Why Straight Men Gaze at Gay Women

“What is the most popular porn search term in your state?”

This headline dutifully poked open a gap in my curiosity when variations of it appeared a few days ago.

Ooh, is it “half-Jewish bloggers with autoimmune issues?”

Click. Sigh. No, alas. It’s lesbians.

The map, created by data from Pornhub, reveals that in the majority of states, people are searching for lesbian porn the most. Oh sure, in a few quirky states, cartoons are the most popular. Others have ethnic preferences or mother figures they’d like to, uh, well you know. Perhaps the cold weather in Wyoming, Maine, and Minnesota makes people pine for their stepsisters.

Most Searched-for Term, by State

But otherwise, it’s lesbians riding up the Eastern seaboard on the Acela of love. Lesbians trotting across the vast, great Western plains. Lesbians uniting New Yorkers and Alabamians like little else does. Lesbians, from sea to shining sea.

Of course, the Pornhub results are far from scientific. Even past data dumps from the same company have purported to show that “teen” or “MILF” porn are actually more ubiquitous.

Nor is the fascination with lesbians solely a male phenomenon. In a Marie Claire survey of mainly female respondents, lesbian porn was the second most popular option, after the heterosexual variety.

Still, the idea that straight men like it when two women make out (and more!) is so commonplace that it’s a cultural touchstone. They don’t even have to be real lesbians: “Those twins” are among the things a canonical Coors Light drinker loves. On Friends, Chandler and Joey give up their apartment—their apartment in Manhattan—for the chance to watch two of their straight female friends kiss for one minute.

So what is it about the sight of two women that, purportedly, sets male loins ablaze?

First of all, lesbian porn does not rank as highly among male sexual interests as do, “breasts, butts, MILFs, amateurs,” and even women with penises, according to the research of Ogi Ogas, a neuroscientist and co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire. For the book, he and co-author Sai Gaddam analyzed millions of searches, erotic stories, videos, personal ads and other data to find out exactly what makes humans tick down there.

But to the extent that lesbian erotica is popular, it can be explained by the fact that men are most aroused by visual cues that emphasize youth and downplay drama and emotional complexity. Lesbian porn, therefore, works for straight men by “doubling up” those visual stimuli, Ogas explained. The only thing better than one nubile, personality-free woman is two of them.

“Sexual fantasy obeys its own rules that have nothing to do with common sense.”

I pointed out to Ogas that this is a rather irrational desire: Lesbians are the only group of women who will categorically never be interested in a straight man. This is like someone named Steve entering a lottery called “Mega Millions for Anybody But Steve.” It’s not going to happen, Steve!

“It’s amusing that you offer up the fact that lesbians will never be interested in men as a possible reason why men should not be aroused by them,” he said. “Sexual fantasy obeys its own set of rules that have nothing to do with propriety, common sense, or even the physical laws of the universe. Women, for instance, are often aroused by billionaires and celebrities who are extremely unlikely to reciprocate the sentiment.”

(I maintain that Oscar Isaac is going to come around any day now.)

Ogas says that when it comes to fantasy, it gets even weirder than being into people who aren’t into you. “Many people nurse erotic fantasies of shrinking to the size of a mouse or being transformed into a furry bunny,” he said.

Interestingly, the reverse—loving gay male porn—is not quite true for women. At least, not in the same way. Unlike most men, Ogas says, most gay and straight women have an emotional, narrative component to their erotic fantasies. Straight women may have enjoyed Brokeback Mountain, but it was probably for the story.

“Very few men visit websites containing erotica featuring actual lesbians that is targeted at actual lesbians."

Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who has studied arousal, said when they’re asked by researchers, women say they don’t get turned on by sex scenes featuring two men. However, when researchers measure their levels of genital arousal, women seem to equally enjoy erotica featuring two women, two men, or a heterosexual couple.

“Their genitals get aroused, but that’s not necessarily what they feel in their heads,” Bailey explained.

Meanwhile, most straight men don’t get aroused—genitally or intellectually—by anything other than women. The reason, Bailey speculates, is that it wasn’t evolutionary advantageous for women to be as sensitive to visual stimuli as men are, since we face pressure to pick the one guy who is going to invest a lot of resources in our offspring, and looks alone aren’t the best way to judge that. We’re looking for an officer and a gentleman, so we can’t be distracted by, ahem, Any Orificer and a Genitalman.

And all of this doesn’t mean that real straight men are romantically attracted to real lesbians. “Very few men visit websites containing erotica featuring actual lesbians that is targeted at actual lesbians,” Ogas said.

It’s all just what Ogas calls an “erotic illusion”—images that trick our sexual circuits just like that “vase or two faces” thing tricks our optical circuits. Straight men don’t actually want to date a lesbian, just like young women don’t actually want to date a vampire or sadomasochistic recluse. We keep those thoughts between ourselves and the computer keyboard—and the all-seeing eye of Big Data, naturally.