Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Forced male prostitution: sexist?

I suggested before that degrading and violent pornography may not be sexist, pointing to homosexual porn that degrades men for the pleasure of a male audience. Is abusive behaviour sexist if it's aimed at members of the same sex?

My argument was that the sexual degradation of women in pornography is not evidence that men who enjoy this porn are sexist. Rather it suggests that some proportion of men like the idea of abusive sex with those they find attractive, be it male or female:

Today Spanish police undercovered a male sex trafficking ring that seems to support the idea that abusive sexual behaviour may have more to do with sex than sexism:

Spanish police say they have broken up a sex trafficking ring which brought mostly young Brazilian men to Spain to work as prostitutes.... The victims and their clients were plied with cocaine, viagra and other recreational drugs....

The suspected sex workers were in their 20s and were mostly from northern Brazil. They were reportedly told that they would get legitimate jobs in Europe as dancers or models, but were instead left with debts of around 4,000 euros (£3,300) - the cost of travelling to Spain. Others knew they would be working in the sex industry but did not know that they would be expected to work 24 hours a day and would be moved from province to province.

"If the men complained or caused any kind of problem, the gang leaders would threaten them, even with death," the police statement said.

The forced prostitution of men, by men, for men, is hardly sexist, but is still a terrible crime.

So what? Well so we needn't always interpret abusive behaviour in terms of some wider discrimination. Sometimes people are brutal and cruel, but when the victims are of a different sex it isn't necessarily sexist, when they are of a different race it isn't necessarily racist. Bad is bad and our opposition to this behaviour should be on the grounds that it creates victims, not that it indicates sexism, racism or some other prejudice.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The X-Factor and Government

From time to time journalists ask pop stars what advice they would give ambitious youngsters. The pop stars think about this and explain what they did to achieve success, perhaps something like this:

Just believe in yourself and never give up on your dreams!
There are very few successful pop stars but a great many people trying to be, which means that most of the people who set out to achieve this actually fail, and those failures are never interviewed by journalists.

What if the people who fail also believed in themselves and never gave up, but were still unsuccessful? By ignoring the stories of all those thousands who try and fail we are missing what Lebanese scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls 'silent evidence'. Unless journalists also interview the people who fail, and compare what they did with the successful people, we can't know if the pop stars' advice is actually any use at all.

Taleb's The Black Swan attacks the assumption that successful people are simply more talented than the unsuccessful:

Consider the thousands of writers now completely vanished from consciousness: their record did not enter analyses. We do not see the tons of rejected manuscripts because these have never been published, or the profile of actors who never won an audition - therefore cannot analyze their attributes. To understand successes, the study of traits in failure need to be present. For instance, some traits that seem to explain millionaires, like appetite for risk, only appear because one does not study bankruptcies. If one includes bankrupt people in the sample, then risk-taking would not appear to be a valid factor explaining success.

By ignoring the silent evidence of the unsuccessful, media may unwittingly warp viewers' understanding of how to succeed.

Curiously modern TV talent search shows like the X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent help to challenge this every time they deliberately present deluded, talentless dreamers babbling about their X-Factor before being crushed by Simon Cowell. It's an odd thing for shows that tend to manipulate emotion and emphasise feel-good messages about success to accidentally show the inevitability of failure for most competitors.

Hidden evidence can warp understanding of how to attain success in popular culture, but it also applies to politics.

Suppose the government announces a massive public works campaign to employ many thousands of people. Some will welcome this job creation since the visible evidence is clear: lots of new jobs. But there is silent evidence being neglected here: the source of the money to pay for these jobs, for example. In order to create these popular jobs the government needs to either increase taxes (and deprive others of their money) or sink further into debt. Taxing removes money from the economy. Employers who might have been thinking of expanding and creating more jobs decide they cannot now afford it. Workers who might have been thinking of buying new products now choose not to, pushing the manufacturers of those products into unemployment. In order to create jobs the government may need to destroy many more.

This is a common complaint of right-wing thinkers. The immediate effects of government intervention may often seem clear and positive, but there are hidden side-effects that are much more difficult to calculate.

For example the Spanish government has heavily subsidised alternative energy projects like wind and solar power. The visible benefits are quite clear: greater energy independence, fewer polluting fossil fuel plants and so on. But "the policy has contributed to an €18bn ($23bn, £15bn) accumulated deficit that hangs over the electricity sector", and this defict needs to be paid either by increased taxes, budget cuts elsewhere or debt. By subsidising alternative energy the Spanish state creates economic inhibitors in the form of higher taxation, which might actually slow the development of new energy technologies.

