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What's she looking for? (Getty Images/Getty Images)
What's she looking for? (Getty Images/Getty Images)

Sex and the Web: What your search history says about your desires Add to ...

Mr. Bikinis was in the market for “college cheerleaders” and “girls suntanning in bikinis” before a moral retreat sent him seeking “Christian advice on lust” instead.

Ms. Intuition’s search was sprinkled with “george clooney nude” and “chakras.”

Ms. Juicy was looking for “drunk spring break sex,” “pictures of lust” – and “washing machine ratings.”

Mr. Bikinis, Ms. Intuition and Ms. Juicy were AOL users entangled in an unprecedented leak. In 2006, the company offered up the personal search histories of 657,426 North American users in the name of research – a stunning violation of user privacy. Although users’ real names were not published, the histories made it possible to deduce identities.

Nevertheless, the data were an unparalleled gold mine for scientists, and inform a new book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire.

“If you can imagine it, it exists as Internet porn,” write co-authors and computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, who analyzed the data to explore what men and women covet, from cheating wives and construction workers to nude women posing with falcons.

The authors also looked at general Web searches on dogpile.com, online erotica and romance e-novels, and solicitations in classified ads and exchanges on message boards. Dr. Ogas spoke with The Globe and Mail from Boston.

AOL Research gave the public a window into what their users were searching over a three-month period in 2006. How did you use that raw data?

They were trying to do good for researchers, scientists and the general public by giving more insight into what people are actually searching for. It backfired on them completely and turned into a public-relations disaster. The search histories have been scrutinized endlessly by both researchers and people online, but we were the first to realize that this would provide invaluable information about people’s sexual behaviour.

How can you tell that the things they were trolling were actual interests and not passing curiosities?

Unconventional sexual interests that are often dismissed as “mere curiosity,” including shemales and granny porn, are actually searched for repeatedly, week after week. Also, people pay money to look at these interests.

You didn’t actually know the gender of each AOL user. You assumed based on their searches?

Though we can’t know for certain whether a particular AOL searcher is male or female, most of the time it’s pretty clear. We analyzed search terms that are known to correlate with gender. This approach cannot determine with certainty the gender of a searcher, but it adds some confidence.

Much of the book reinforces differences between the genders, not variations between individual men and women.

The male brain is designed so that any single stimulus triggers arousal. All he needs to do is look at a piece of anatomy or an image of two women kissing, for example. The female brain requires multiple cues simultaneously or in succession to trigger arousal. That introduces a time element and more complex stimulation. This is reflected in erotica for each gender. Visual pornography is the most dominant erotica for men. Stories, whether they be romance novels, fan fiction or erotica, are the most popular forms for women.

One-third of the 10 million daily visitors to Montreal-headquartered megasite Pornhub.com are women. The magazine Today’s Christian Woman ran a poll that found one-third of female respondents look at porn. How can you say women looking at porn are still a minority?

Our estimate is that between one-third and one-fourth of women are aroused by visual pornography. But when it comes to paid subscriptions, actually shelling out money to access visual pornography, only one out of 50 people that pay for porn are women.

You write, “The single most popular artifact used by women to generate arousal takes the form of a 250-page book that requires hours to digest.” Really?

If you count the number of women who access online porn, online fan fiction, online literary erotica and romance novels, there are more women purchasing romance novels than any other kind of erotica.

You’re saying more women will masturbate to a 250-page romance novel than to any other genre?

We don’t have good data on how many women use romance novels to masturbate, but it doesn’t seem like it’s anywhere near the percentage of men that masturbate to visual pornography. We guess that it’s a minority.

The most popular search term on PornHub.com is the word Mom. Did that surprise you?

The overall popularity of older women was a real surprise – women in their 40s, 50s and 60s around the world on the Internet. The older, aggressive, seductive woman has always been a source of arousal for men – but men still prefer young women the most.

What surprised you most?

“Cheating wives” is one of the five most popular sexual interests of men. That men so frequently fantasize about their own girlfriend or wife having sex with other men, especially black men, was surprising.

For women, there does seem to be a growth of interest in gay erotica about two men, sometimes two heterosexual men, falling in love and having sex with each other. That is the fastest genre of growth in mainstream romance.

Why do you think some women like watching gay porn, as Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s characters did in the film The Kids Are All Right?

The women who enjoy watching gay porn usually describe an appreciation of the raw, powerful sexual desire displayed by the men. Male desire is a strong sexual cue for women. Other women just say that two hot guys are better than one.

You found that, online, straight men look for very large penises very often.

In our data set, there were 1,096,614 searches for the most common online term for vagina, and 938,134 searches for the most common online term for penis.

Why do straight men want to see big penises?

We think it’s part of our primate heritage. Large penises are likely associated with a perception of social dominance, which can trigger arousal in men. Large penises may be a “sperm competition cue,” triggering arousal in order to compete with other males to successfully impregnate a shared female.

You also discovered that lots of men prefer to look at fat women, not skinny ones.

Based upon online behavioural data, men prefer overweight women to underweight women. But men still prefer healthy-weight women, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] the most.

You write that “we can accept our fantasies without becoming slaves to them.” What about porn addiction?

In our data, most men look at porn between two and five times a week. Two per cent looked 20 times or more a week. These men tended to view a diversity of porn, which is unusual for men because most men will search for the same sexual tastes over and over again. AOL is our main source for that. PornHub shared numbers with us, as did CCBill, the largest credit-card billing company in the porn industry.

You pored over people’s intimate search histories, where fetish sites mix seamlessly with humdrum searches for humidifiers and Linens ’n Things. How did you feel?

I felt like I was Galileo, like I was the first person with a telescope looking at the stars. Here’s your microscope: You can finally see what’s inside the cell.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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