition, didn’t have the subjects hooked up to an MRI since they were meeting in cyberspace rather than meatspace. All of which makes me think… huh? How is this supposed to yield legitimate results?

Some of the findings have positive implications, such as demonstrating the variety of sexual turn-ons that people can healthily experience. Their findings include the facts that: “Straight men enjoy a wider variety of erotica than imagined, including sites devoted to elderly women and transsexuals….Straight men prefer heavy women to thin ones. Straight women enjoy reading about and watching romances between two men — it’s not about the sex, which is downplayed, but the emotion, which is the focus.” These are interesting factual tidbits, but difficult to interpret without a deeper research methodology (such as in-depth face-to-face interviews, detailed questionnaires, and so on).

Even more problematic, however, are the authors’ claims about how to interpret their data. They believe that foot fetishes are understandable because men are evolutionarily wired to prefer women with smaller feet (but where does this “fact” about evolution come from?). There is also the concern about whether people on the internet are telling the truth about their identities: is “Bob” searching for granny porn actually a heterosexual guy? They conflate arousal and curiosity, asserting that if people are searching for it on the internet, they’re aroused by it, rather than merely curious about it. The authors believe that their data proves that men and women have evolved to be aroused by different sexual cues. Apparently, since women can be just as anonymous on the internet as men, their searches should match men’s… if men and women are wired the same sexually. This statement, however, does not take into account the lifetime of social conditioning that a woman would have to overcome if she were to access the internet and search for something that she was sexually curious about or aroused by.

Studying sex on the internet seems like it could yield promising data, but one would need a more rigorously delineated methodology, taking into account the specific ways in which the internet is a unique social sphere. The anonymous component makes it difficult to study the real identities behind the screen, but can also lead scholars to interesting questions. Until scholars start trying out more solid methods, though, readers should be wary of sex research claiming to have cracked the code of online sex.

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • http://twitter.com/slikid2 Jevad Jackson

    The Internet is a great place to collect lots of statistics but difficult place to make good interpretations of that data due to its anonymous nature.
    Good analysis.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    Thank you! I agree, if one can account for the anonymity of the internet, it’s full of wonderful data… but poorly interpreted, you can come up with some really bizarre conclusions.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

    I might read the book, though the write-ups I’ve seen lead me to believe I’ll spend a lot of time just being annoyed at their inadequate research methods. Also, if your methods aren’t sufficient to capture the complexity of human desire, how on earth can you draw any reasonable conclusions from data collected using faulty methods?