What is ‘sexy’, according to Google?

Google image results for 'sexy'

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.

Homogenous sexiness

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.

19 Comments

  • Rachie says:

    It also means as a woman if you are not “sexy” you are failure. Sexy being, slim, big boobs, long hair, wide smile, flat tummy, long legs. Bland and boring!

    • Girl on the net says:

      Yes! And the idea that all those things are the be-all and end-all of sexy is bizarre. Some of my sexiest things are not photographable.

  • Dave says:

    Even my own ideas of sexiness have changed over time. The whole idea of a ‘type’ which we find sexy is fine (if a little limiting perhaps) but I find this type is constantly in flux.

    I think you have discussed before the idea of variety being sexy or novelty being sexy. That is exactly what I have found with what I find attractive. My tastes have shifted in order to refresh what I find sexy so as to introduce me to that variety/novelty.

    I think boredom with the familiar is a big turn off when it comes to raw attraction – nowadays I am bored silly of the sorts of images at the top of your post and I see them with a shrug of disinterest.

    Introduce me to a girl whose feet turn in a little when she is sat down or whose whole life seems to be devoted to making their neck and shoulders look perfect and I’m a dribbling mess.

  • kjsisco says:

    We are all a bit shallow. Scratch that, some people are shallow but we are all selective. Take a look at the size matters crowd; this is along that same line.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    Obviously this post applies to all forms of media, but I think the role of search engines like Google is particularly important. Google would very much like to be thought of as just a neutral, impartial aggregator, merely presenting what the Internet is saying and thinking; so, ‘this is what the Internet thinks of as sexy’. Which it is, up to a point. But Google’s also inevitably a publisher playing a role itself, by defining what ‘sexy’ means to the masses. Which is the point you’re making here: “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, say, a teenage girl wonders ‘am I sexy?’ and searches Google to find out what sexy means, this is what she sees. Google are, in some way, responsible for that.

    More troublingly, it occurs to me that even media that mentions what is socially considered ‘sexy’ in order to criticise it (like this blogpost) plays some small part in recycling these associations. Which is not to say you shouldn’t do so; only noting how thorny this stuff is. (An article noting how ‘in the world of fashion, beauty means being white and thin’ will make someone somewhere reading it think ‘in order to break into fashion, I need to be paler and thinner!’. And sadly they’ll be right.)

    The other odd thing here is, as you note, how this *isn’t* what the world thinks of as ‘sexy’ – it’s a homogeneous fudge (mmm). These pictures represent a shallow consensus definition of ‘sexy’, one that apparently a lot of people agree on (or at least, those with more power to shape the culture and influence Google results). But probably for only a few people do these pictures represent the *whole* of what they think of as ‘sexy’; they’re just the parts they can agree on.

    (This whole thing makes me wonder if we shouldn’t ditch the word ‘sexy’, as inescapably tied to its current associations, and try to promote a new word for indiscriminate attractiveness instead. Humpable? Wankworthy? Hmm.)

  • Dave says:

    It’s a bit like when you ask a million people what their favourite number is and then take an average as the definitive favourite number despite no one actually having voted for 65.467643225.

  • kjsisco says:

    Ah but if Google is pulling this information it is because this is what the majority of people are searching fore. Google is not to blame, human nature is.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Except obviously it’s more complicated than that – that search isn’t for ‘white slim semi-naked females’, it’s for ‘sexy’, and so a level of interpretation is necessary.

  • mortomanos says:

    Just a small clarification on the technical aspects of this question. Google is not an intelligent being. Google is a more or less complicated algorithm, a set of mathematical rules so to say, that match things together and ranks them somehow. The algorithm itself, the formula can only be so “intelligent” as are the people who developed it. So this results in one big finding: the search algorithm is always a subjective view of the world. And so is the result.

    Yes, there are parameters that alter the result, depending which country you live in, depending how much Google knows about yourself, about which country specific Google site you are using, and so on. But nevertheless, it is an algorithm.

    Second, we need to take into consideration how google matches online content with the word ‘sexy’. There are some image computing algorithms, but they have not much effect on the results. But the metadata that is associated to the picture (on which web page it is found, which articles are related, which additional keywords were attached by the HTML author, …) is the most important way of finding out what picture means ‘sexy’.

    So, in conclusion, as an example: if I make a very popular website with 2 billion clicks a day, with a picture and an article that contains 1000 times the word ‘sexy’, then maybe this would lead to a higher ranking, even if the picture is a yellow ugly elephant with violet spots on its nose. (No, this is not Google’s algorithm, but simplified enough to get the idea).

