September 12, 2017

Review Essay on Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and The Incest Diary by Anonymous

Anonymous. 2017. The Incest Diary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. 2017. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are. New York: Dey St.

This review essay discusses PornHub search data in light of an anonymously published autobiographical account of father-daughter incest.

No. Wait. Come back.

I actually have a serious point (or two) to make about research and knowledge production. I promise.

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are looks like the sort of eye-catching, gimmicky nonfiction reading that people impulse-purchase at airport bookstores…and I’m sure HarperCollins had those particular buyers in mind when they decided to publish it. But the book is actually based upon the author’s PhD dissertation in Economics at Harvard University and presents a wealth of fascinating, not to mention disturbing, findings based upon data from search and social media websites such as Google, Facebook, and PornHub.

Yes, PornHub. (In case you didn’t already know, PornHub is a searchable, YouTube-like site for viewing, posting, and sharing sexually explicit video content.)

Let’s look at a direct quote about just one of those disturbing findings from search data received from PornHub: “Fully 25 percent of female searches for straight porn emphasize the pain and/or humiliation of the woman—‘painful anal crying,’ ‘public disgrace,’ and ‘extreme brutal gangbang,’ for example. Five percent look for nonconsensual sex—‘rape’ or ‘forced’ sex—even though these videos are banned on PornHub. And search rates for all these terms are at least twice as common among women as among men. If there is a genre of porn in which violence is perpetrated against a woman, my analysis of the data shows that it almost always appeals disproportionately to women” (Stephens-Davidowitz 2017, 121).

Now, Stephens-Davidowitz is quick to point out that people fantasize about things they wouldn’t want to happen to them in real life, and just because many women fantasize about rape, that doesn’t make actual rape any more acceptable or less of a crime. But like all quantitative social science, big data analysis is good for determining correlations, not causations, and in this instance Stephens-Davidowitz does not bother speculating why so many women go to PornHub to see other women hurt and/or humiliated.

Okay, confession time: I am a woman, but intuitively, I understand the impulse to seek out depictions of other women being raped for my own vicarious sexual pleasure like I understand what it might be like to live on the planet Jupiter. In other words—and I write this with no pride but merely as a statement of fact—I don’t understand it at all and, when reading this book the first time, struggled to imagine what it might be like experience these desires. As such, I could not even generate hypotheses which might explain the phenomenon.

And then a few weeks later, because the publishing industry was all abuzz about it and I was curious about what/why it was being hyped, I read The Incest Diary.

The Incest Diary is purported to be a true, autobiographical account of a woman who was raped regularly by her father from the ages of three to twenty-one. The rapes, along with many other sexual matters, are described in lurid, some might say “pornographic,” detail. Because it has been published anonymously, it is not really possible to independently verify the author’s claims one way or the other. The book may be real, or it may be fabricated and marketed as a memoir because it would not stand on its literary merits if sold as fiction, but for the purposes of this essay, the veracity or lack thereof of the author’s account is not what interests me.

What does interest me, rather, is her account of her consumption of pornography and her reasons for doing it. While she was married, she writes: “Sometimes in the afternoons when he was at work, I looked at pornography. I would look at bondage, at submissive women being beaten, at fathers and daughters. It made my cunt hurt to look and I couldn’t help doing it” (Anonymous 2017, 120). She also admits, “I wanted to be the man who hurts girls” (Anonymous 2017, 128) and that “when I saw Botero’s paintings of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, blindfolding and restrained, it excited me. […] I like to be gagged and restrained. It makes me think of the time my father tied me up in the closet and face-fucked me until he came in my mouth and I vomited up his semen (Anonymous 2017, 21-22). In short, this woman seeks out images of abuse and sexual violence because she herself was raped.

I want to believe that those PornHub searches in Everybody Lies are harmless fantasies at best or misogyny internalized through regular exposure to our sexist contemporary popular culture at worst. I want to believe that activist lobbying to reduce the ubiquity of sexualized violence against women on, say, “prestige” networks like HBO help to protect actual victims of sexualized violence from being “triggered.” But after reading The Incest Diary, I worry that those PornHub searches might instead be a giant red flag, data pointing to an epidemic of hidden, unreported sexual violence perpetrated against women without any public awareness or accountability whatsoever.

The very thought makes me sick to my stomach. And perhaps the worst part is that Stephens-Davidowitz’s findings in an all-too-similar instance are painfully suggestive. To wit: It has been hypothesized that rates of child abuse increase during economic downturns, but child protective services reported fewer cases of abuse during the Great Recession. So, Stephens-Davidowitz wondered, did child abuse actually plummet? I’m going to quote him directly again: “[S]ome kids make some tragic, and heart-wrenching, searches on Google—such as ‘my mom beat me’ or ‘my dad hit me.’ And these searches present a different—and agonizing—picture… The number of searches like this shot up during the Great Recession, tracking the unemployment rate. Here’s what I think happened: it was the reporting of child abuse cases that declined, not the child abuse itself. After all, it is estimated that only a small percentage of child abuse cases are reported to authorities anyway. And during a recession, many of the people who tend to report child abuse cases (teachers and police officers, for example) and handle cases (child protective service workers) are more likely to be overworked or out of work” (Stephens-Davidowitz 2017, 146).

Rape, like child abuse, is underreported. How would we even go about finding out if that PornHub search data represents relatively harmless sexual fantasies or, rather, expressions of mental ill-health among a socially—and morally—intolerable number of female rape victims? For less controversial substantive areas, the standard recommendation is to supplement this sort of quantitative finding with qualitative research methods such as in-depth interviews and ethnography. But people conceal and lie about sensitive subjects; certainly, the anonymous author of The Incest Diary describes lying to a therapist who is concerned about her potential to “self-harm” in the very first paragraph of the very first page of her book!

So what, as sociologists, do we do in such instances, where new digital media platforms generate new sources of data which raise new and hugely troubling, methodologically problematic questions? I don’t know. I wish I did.

Still, there is one little ray of hope. Stephens-Davidowitz notes that both the Human Rights Campaign and US child protective services have contacted him about his (anonymous and aggregate) Google search data to help them better target their resources and learn where child abuse may be most grievously underreported (Stephens-Davidowitz 2017, 161). Maybe some concrete social goods will emerge from his findings. I certainly hope so—and I’d like to see a lot more of it.