Every now and then I like to Google the word ‘sexy’ to see what comes up. I’m not just bad at finding porn – I’m mostly interested because Google’s algorithms are often an interesting insight into the way people view the world. Google, to a certain extent, reflects what we find sexy today. On top of that, it often feeds back into itself, and in turn shapes what we’ll find sexy tomorrow.
The image above is what came up when I googled ‘sexy’ today. Let’s see what this tells us.
Women are the benchmark of ‘sexy’
The first thing you’ll have noticed from the Google image search is that the vast majority of the images there are women. There are two pictures which feature men, only one of which features a man on his own. This, I’ll admit, was pretty surprising to me: all the other times I’ve done this, I’ve had to scroll through roughly 200 pictures of scantily-clad women before I find a picture of a guy.
Even taking a sample of, say, the first 120 pictures on my search today, I can only find 8 men in total. That’s 8 out of 120. And in most of these the men are presented next to sexy women. In one case he’s being strangled by her sexy thighs, in another case he’s cosplaying as a woman. So: what do we learn about what’s ‘sexy’? Women. Women are sexy.
This is a problem.
‘Sexiness’ = female
If we define ‘sexy’ as ‘female’, then that becomes the benchmark by which we measure what we should and shouldn’t be aroused by. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to bite my tongue when someone says ‘oh but EVERYONE loves boobs though!’ From burlesque to strip to billboards for M&S lingerie, there’s an assumption that scantily-clad women are a universal pleasure. We all enjoy looking at them, don’t we? Even if our sexuality doesn’t mean we are all lusting, it’s often considered a bit ‘off’ if you point out that it’s not for you.
Far more importantly than that (in my opinion – yours might differ) is the underlying assumption that if ‘sexy’ is female, then men can never quite get there. This has led to a fair few bizarre conversations between me and guys I fancy, where they tell me that their bodies ‘just aren’t’ as sexy as mine – regardless of the relative beauty of either, the eye of the beholder, or anything else. They refer to their dick as ‘ugly’ or ‘the last turkey in the shop’, because again – sexiness has always been defined as female. Women just ARE sexier, aren’t they? At least according to Google.
‘Sexiness’ = white
Again, let’s pop back to the Google image search and see what else it tells us: sexiness is mostly white. I say mostly because it’s not entirely white, but there’s a definite tone to the page, isn’t there? A colour that bra manufacturers used to call ‘flesh’ before they realised that flesh comes in a whole greater range than ‘vaguely pinky-beige.’
I cannot, obviously, know certain things about all of the women on the page – what their background is, or whether they’re cisgendered or trans (though I could make a pretty educated guess based on what I know of what society says is sexy). But I can perhaps make a few more guesses about what’s ‘sexy’ according to Google just from scanning that one search.
‘Sexiness’ = available
There’s lots more we can get: sexiness equals being available, willing, lusty. It means, mostly, being slim. Ideally dressed in either lingerie, a bikini, or a shirt that is hanging on by sheer force of will.
The problems with Google’s definition of ‘sexy’
Ages ago I wrote a piece about FHM’s 100 sexiest women – comparing the criteria by which they seemed to be on the ‘sexiest women’ list with criteria Twitter had suggested about what makes someone sexy. The answers were unsurprising: when you ask for a general vote – gathering collective intelligence about who is sexy – you’ll usually end up at an answer that gives you a bland, homogenous interpretation of the majority view. When you ask individuals, you’ll get more nuanced responses like ‘sexy hands’ or ‘the way she bites her lip when she’s thinking of something dirty.’
And the same is true of Google here. In fact it’s more pronounced with Google, because while the algorithm is constantly changing and adapting, and new ‘sexy’ content is being published online every day, it also to a certain extent feeds back what it thinks you want to see. So if you have tendencies one way or the other, it’ll feed those back to you, and you’re less likely to spot things that fall outside what you’ve defined as ‘sexy’ or fun.
It’s the sexy snake that eats itself.
That’s not to say that none of these people are sexy – they all are, in their own unique ways. It’s just that ‘what is sexy?’ should be a question that requires context to answer. If someone asks me ‘what is sexy?’, my first response would be ‘to whom?’ or ‘about what? Like, are we talking about sexy behaviour, sexy looks, sexy clothes – what’s my context here?’
And yet if I’d said to you ‘what do you think you’ll see when you type ‘sexy’ into Google?’ chances are you’d have expected exactly this. When we use collective opinion to find an answer to a subjective question, that answer can only ever be a fudge. I’m reminded of a time when a man on twitter got very angry with me because I said that ‘beauty’ is subjective.
“NO IT ISN’T,” he tweeted “Because if I took a survey of everyone in the world about whether or not you are beautiful, there’d be a majority answer.”
And there would be. It’s just that… it wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t even be wrong. You can’t allocate beauty by committee.
It’s not Google’s fault specifically: there has always been media which tells us what counts as sexy – the ‘Google’ effect is more pronounced because these days we have so much more media to consume than we did back in, say, the 17th century when ‘sexy’ was defined as ‘rich and had a powdered wig’ or whatever. There are plenty of things that will affect a Google search (how trusted the website with the ‘sexy’ picture is, how recent the image, how often the site is updated, sometimes who’s doing the searching, a million other things). A genuinely diverse set of pictures on a ‘sexy’ search would need to be hand-picked, and that throws up a whole host of new problems – as well as failing miserably at doing what Google’s actually designed to do: aggregate.
Why Google’s ‘sexy’ matters
I’m pointing this out for two reasons. Firstly: it’s worth remembering that when things like Google, or the mainstream media, present ‘sexy’ as female by default, white by default, cisgender and slim by default, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that’s what’s ‘right.’ Like my guy who said you can allocate beauty with an opinion poll, so every day we live alongside these assumptions, and then we repeat them unthinkingly.
“Everyone loves boobs, though!”
“Who DOESN’T like looking at a beautiful woman?”
“Penises are just weird and ugly-looking, aren’t they?”
None of these things is true, any more than it’s true that there really is a ‘sexiest woman in the world.’ Alongside challenging these assumptions, it’s handy to occasionally remind ourselves how they’re shaped. To keep it front of mind when we’re navigating the acres of media we consume every day.
The second reason I point it out is because it’s not just Google. Nor is it just mainstream magazines, or newspapers. Any large media outlet that curates and presents a specific type of image, text or video will necessarily shape how you perceive the entire genre.
If Google’s shaping what we perceive as ‘sexy’, consider the way that the major tube sites perceive what we see as ‘porn.’
There’s a part two to this blog post. Pop back on Wednesday next week (or subscribe for updates), and we’ll do this test again, but for porn.