Pilot study No. 1 took place in the summer of 2009, over a bowl of spaghetti. Ogi Ogas, a Boston Ph.D. student, had run into a neighbor couple in the lobby of his apartment complex. He didn't know them well, but figured it was worth a shot: Ogas asked if they might "help" with a study he was conducting—a massive survey about sex. The couple laughed, nervously. But they were intrigued. Forty-eight hours later, the three men sat sandwiched on a red vinyl couch, sharing pasta, red wine, and a marathon session of gay porn. A giant silk-screen of Sophia Loren hung in the background; the couple's pug nuzzled at the trio's feet. They would remain in this position for five hours.
It wasn't an orgy, nor was it typical entertainment for Ogas, a 40-year-old computational neuroscientist (who has a girlfriend). But while Ogas's fellow doctoral students were busy writing intricate computer code, he and his buddy Sai Gaddam simply couldn't stop talking about sex. Specifically, how the brain decides what turns us on. "Nobody in our field had taken a shot at sexual desire—and most of our colleagues thought we were insane to do it," Ogas says. "But the same neural principles that apply to our higher cognitive functions apply to sexual behavior, too."
And so began the "world's largest experiment" in human sexuality, as the first-time authors call it in their new book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts. Analyzing the results of a billion anonymous Web searches, a million websites, erotic videos, stories, personal ads, and digitized romance novels, Ogas and Gaddam claim to have determined the sexual behavior of more than 100 million people, invoking neuroscience to help explain what makes us desire (and surf for) the things we do. Their findings span kinks too risque to republish here (look up "formicophilia" if you must), as well as basic truths about the difference between male and female sexual psychology (men prefer images while women prefer words).
While it may not be the most academic approach to studying human sexuality—Kinsey, by comparison, personally interviewed some 18,000 subjects—their findings are more than enough to keep readers entertained and surprised. Three major themes worth taking note of:
The single-most popular search term users entered into PornHub isn’t “teens” or “cheerleaders,” as some of us might predict, but—get ready—“mom.”
• Interactive: 10 Charts About SexIf You Can Imagine It, It Exists
Web geeks call this Rule 34: the idea that any and every possible scenario you could possibly imagine (Britney Spears and Beethoven; Calvin and Hobbes with Calvin's mom) is available in online porn. But that doesn't mean it's those niche kinks that most people are searching for. In fact, the most popular erotic searches are relatively conventional, with just 20 interests accounting for 80 percent of all searches. The most popular? "Youth." The fourth most popular? "Breasts."
It may sound like a lame excuse, but the authors say men are wired to view women's anatomy as objects. A computer engineer would say the male brain is like an "OR gate"—a machine turned on by any single stimulus. "It doesn't take much to trigger male arousal," Ogas says. Breasts, women kissing, a news photo of a woman's bottom—they pretty much all do the trick. Still, men aren't totally predictable. The single-most popular search term users entered into PornHub, the most heavily trafficked adult site in the world, isn't "teens" or "cheerleaders," as some of us might predict, but—get ready—"mom."
Women Aren't Easy to Figure Out
If the male brain is like a single toggle switch, then the female brain is "the cockpit of an F-1 fighter jet," says Gaddam—chock full of wires and buttons and interconnected fuses. So while a man might need little more than a beautiful woman to pique his interest, a chiseled face or six-pack abs simply won't do it for most women: They need to be emotionally turned on, too (which might help explain why just 2 percent of all paid porn subscriptions are made on credit cards with women's names, according to one billing service). "Women need to feel comfortable and safe and desired as well as physically attracted," says Ogas. Complicated, sure. But oh-so-alluring.
Jessica Bennett is a Newsweek senior writer covering society, youth culture and gender. Her special reports, multimedia packages and original web video have been honored by the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York and GLAAD, among other organizations. Follow her on Twitter.