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.