Last year, Huffington Post published a piece called 10 Questions You Always Wanted To Ask A Sex Therapist. The title hinted at our reliance on Google for sex advice. Questions we always wanted to ask and often looked up on our search bars, phones tilted so that no one could see what we were doing.

This clandestine instinct is age-old: In letters mailed to sexologist William J. Fielding between the 1920s and 1950s, which I have studied closely, last names of people seeking answers were casually omitted and introductions hesitantly written.

Surely there is a difference between seeking advice from an algorithmic bot and corresponding about it with a human being. SEO keywords are often mistaken. The most popular answers are not always the most relatable. Comparing the data available on our kinkier digital searches with the Fielding Papers brings to the table an important question: should we make Google our sexologist?

A question ‘down there’

  1. A young man opened up to Fielding about his “underdeveloped genitals”. This condition, he admitted, has given him “an ever growing inferiority complex”—it was an issue he linked with his sister’s “insufficient gland secretion,” and he wondered whether it was due to the fault of genetics. He even wondered whether his underdeveloped beard has anything to do with it.

I commence with this letter because the young man’s insecurity is common among many young males today. Last year, according to data pulled from Google Trends, more Americans have Googled the terms “make dick bigger” than “make beard thicker.”

To draw a similarity between two remote time periods is tricky. There was no massive, mobile and prolific porn industry in 1937— and the unrealistic body standards it has produced. There were no images with full resolution, no filters on Instagram—OctoBeard or Movember months, either. What makes the young man’s letter more powerful than our Google searches?

A question for a friend

  1. A college student sent a pressing letter to Fielding on behalf of two of his friends, who, according to him, not only fucked, but may have fucked up, too. He writes:

            “Is it possible for semen the spermatozoa of semen ejaculated on the surface of the vulva to penetrate?”

The word semen was indeed crossed off and the word surface underlined. This not only reflected the accuracy that the writer clung to but it also mirrored the state of panic in which he wrote the letter. He wondered if his friend was, “in any danger, whatsoever, of becoming pregnant?”

This concern is no different than the 7,041 Yahoo questions that bear the terms “pregnant” and “penetration.” In 2018, more Americans have googled the terms “am i pregnant” than “Brexit.”

The fact that more information on birth control and more condoms are available today re-shape the way we see previous generations and their sexual lives. They wrote about them, sometimes in six or seven pages rather than in one phrase. Since our personal butler Siri was still not around then, friends stepped up to help. Two partners and the sender of the letter: three’s a crowd, isn’t it?

Compare these three young students physically gathered, talking about the pressing issue, with three anonymous users answering each other on Yahoo. In which case do we see a collective?

A question for us

  1. Thanking Fielding for his booklets, another college student wondered:

            “They have been sources of information in discussions with some of my college friends here. Will you please set us straight on this question: Can a person do anything that will either increase or decrease the size of his reproductive organs?”

Please set us straight. A collective. Isn’t the picture of these young men conglomerated in a dorm room very different than users conglomerated on Yahoo regarding a supposedly embarrassing question?

These examples not only make us less cynical of grandma’s sexuality, which we deem to be prudish. It should also compel us to be cynical of our own sexuality; the fact that in our isolating googling habits we are missing out on something more real and more meaningful. Conversations that do not end abruptly at the resolution of a question and the granting of user points. Tangents and friendships that outlive the initial concern.

The gay question

  1. An 18-year old started out by thanking Fielding for his book on homosexuality. He then continued:

            “Perhaps it appealed to me more because (being very frank) I am a homosexualist!”

Any amateur linguist would conclude that the use of a tetrameter leaves readers out of breath and sparks suspense. The words between parentheses delay the outcome and the underlining of the word “very” places emphasis on what is to come. Out.

This 18-year old is indeed coming out to Fielding, an act that we label as exceptionally 21st century. LGBTQ-XYZ was a complaint I recently heard about today’s “over-sexual” generation.

Google’s Gaydar

  1. A self-designated ‘homosexualist’ shares with Fielding rumors “that in Europe and in the larger cities of this country there are clubs where homosexualism is practiced.” Whereas critics of pride parades and coming outs may point at the superficial nature of the collective desired by this gay man, another statement from him re-asserts a prevailing longing for community.

 He ended his letter by writing:

   “I expect someday to be an authority on the subject.”

How do such secretive yet ambitious concerns compare with our google searches? More than a million questions on Yahoo have the term ‘gay’ in them. More importantly, in the past 90 days, more people in the US have googled the terms “am i gay” than “am i smart” “am i short” or “am i fat.”

Who among us would even muster enough courage to craft up pages and pages of personal information to a complete stranger whom we address with our real names, rather than fishy usernames?

In an age of hacking and governmental spying, it is surprising that we believe that written evidence is more likely to expose us than our browser caches and cookies. Yet in the 20s, even when the US still criminalized homosexuality, great-grandma poured her thoughts into paper, slipped it to the mailman, received it from his hands without blushing and perhaps even kept it as a souvenir.

I leave you with a bitter-sweet statistic. In the past five years, the curve for the “am i gay” search is fluctuant. In my research, I usually evaluate news cycles that coincide with a digital search’s peak interest – to see whether our media consumption shifts our googling habits. I found that in the last five years, people in the US were most interested to ask Google about their sexuality during the week of June 28th, 2015.

Reminder: June 26 was D-Day, when the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage everywhere in the US. The paradox: The week when the whole nation was most visibly debating queer issues in public was the same week when issues of queerness were the most anonymously searched in private. Is this the instinct we want to normalize? Not to confide in our closest friends with whom we may share a community. To come out to Google instead?

A question we ought to ask

In The Drunken Days by Saadallah Wannous, a play set in 1930s Beirut where secret love affairs are booming, a long revisiting of personal accounts culminates with this quote: “The truth is a needle tossed in a heap of garbage.”

He was referring to letters such as Fielding’s, those writings that emancipate us when we write them and which become truths the moment they are read out loud.

Today, that same truth is on the brink of extinction. It is no longer the needle or letter tossed in a heap of garbage. It is a question on Google that we make sure disappears on our browser history.

If Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right in his Confessions about the political potential of intimacy, aren’t these letters urging us to snub a deaf Google and share our voices with those who ought to hear them?

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All sources retrieved from the William John Fielding Papers; TAM 069; Box 1 and 5; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

Photo: Creative Commons, “Google,” by Carlos Luna

Rayyan Dabbous is a Lebanese author, playwright and director. His recent works include political satire Syrians for Sale, Lebanese Style and DIY Creative Activism: A Handbook. 

 

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  • Lana-Nadia Koleilat

    so relevant and accurate and nicely transmitted!!