You Can’t Help Much What Turns You On

This article was first published online in Psychology Today.

It might be argued that many—if not most—of your sexual preferences are societally or culturally determined. But Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire (2011), think otherwise. Exploring the subject of human sexual tendencies in remarkable depth (their bibliography contains over 1300 items!), they make a strong case that most of our sexual choices are independent of what (at least subliminally) we’ve been taught to favor.

This extensive series of posts (in 12 parts) on male and female sexual cues is mostly based on Ogas and Gaddam’s comprehensive volume. And following these authors’ lead, I’ve pretty much been forced to conclude—from examining their review of findings in biology, anthropology, neuroscience, and case histories of infants organically altered—that the evidence clearly tilts in that direction. Namely, that our erotic inclinations have instinctual and genetic causes, as well as being rooted in early (generally unwilled) life experiences. Moreover, these preferences tend to be highly resistant to change. If, that is, they can be changed at all.

Let’s start with a brief discussion of the extraordinary case of David Reimer. In 1965, circumcised in Manitoba with an electrocautery needle, the attending urologist accidentally burned off his entire penis. In reaction, his horrified parents consulted Dr. John Money at Johns Hopkins University. The most famous sexologist of his time, Money was convinced that human sexuality could be completely controlled through social indoctrination. He therefore instructed the parents to change the infant’s name to Brenda (the name they’d planned to give the child if it were born female), have him undergo surgery to provide him with a vagina, and raise him as though he were their daughter. Taking their son/daughter to Money’s office for gender-identity therapy (once annually, for over a decade)—as well as furnishing him with dolls and dresses, and giving him hormone treatments so that he’d develop breasts—they were assured by the psychologist that their feminized (rather, emasculated) son would function just fine as a female.

So what was the result of such unprecedented sex reassignment therapy? In a word, disastrous—though this isn’t what, for many years, Money reported back to the scientific community, falsely claiming that his unorthodox “gender bending” was a complete success. In fact, “Brenda,” as early as age three, was tearing off her dresses, opting to play with cars and guns (vs. dolls), and using her jump rope not for skipping but for whipping her identical twin, rough and tumble brother and tying people up. An outcast at school for her various behavioral oddities, she was routinely teased and rejected.

When Brenda hit puberty, despite all of Money’s attempted “therapeutic” reprogramming, she/he experienced no attraction whatsoever to boys. Which led Money to ask the distraught parents (and, to me, the simplicity, denial, and incalculable arrogance in his thinking is absolutely mind-boggling): “How do you feel about your daughter being a lesbian?” (!)

Finally, no longer willing to ignore their child’s mental and emotional anguish, the parents rebelled against Money’s chief demand of them. Heeding the advice of a local psychiatrist, they confessed to their beleaguered adolescent child, now 14, that “she” had been born a “he.” This came as a great relief to the child, who proceeded to change his name back to David. Undergoing a mastectomy to remove his breasts and a phalloplasty to give him a (nonfunctional) penis, he began dating girls and eventually got married. But never again did he return to the eminent sexologist, Dr. Money—whom he saw, indignantly, as “brainwashing” him. Still, as a result of all the “psychological warfare” (his own term) that he just couldn’t get out of his head, at age 38 he committed suicide. (And how tragically ironic that he took his own life through firing a shotgun into his brain.)

Nonetheless, because of Money’s unwarranted optimistic reports, thousands of genetically male infants with “anatomical disruptions” were brought up as girls—and with markedly negative outcomes. The upshot of so many failed experiments in this area is that today the medical profession actively opposes this kind of nonvolitional surgical sex change. All of which suggests that a genetically male’s social environment does not have the power to transform the nature of his sexual desire—or, for that matter, redirect it (O&G, pp. 10-12).

Ogas and Gaddam provide the reader with an even more dramatic example of an entire society (the Sambia, in New Guinea) forcing on its male youths a practice that would seem perfectly contrived to “shape” them for later homosexuality. Yet roughly 5 percent of male Sambian adults have been found to be gay, a rate about the same as that in Western societies. The authors’ conclusion? Simply that “some things we instinctively find arousing (which is what’s called “cued interests”). Even if society urges us to participate in a sexual practice (in this case, fellatio) during our formative years, this does not necessarily determine our adult desires.” True, Ogas and Gaddam admit they haven’t uncovered research specifically demonstrating that the determinants of female sexual interests are identical to males’. But it does appear that it may be the innate brain software in all of us that, finally, constitutes the key influence on what’s destined to turn us on (see pp. 12-13).

Although, as I’ll illustrate, both genders can find themselves sexually aroused by what they’d prefer not be enticing to them, I’ll start with some examples specifically related to males.

I mentioned in a previous post that so-called “shemale porn” ranks high among what’s visually most exciting to males. And I’d be willing to wager that most males would probably experience embarrassment owning up to such a preference with their wives or girlfriends (and maybe even their guy friends, too—who might secretly share this choice!). In fact, such an interest is commonly held to be a “squick” (a kink that—conventionally or culturally—is seen as repulsive).

But despite the likelihood that most men drawn to such images (of attractive, curvaceous females exhibiting erect penises) are so involuntarily, such pictures and videos still have the power to markedly turn them on. It doesn’t matter that this arousal may go against their sexual grain, or that this predilection is unwilled. Regardless of their ambivalence, such imagery can titillate them—and frequently to their surprise, even astonishment.

