The question is why some people who are caught masturbating at 7 collect a lifetime of neuroses, while others go on to a lifetime of jolly bath-time jerking-off; why only a few of the children who sleep with stuffed animals wind up dressing in furry-animal costumes with zippers at the crotch. A single child will encounter lots and lots of things that may hold an erotic charge—spanking, nuns, roller coasters, dogs, Beyoncé videos, gymnastic uniforms, X-ray technicians, UPS men, vinyl raincoats, the uncircumcised penis of the boy at the urinal. But why some people then go online in puberty to visit dog-porn or nun-porn sites is not fully understood—yet, anyway. One possible, if partial, explanation is that humans head into adolescence armed with many impulses, but in exploring them, even tentatively or in fantasy, find that some produce meager pleasures while others hit the jackpot, arousally speaking, and trigger a galloping obsession. Establishing sexual taste is “like carving a statue,” says psychologist James Cantor. “Discard the parts you don’t need, and you’re left with a structure.”
The bigger answer is that personality coalesces in a primeval swamp of nature, nurture, and culture, and sex is impossible to separate from all that. (The impulse to separate it is another holdover from Victoria and Freud.) In the scientific literature, there’s a whole category of sex offenders who are said to have “courtship disorders.” These are voyeurs, exhibitionists, the people who make obscene phone calls (or did, in the pre-Internet era), and frotteurs (the creepy guys who rub against you in the subway). Almost always men, they also almost always have social anxiety and get off doing solo the things that most people usually do ensemble. A voyeur named Barry described his craving to the Guardian earlier this year: “I couldn’t be in the company of a woman without trying to see what I could see, constantly thinking, I wonder what knickers she’s got on. I wonder what type they are.” In an effort to satisfy his need in a more socially conventional way, Barry asked a co-worker out, and, as the date was ending, he invited her to join him in the bushes. At which point he said, “I’m not going to touch you. I’m not going to do anything to you. All you’ve got to do is just undo your zip, and pull open your jeans.” The woman fled, and Barry was promptly arrested.
And how likely is it that your sexual tastes, the things that make you such a thrilling lay, are an unconscious assimilation of culture’s signals? Pretty likely, it turns out. The best working theory about the insane popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it appealed to a certain type of woman, the overworked, exhausted female, for whom the notion of relinquishing control is the ultimate fantasy. The books worked on a second level as well: They turned soft S&M into something to talk about at the bar, which made it, in effect, fashionable. What you find sexually titillating probably depends as much on where you live and when you live there as it does on whether an amputee librarian taught you how to use the Dewey decimal system. Hairless genitals are the thing right now, whether you call them a taste or a fetish; but in the first part of the twentieth century, an earthy abundance of pubic hair was preferred. Foot fetishes increase during sexually transmitted disease epidemics, Ohio State researchers found in 1998; the Brits have raincoat fetishes; and the Japanese, for whatever reason, have a predilection for used schoolgirl underpants. In Israel, according to a survey by PornMD, porn surfers search prostate most of all; in the Palestinian territories, family; and in Syria—go figure—aunt.
Online, we live less in one of those cultural-sexual niches than in a cornucopia. The Internet offers unprecedented access to all kinds of sex, and the opportunity to connect with any person, anywhere, who likes what you like and who may introduce you to something, or someone, that you like more. (There’s even a Tumblr tag for vorarephiles, who get aroused imagining themselves being eaten or eating others; people post photos of pythons and super-magnified teeth and an animated version of what falling down someone’s gullet might look like.) But even online, conformity is the general rule. The narrative arc of the typical straight eight-minute porn tape is as predictable as a car chase: oral, missionary style, doggy style, anal, cum shot between the breasts or in the face. And while some tastes vary from place to place, within any culture there’s a basic consensus on what’s hot. In every state of the nation aside from Hawaii, MILF is among the top ten most-searched porn terms. A generation ago, MILF wasn’t even a word. Now it’s a meme.