The minds behind A Billion Wicked Thoughts

They studied the Internet to find out what's turning us on.

Ogas and Gaddam: We focus on a very narrow and specific component of sexuality: the triggers of sexual arousal. Human sexuality is incredibly complicated, with social, cultural, contextual, and physical components. Rather than trying to explain all of sexuality, we tried to identify the sexual cues that activate arousal in men and women's brains. The Internet is the perfect laboratory to study this, since digital erotic content (i.e., movies and stories) can be broken down into their constituent stimuli. We would argue that the desires we explore in secrecy are absolutely reflections of part of our true sexual nature; but they aren't the whole story. The Internet is not an artificial environment: people use online content for authentic sexual purposes, including spontaneous masturbation.

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SA: Regardless of their sexual preference, men are consistently interested in chests, butts, feet, and large penises. On porn sites for heterosexual men, the search for “pussy” barely beat out the search for “big dicks.” The men in some cultures even greet one another by touching each other’s penis. The implication seems to be that a large penis is a sign of dominance similar to that of an imposing physical stature. While a male with larger muscles can physically dominate lesser males, how does a large penis command respect from subordinate males?

O&G: So the male fascination with large penises is probably inherited from our primate cousins. Though we aren't aware of any animal studies that actually looked at how primates specifically react to large penises, males of many primate species use the penis as part of their dominance display. Often, the erect or unsheathed penis is used to signal dominance; these penises appear larger than usual, so it seems reasonable to speculate that human males still respond to larger penises the way our primate cousins do.

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SA: The number of male porn viewers is just slightly more than that of female romance readers, and romance novels generate more revenue each year than porn. Interestingly enough, many of these erotic stories contain episodes that could be considered just as degrading as pornos. They depict forced sex and reinforce stereotypic gender roles. Why does porn receive more criticism for depicting unrealistic images of sex? Is it that romance novels reinforce the idea of monogamy, which is currently popular in our culture?

O&G: This is an excellent question, but one with a very important and illuminating answer: men and women's brains are designed to respond to different cues. The male brain responds to visual cues, the female brain responds to psychological cues. So when we experience cues designed for the other sex, it doesn't feel like sex to us. The female brain processes visual porn completely differently than the male brain does, and women often react with fear, discomfort, or self-righteousness because it doesn't match the way they experience sexuality. In fact, women attribute psychological and social "messages" to porn that their female brains "read" but that male brains don't experience at all. In contrast, male brains process women's erotic stories completely differently than the female brain does, and consequently men often find female erotica dull and uninteresting, because it doesn't trigger arousal in their brains. When it comes to sexual arousal, men and women stare at each other across a chasm!

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Dr. Sai Gaddam
  • Dr. Sai Gaddam
SA: The top seven most frequently used words to describe masculine features in ten thousand romance novels are “cheekbones,” “jaw,” “brows,” “shoulders,” “forehead,” “waist,” and “hips.” Women’s magazines often reinforce these indicators of beauty, using male models with striking features as opposed to giant muscles. They also use female models who are slender and “elegant.” Men’s magazines use male models with enormous muscles and female models overloaded with curves. Furthermore, men’s magazines often attract advertisements from muscle gain products and pills that boost penis size. Female magazines attract ads for weight loss supplements and sliming undergarments. On porn sites, “fat” is a much more popular search term than "skinny." It seems both sexes are less concerned with appealing to the opposite sex’s idea of beauty as opposed to appearing more masculine or feminine by their own sex’s standards. Why do you think the need to compete among one’s own sex is stronger than simply appealing to the opposite gender’s desires?

O&G: Another excellent question that once again points to the fundamental differences between male and female sexual cues. We each imagine that the other sex is responding to the same cues that we respond to. Men are wired to respond to large penises and unconsciously presume that women do, too. Women are wired to respond to sociocultural messages *from other women* and unconsciously presume that men do, too, and thus tend to place greater attention on the models on women's magazines than the actresses in men's porn. We even encountered this among gay men: several gay men told us that they're convinced that straight men all secretly want to have gay sex, they're just repressing this urge because of social pressures; these gay men unconsciously presume that straight men share the exact same cues they do. When it comes to sexuality, we're all somewhat self-centered!

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SA: Blind men are attracted to the same waist-to-hip ratio in women as sighted men. Did you uncover any data in regards to what people with various impairments find arousing? Do you expect that a congenitally blind man would be aroused by different physical cues than a man who becomes blind after his imprinting period?

O&G: We're actually very interested in learning more about what congenitally blind and deaf men find arousing. Unfortunately, we have very limited data. From our very small sample size, it appears that congenitally blind men are attracted to the same anatomical features that non-blind men like (i.e., breasts, butts, curves, sexy voices), though we really need to know more. We'd predict that a man who became blind after imprinting would continue to be aroused by the same visual features that he imprinted upon—either by imagining the features "in his mind's eye" or by seeking out physical contact with the same features.

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Dr. Ogi Ogas
  • Dr. Ogi Ogas
SA: From romance novelists to porn stars, A Billion Wicked Thoughts seems particularly important for anyone whose business hinges on sexual desire. Was one of the goals of this book to provide market research to companies who profit off of sexual desire?

O&G: Though we didn't have any specific interest in providing market research to the adult industry, several professionals in the industry have told us how valuable the data in our book has been to them. Stephen Yagielowicz, the senior editor of the adult industry journal XBIZ, called our book "a must reader for marketers." The National Association for the Advancement of Science and Art in Sexuality (, an adult industry educational organization, has made our book a required text in their academy.

Read more about A Billion Wicked Thoughts and buy the book at

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Neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam may seem like unlikely authors of what is being called the most systematic and comprehensive study of human sexual desire to date. Then again, Alfred Kinsey was an entomologist and zoologist before he pioneered the field of sexology. What all three men have in common is an ability to collect, categorize, synthesize, and present unfathomable amounts of information in a language the rest of us can understand. While Kinsey surveyed 18,000 middle class Americans in the 1950s, Ogas and Gaddam analyzed the anonymous Internet activities of a hundred million men and women from around the globe. The result, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, is a straightforward, entertaining, astounding, and sometimes shocking look at the nature of sexual desire.

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Shawn Alff: A Billion Wicked Thoughts begins by pointing out how most research on human sexuality is flawed because sample pools are often limited to college undergraduates. Your research is based on the premise that when given the anonymity of something like the Internet, our true sexual natures are revealed. Were you at all worried that by studying the anonymous activities of Internet users, you were examining sexuality in an artificial environment? Are the desires we explore in secrecy true reflections of our sexual natures?

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