So what’s going on here? And why is such a seemingly atypical interest so well represented in mainstream porn sites—such as PornHub, the world’s most popular adult video site? In fact, Ogas and Gaddam quote Wendy Williams, a transsexual porn actress, as asserting that this form of porn “is one of the largest-selling niches in all of straight porn . . . a huge moneymaker” (p. 217).

It’s important to emphasize here that the main audience for shemale porn (models for which are also known as “trannies,” “T-girls,” or “ladyboys”) are heterosexual males, married as well as single. Additionally, such transsexual women, who yet maintain their original penises, have received hormones to acquire not only breasts but a female figure generally. Straight males’ interest in viewing such unusual anatomies (and, according to two sociologists investigating the phenomenon, some bisexuals as well) relates to the fact that transsexual women present a novel juxtaposition of two kinds of visual cues known to turn men on. First, there are the usual set of femininity cues—breasts, buns, curvy figures, and female facial features and mannerisms. And second (value added!), there’s the visual cue of the penis. As I’ll discuss in my next post, the sight of an erect penis is—however strange it may seem—likely to arouse males’ sexual brain. Combining in a single body, then, these two “opposite” cues has the power to sexually excite many males in ways that, previous to such exposure, they might never have imagined.

Comparing such an attraction to “the sense of inexplicable enigma” that many people experience in gazing at Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Ogas and Gaddam present the words of several men who are fans of this sort of porn. Here’s just one: “I like her soft looks, sexy body. Very nice long legs. And then there’s that added bonus. . . . I can’t really explain why it affects me.” (p. 218). Here it’s also worth noting that gay men show no interest at all in transsexual porn, for their innate sexual wiring doesn’t respond to femininity cues.

This “I can’t really explain” explanation takes us right back to the title of this post, suggesting again the involuntary nature of our sexual “choices” (if, finally, we can even call them choices). Ogas and Gaddam attempt to interpret this phenomenon neuroscientifically by stating that the two brain structures found to determine male arousal—namely, the amygdala and hypothalamus—do so independent of conscious awareness (p. 46).

Though my focus to this point has been on straight males, let me offer an additional quotation of “I don’t really understand it, but . . .” from a woman. It’s in the context of Ogas and Gaddam’s addressing the fact that in female-authored, so-called “fan fiction,” nonconsensual sex, even rape—sex that, frankly, would be experienced as highly degrading and humiliating—is extremely popular. And for some time now this (perverted?) preference has been “an understandable source of discomfort and hand-wringing” among women generally and female scientists in particular (p. 114). Here’s the quote:

“I get off on stories with the rough stuff. I don’t know why. I definitely would never want to experience any of the things that turn me on. But I need the girl to be exploited, put in her place with real force from the man. I don’t like to think too much about it, and I definitely would never tell my husband” [!] (pp. 116-17).

The deeper psychological reasons for this masochistic-seeming predilection (and, though to varying degrees, it exists in both sexes, straight and gay) will be taken up in my later post, “Dominant or Submissive?—The Paradox of Control in Sexual Relationships.

All the inclinations I’ve described so far come under the heading “cued interests.” Instinctual, they plainly differ from “uncued interests.” The latter stem from specific early personal experiences that, because they occur at a critical period in the individual’s sexual development, inflame their just-ripened eroticism (leading to a lifelong attachment). Obviously, such an interest is directly tied to unique circumstances in the individual’s life. And these predilections can take the form of fetishes, which represent sexual stimuli not commonly shared.

There’s no space here to explore these more “distinct” preferences; that would require a post by itself. As Ogas and Gaddam, assert: “By definition, uncued interests are much more variable than cued interests, since just about anything can become an uncued interest if it presents itself in the right circumstances” (p. 53). Still, I’d like to make the point that because these cues aren’t consciously concocted by those who (passively) acquire them, they’re quite as involuntary as the cued interests I’ve already characterized. Which is to say that uncued (vs. cued) interests actually yield additional evidence that, well, we really can’t much help what turns us on.

There are more cued (i.e., inborn) interests that might be examined here—such as males’ somewhat disturbing (bizarre?) erotic interest in cuckoldry and transformation fiction. But these topics are more appropriately explored in later posts (such as the forthcoming “The Secret, Taboo Aspects of Male Sexual Desire”). Instead, I’d like to end this post by presenting the conclusions of Ogas and Gaddam on the predetermined nature of the great majority of our sexual proclivities.

In many ways the authors’ entire volume, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, can be seen as devoted to better understanding the innate cues triggering human sexual desire. And the key point about such cues is that they’re as enduring as other instinctual behaviors. This is especially important to note with gays and lesbians, who many people (especially evangelical Christians) still assume freely choose their sexual orientation. As the two authors put it:

“Gay desire is as varied as straight desire. But numerous studies have demonstrated that the gay interest in masculinity appears to be as fixed and inflexible as David/Brenda Reimer’s unchangeable interest in women [recall this post’s first heartwrenching example]. Several decades of medical attempts at converting homosexual desire into heterosexual desire through conditioning, electroshock—or, in one case, directly stimulating a gay man’s brain while he had sex with a female prostitute—have been notorious failures” (p. 133).

In other words, you just can’t reprogram a human brain’s innate sexual software. And finally, endeavoring to do so is as inhumane as it is futile.

To read each segment of my 12-part series, visit my blog, Evolution of the Self, on Psychology Today.