    • Girl on the net says:

      Genuine question: what was it about this post that made you think I don’t understand how Google’s algorithms work?

      • mortomanos says:

        I’m sorry, no offense meant against you. As a successful blogger one should know how Google works, and so do you. But not all of your readers, and what I experienced when reading your post was that Google was rather a being than an abstract technical thing (e.g. “Google […] reflects what we find sexy today” or “Google’s definition of…”). What I’m experiencing in every day life (and in modern language) is, that Google gets more and more treated as a social being with an intellect. But it is not, and so I wanted to point out this important differentiating factor.

        • Girl on the net says:

          OK, I see what you’re saying. I did refer to Google’s algorithm though as well as a few things that influence it. I think “Google does X Y Z” is more a figure of speech – I don’t think many people consider Google to be an individual, making conscious choices. If they did this post – and the point I’m making – would make no sense at all.

    • Davinya says:

      Yes, having only discovered this blog and having a background in IT, this us exactly how Google interprets your query. If you need an understanding on how the algorithm works, check out articles, searchable through Google, using the phrase “Search Engine Optimisation”. Hope this would help some readers.

  • Hillary says:

    I don’t believe there is an issue here, though it does raise some interesting questions.

    You asked the question using an English word, which is probably why you got predominantly white women. For homework, try looking up the Mandarin, Urdu, Swahili words for Sexy and see what Google throws up then. (Bear in mind that there is a strong possibility that this will be lost in translation too. You may ask Google for Swahili Sexy and Google may translate that back into English before applying its Algorithm – which might bring you back to where you started.)

    Swedish Sexy might throw up more Blondes and Spanish Sexy might throw up more Raven haired beauties.

    What this exercise shows is that Sexy (in English) is, like Pretty, a gender adjective. There ARE Pretty boys, but not many, just as there ARE Handsome women. If you want more male pictures ask Google for Hunk or Hunky, though Google might ask if you are looking for hanky – Hunky is most certainly not a mainstream adjective.

    As for teenage girls worrying about whether they are sexy enough. That is actually a different problem for their communities who should be teaching their young women that sexiness is NOT a measure of their value.

    We could (as Space Captain Smith suggests) remove the word Sexy from our dictionary all together, but it would not solve any of the problems. His/Her homework is to find out what Google has to say about an exchange of Letters to the Editor in The Times in the mid-1970s concerning the adjective Black. Somebody suggested that the weather forecasters should not predict a Black Frost as certain members of the community might be offended. I believe it sparked the longest running debate in The Times’ history. There will never be a politically correct alternative to Sexy as any replacement word will soon acquire the same connotations – as I believe has happened with almost every PC substitute.

    I think what your exercise has shown is an aggregate illustration of what the word Sexy means to most English speaking users of the Internet. Therefore, when using the word, bear that in mind; even if you think it SHOULD mean something different. The fact of life (or at least of the Internet) is that it doesn’t, and if you want to mean something else, you have to use a different word, or combination of words.

    Take home lesson? Use words carefully.

    (I would offer to help with your research on Porn, to find out what Google has to say about Mandarin, Urdu and Swahili porn, but my Internet connection is really not up to it. Sorry.)

    • Girl on the net says:

      “What this exercise shows is that Sexy (in English) is, like Pretty, a gender adjective.”

      It isn’t though – that’s the point of this post. You seem to be arguing that subjective notions like beauty or sexiness are (and should be) defined by what Google thinks, which is nonsensical, and essentially just means you’re stating the opposite of what I argued in my post.

      Your mention of ‘PC’ terms is irrelevant, as well – I don’t think ‘sexy’ is really considered ‘un-PC’ – it’s just a descriptive word.

      “I think what your exercise has shown is an aggregate illustration of what the word Sexy means to most English speaking users of the Internet”

      Yes. That is what Google does. And I am pointing out why an aggregate illustration of a subjective notion isn’t always helpful. You, on the other hand, seem to be arguing that it should be the basis of how we define subjective terms, thus turning subjective terms into objective ones, based on an algorithm. Which is weird.

    • Ay None says:

      Whilst I’m sure there probably would be cultural differences if you searched using different languages, it’s not like English is only spoken by heterosexual white men, nor is it true that heterosexual white men are only ever attracted to slim white women.

      I’m a straight, cis white woman, but if you asked me to name people I find sexy you’d get a list including Sue Perkins, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Oh, and Tim Curry as Frank N Furter because holy moly that look works for me…

  • Neha says:

    mmmm! I never knew sex (y) had so many meanings.
    Thanks for keeping it sexy.

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