The XX Factor

What We Can’t Tell From People’s Internet Searches

What is it about gender and sexuality that gives researchers and reporters free license to reach conclusions that aren’t necessarily indicated by the data at hand? I’m not just talking about the heavy use of the word maybe to make it clear that you’re hypothesizing from the data, but straight up reaching conclusions from data that could be read multiple ways. The most recent example is the spate of false certainty about men and women in the wake of research conducted on what people look at on the Internet . The research does tell us interesting things about what people are actually looking at, but to suggest that we can draw conclusions about how people actually are from it is a stretch.

For instance, in this write-up of the research by Jessica Bennett, the fact that men look at pictures of naked women is translated into: “[T]he authors say men are wired to view women’s anatomy as objects.” Which in turn gets rounded up to a sub-headline that says “Men Are Wired to Objectify.” None of these conclusions can be reached from the evidence at hand. Because a person does something doesn’t mean that they are “wired” to do it. For instance, right now I’m typing these words on a keyboard. I do this activity with an alarming frequency, spending hours each day doing it. But no one would suggest that my genetics have wired me to know how to operate a keyboard. In fact, I had to take a semester of typing in high school to be as good as I am at it. And so it goes with this behavior, which most men spend less time on than I do typing. Are men “wired” to look at certain things to get aroused, or are they educated to do so? We can’t tell simply by observing that they do it; humans engage in far more learned behaviors than instinctual ones. Even when we’re responding to biological urges, such as the urge for sexual release, how we go about it is socially conditioned. Which is why we cook instead of just shoving sustenance into our mouths without bothering to dress it up.

Even in this article, the notion that men are “wired” is undermined by the fact that many of men’s searches are obvious reflections of the culture they live in. As Bennett notes, men search for the word mom on porn sites frequently, indicating a specific sexual fantasy that’s developed in response to certain cultural assumptions about women’s roles, and I suspect the erotic subversion of them.

Nor does it follow that looking at women’s bodies to get aroused is the same thing as objectifying them, nor does it mean that men are wired to objectify. Objectification means reducing a person to an object. It’s undeniable that quite a bit of porn does do this to women, but it doesn’t follow that because a man finds looking at a breast sexually arousing he’s automatically dehumanizing the woman that breast is attached to. That a man is looking at a naked woman tells us little about what’s going on in his head. Some men may be turned off by imagining that woman has a personality of her own. Some men might go soft thinking a woman might have an internal monologue of her own. But some men might find it all the more erotic to think of women as separate people with personalities and subjective experiences. We can’t know just from what men look at. Nor can we conclude that they are “wired” to think any specific way, even if we do know what they’re thinking.

It’s a real shame that so much research and reporting on research about human sexuality is weighed down by this urge to reaffirm base stereotypes about men and women, especially the stereotype that male sexuality is unrelated to male emotions. Being open to the idea that men have complex emotions - some good, some ugly - that manifest in their sexual fantasies opens up whole new avenues of inquiry. One of the saddest things that rigid gender stereotypes do is that they limit the imagination, even the scientific imagination, so dramatically.