Biological determinism, erotica, and romance at the WSJ

by Sunita

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the generally high quality of the Review section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal. The front-page story is really good about half the time, the book, film, and theater reviews are well worth reading, and the weekly closeup story of a Masterpiece is frequently intriguing (this week it examines Lampedusa’s great novel, The Leopard).

But it’s still the Journal. Two pages over from an excellent review of two economics books on poverty and aid programs and just above an insightful examination of how the 3 Cups of Tea scandal is affecting charitable fund raising is an appallingly bad article with a very good title: “The Online World of Female Desire.” It’s been given prime newspaper real estate (page 3 of the section, above the fold) and it’s written by none other than the inexplicably ubiquitous Ogi Ogas. Even if the name isn’t familiar, you’ll know his work, primarily from his blog at Psychology Today, which features posts like “Why Feminism is the Anti-Viagra.” That piece was pretty thoroughly demolished by Robin and the commenters to her post over at Dear Author. But like your favorite zombie villain in the movies, Ogas just keeps coming back.

Why a “computational neuroscientist” is considered competent to talk about human sexuality when he has no training in this field is an ongoing mystery. According to his page at Boston University, from where he received his Ph.D. from the Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems in May, 2009, his “doctoral dissertation explored models of memory priming and color vision.” He has described his dissertation research in the following way:

Basically, what I do is look at how the brain works and try to create computer models or algorithms to model that.

You can read an abstract of the thesis here. It doesn’t appear to have much to do with sexuality or women, but then I’m no cognitive neuroscientist.

He and a collaborator who consults firms on data-mining for market research have been conducting an analysis of what they modestly term

an unprecedented new landscape of data revolutionizing our understanding of human desire.

To you and me, that means they are harvesting billions of online searches for everything from romance novels to People magazine articles about Orlando Bloom to porn.  Now this is not necessarily a misguided project. I have colleagues who are using scraping and other such techniques to explore everything from partisan political attitudes to blog networks to political fundraising, using data from the internet. But all of these colleagues have training in both their substantive areas of interest and the methodological techniques necessary to conduct the analysis. Not only does Ogas lack the necessary substantive background, his data collection techniques were ethically flawed and Boston University disclaimed any affiliation with the research (h/t Daedala, and here’s another excellent overview). Yet Psychology Today has no problem giving him a platform, and now the Journal follows suit.

I would forgive the lack of academic credentials if the article were any good; after all, there are lots of insightful observers of social phenomena who don’t have Ph.D.s, and this piece is in a newspaper, not a professional journal. But the article is just terrible, both in the substance of its argument and the way Ogas goes about making that argument.

Ogas equates a woman’s search for a mate with the way Miss Marple goes about solving a murder, and calls “this unconscious evaluation [is] the source of ‘feminine intuition.’” I have no idea what this means, but falling in love with someone you want to spend your life with doesn’t seem to me to have much overlap with solving a crime. He then draws an analogy between romance novels and pornography. Women, who are complex, read romance novels while men, who are simple, look at pornographic visual material. Women don’t buy subscriptions to porn sites, but they read lots of romance novels. In fact, there are as many people reading romance novels in English worldwide as there are people visiting porn sites in the U.S. and Canada (which suggests that many more people visit porn sites, but whatever).

Having drawn parallels between romance novels and porn, Ogas now makes a bizarre leap from romance novels as written by Jane Austen, Nora Roberts, and Stephenie Meyer (his examples) to fan fiction. Moreover, he segues from talking about romance novels in general to talking about erotic fan fiction. He then draws a parallel between men who visit porn sites because they want to see naked pictures of movie stars and women who write fan fiction about Orlando Bloom as Legolas. While doing this, he also collapses the difference between writing erotic fan fiction about Orlando Bloom and “seeking out personal details of his life,” presumably in places like People magazine. His final point of comparison is that fan fiction involves women in communities and discussions, while men view porn by themselves.

Surprisingly, given his study of thousands of ebooks, Ogas does not appear to have come across what is often called “stroke fiction,” which would seem to be a more direct comparison, i.e., in the search for solitary sexual gratification, women read stories while men look at pictures. But of course, the point is to show the ways in which women are different from men, not the ways in which they might be similar.

Finally, in the next-to-last paragraph of the article, Ogas completely undermines everything that has gone before. Granted, it wasn’t very good to begin with. Let’s recap: (1) Women go online to find romance novels, erotica, and fan fiction in order to figure out through fictional heroes the kind of man they want; (2) Men are visual and solitary, women are textual and communitarian; and (3) Reading romance and erotica, and writing fan fiction, is about “satisfying sexual curiosity” for women.

After making all these points, Ogas raises the possibility that women reading this article may not feel he accurately represents their behavior. And they would be correct! Why? Because:

somewhere between a quarter and a third of the visitors to the major pornography sites are women.

Yes, you read that right! Women constitute a non-trivial proportion of porn consumers. They may not subscribe to the sites, but they visit them. Apparently there are a lot of women who find images to be sexually stimulating. Who are these women?

Our data suggest that these women probably have a higher sex drive than other women and that they are more socially aggressive and more comfortable taking risks.

Really? Higher than fan fiction writers? Higher than readers of erotica? How does he know that from the data? And who are the “other women” to whom he refers? We have no way of knowing.

This is not academic research. This is not even academic research results popularized for a general audience. This is just someone with a half-baked theory and an unrelated Ph.D. trolling through mounds of data which may or may not support the theory. We can’t tell because we don’t know anything about the shape and scope of the data or how he analyzes it.

I really don’t understand how someone with such obviously limited training is able to get platforms to pontificate in simplistic ways about complex phenomena about which he is academically ignorant. Maybe he has a terrific promoter. Someone helped him get on all those game shows. But I can find no evidence that Ogas has any scholarly training in the social science fields that have produced a huge literature on these topics (forget the humanities, there’s almost no chance he’s taken more than an undergraduate class to satisfy a distribution requirement).

The book based on this pseudo-analytical, ethically suspect data-mining effort comes out this week, which helps to explain the timing of the Journal article (although not the willingness of the editorial staff to provide him with a publicity opportunity). I think I’ll pass.

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