It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be
Now that I think about it, my first erotic fantasy broke the surface of consciousness with “The Flea.” I was a junior in a girls’ Catholic school. I liked boys, and especially liked campy talk with boys who, in retrospect, must have been gay, but I barely dated and certainly never thought about having sex with the few boys over whom I swooned; none were remotely capable of so cleverly suggestive a seduction as the old dead poet. Not that I actually desired to have sex with an old dead man, either. Or a man at all. Any more than I desired to be bitten by a flea—or ravaged by a swan, maddened by lust and murder à la Lady Macbeth, prostrate before a martyr whose feet I would bathe with my tears and dry with my hair: all scenes that quickened my imagination, and whose poetic, painterly or scriptural vessels I drank from repeatedly for the pure transporting pleasure of their contents.
Once grown, I supposed that contemporary porno or romance novels, both unalluring to me, were exciting to others for the same reason: the thrill of the mind’s wanderings into the out-of-bounds; fantasy, not desire. The films, the pictures, the stock plots, might in fact boil the blood, but in the real, most men don’t want to go off to the high school or the summer camp to make it with cheerleaders or Boy Scouts, don’t get a hard-on over every breast and rump and penis they see. Most women don’t pine for the social conditions of the eighteenth century, don’t long to be tied to a mast in corset and pantaloons, rescued by the chiseled hero just as a band of stinking pirates is about to have its way with her. Some women might want to make a game of it in their own bedroom, and some men might ask a partner to dress up in a little uniform (or put one on themselves). They don’t desire actual rape, abuse or scandal, just as women aroused by Japanese tentacle erotica—whether Hokusai’s undulatory nineteenth-century shunga “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” or Toshio Maeda’s jagged 1980s manga “Demon Beast Invasion”—don’t really want to have sex with an octopus. Most of them, anyway.
Now comes A Billion Wicked Thoughts, fruit of a vast, nerdy survey of how people use Internet sex sites, to pronounce that what men and women look for when nobody is watching tells a lot about what they want. The neuroscientist authors, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, peeped into a billion web searches, a million websites, more than a million XXX videos and stories, tens of thousands of e-romance novels and online comments, millions of personal ads and numerous fan fiction sites. What they divined as the modern way of desire is a retro world of sex, where men are slaves to their cocks and women are slaves to emotion, the latter’s path to arousal and satisfaction so mysterious that the clitoris gets no mention, except incidentally, in a few excerpts from erotica.
They call the Internet “the world’s largest experiment on human behavior” and equate the act of sitting at a computer, clicking onto sites for granny porn or shemale porn or monster penis porn or hot vampire quasi-porn with that most “intimate of all behaviors: sexual desire.” They then puff billows of smoke about cognitive neuroscience to argue that this small percentage of online activity reveals a fundamental “truth” about the brain’s “sexual desire software,” which cues men for blunt visuals and dominance; women for romantic stories and submission.
It’s a racier, pretentious Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus—and nonsense. There is no map of the brain that traces the complexity of thought to gender-specific neurological bundles, and no way to unravel the complex processes by which the brain conjures curiosities that may or may not slide into sexual fantasies; fantasies that are pure mind games; imaginative play that corresponds to actual desires; desires that propel people to actual behavior; behavior that may have myriad shades of meaning to those involved.
Put another way, of all the straight couples that, together or apart, ever thought about switching up sex roles, some went online out of curiosity, some fantasized on a lazy afternoon, some let the tape run silently in their head during their ordinary lovemaking, some talked dirty and played fire in the hole, some bought Bend Over Boyfriend (Part I or II) and tried out the strap-on; and all of them enacted their own dialectic of dominance and submission, power and weakness, top and bottom. You can run a similar progression on almost any sexual fantasy. I chose this one because the B-O-B videos, made by lesbian sex radicals, are among the hottest-selling hetero porn videos of the past dozen years, a relatively new phenomenon that puts a kink in Ogas and Gaddam’s concept of innate male and female brain software. By the end it can’t support itself, as the authors report that men watch more submission porn than dom porn, women like body parts and stories and there is no absolute male or female sexuality.
Dressing up pop culture with the language of science is as old as the carnival. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re standing in front of the largest fairground show in the world, the World of Wonders,” where “you’ll see just some of the anthropomorphic freaks that you’ll find here inside,” an old Florida carny barker, Ward Hall, used to announce. He never knew what “anthropomorphic” meant, but he felt it gave the show a certain cachet. There is a carnival quality to the authors’ virtual paw through the fantasylands of more than 100 million people to offer up curiosities from the greatest sideshow on earth. As the carny barker understood, there’s a little freak in everyone. So Ogas and Gaddam demonstrate that, yes, there is a sex fantasy for just about everything.
That unsensational conclusion is more challenging than the science-and-shtick combo allows. If whatever can be imagined has been sexualized, can any fantasy be deviant? However wicked, a thought is just a thought—or was, until police officers started spending their workdays posing as 14-year-olds on adult chat sites. The men they entrap may well anticipate a hook-up with a buxom, big-bottomed woman with a schoolgirl act, a shorty-short skirt and saddle shoes, a figure right out of Japanese erotic animation, a worldwide web favorite. It doesn’t matter, though, because fantasy, desire, action and intent have been so blurred. The thought’s the crime. Fantasy is an endangered activity.
It is endangered by its confinement—to the porn site, the police precinct, the science project and the incessant marketing talk about sex. We live in a world of sexual suggestion and always have. I write this in Florida, not too far from where Zora Neale Hurston set her famous blossoming pear tree, with its arcing pistils and buzzing bees, the girl lying beneath, limp at the revelation in the erotic thrum of nature. Some seventy miles away is the Gulf Coast, where manatees frolic and live girls swim around as mermaids, the fantastical beings that sailors imagined when first they spied the gentle, chunky manatee. Sixty-four years ago an ex-Navy man built a theater at a place called Weeki Wachee Springs and recruited high school girls to perform everyday activities—eating, drinking, typing a letter—underwater in their bathing suits. In the early days the girls sat around until they heard a car, at which point they rushed to the roadside to encourage drivers to stop for the show. They lived in cottages onsite while learning to perform underwater, drawing compressed air from a hose. As the years passed, the shows got more elaborate; dramas replaced simple demonstrations, and mermaid tails replaced bathing suits.
The City of Mermaids could never be created today, because suggestion is suspect; we have been made afraid or ashamed of fantasies that breach the usual confines. It survives as a vestige of old Florida, thanks to the public sector: the only state park whose men’s room is designated by a handsome merman and whose roadside marker is an immense statue of two naked women wearing flippers and modeled in Weeki Wachee’s signature adagio pose.