Or it might not. The point is that a simple-sounding government policy can have incredibly complex side-effects not readily understandable. Too often journalists here in Ireland neglect the silent evidence of these side-effects (perhaps because they are not clear) and emphasise only the direct and clear benefits.

In political terms this can be manipulated by the use of emotive questions that focus on the direct results of government intervention but ignore the hidden side-effects. Questions like "Do you think the government should do more to prevent suicide" tend to get answers in the positive, because most people want less suicide, and this could be interpreted as support for more aggressive state intervention.

A practical example of this bias in questioning is The Political Compass, an online political quiz that places respondents on a left/right, libertarian/authoritarian graph. The first proposition reads: "If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations."

Many people will say that yes, globalisation should serve humanity, not faceless corporations, and this places them to the economic left of the graph. But the proposition is an odd one. A more accurate one would be: "Government regulation and intervention in global economies is necessary to make globalisation serve humanity instead of trans-national corporations." This is a more explicit left-wing proposition, showing that the respondent is not just limiting trans-national companies, but empowering state control.

In college I found left-liberals who were highly sceptical of government, particularly in governmental regulation of drug use or sexual activitiy. They were also highly sceptical of big businesses, seeming to believe that government and capitalism worked together against the ordinary people. Yet these same left-liberals wanted to give the government more power, not less, and shift control of the economy from private businesses to the people, via a political elite. They saw the benefits of weakening big business, but not the negative side effects of strengthening a government they didn't trust.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A quick note on liberals and liberty

Anyone following the Australian elections might have noticed that the Liberal Party there is the right-wing party, equivalent to the Republicans in the US or Conservatives in UK. Yet in the US 'liberal' is a term most often associated with centre-left social democrats. So is liberalism a left or right-wing perspective?

In the mid-19th century millions of Europeans were still living under absolutist monarchs. Often these governments severely censored free speech, discriminated against religious and ethnic minorities and enforced the unpopular remains of medieval feudalism on miserably poor peasants. In parts of Eastern Europe peasants were still forced to perform compulsory labour for their landlords (called 'robot' among Czechs, from which we get the modern term for mindless labouring machines).

In 1848 a wave of revolutions across European capitals were led by liberal reformers, and these liberals wanted... liberty. They demanded religious liberty, freedom of speech, emancipation of Jews and serfs, access to free markets and so on. Many of these 'classical liberals' believed in the importance of individualism, and they worried about demands from the urban working class for unemployment aid that could only be funded by increasing taxes and, therefore, by assaulting economic liberties. Liberals, who months earlier had been rebels, began to find themselves threatened by a new wave of radical rebels - early socialists.

The problem was simple: an economic crisis in the 1840s had created widespread urban unemployment, while bad weather had driven up the price of food. For many there was no political template to their unrest, they were simply starving and determined to seize enough food to survive one way or another. Philosophers like Karl Marx tried to harness and direct this rage and various socialist movements sprung up across Europe.

The liberals, then, were pro-capitalist, firm supporters of the need to protect private property, and as such they were terrified by the violence of the radical working class movement with its demands for greater government intervention and unemployment aid. These early liberals were, economically speaking, far to the right of modern Republicans or Conservatives.

At some point the term 'liberal' switched from a supporter of individual liberty (and opponent of government intervention) into a supporter of the kind of social democracy they had once opposed. In the late 19th century the British Prime Minister William Gladstone led the Liberal Party into government where he supported a series of Irish Land Acts. These acts responded to Irish nationalist and agricultural violence by gradually empowering the poor Irish Catholic tenants to buy the land they worked on from Protestant landlords. This was a direct attack on the property rights of landlords that earlier liberals took so seriously.

The end result was that a number of different movements became associated with liberalism. In the US 'liberals' tended to be socially liberal - in favour of legalising abortion, divorce, prostitution, gay rights and possibly recreational drugs - but economically interventionist. Some liberals had come to oppose liberty, strongly advocating protectionism and social welfare, forcing through tobacco laws, seatbelt laws and controls of advertising. To distinguish themselves from this confusing new interpretation of liberalism, modern supporters of social and economic liberty sometimes call themselves libertarian.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Carving the Wooden Man

My father has long been interested in woodwork so when I was in my early teens I began to tinker about with his carving tools, making things like this:

Wood is an unpredictable medium to work in, each piece unique in its grain and flaws. I read once that woodcarvers can shift easily enough to carving stone but stonecarvers find the transition difficult, moving from the consistency of marble or granite to capricious wood.

The different trees have particular qualities. In school we were taught basic carpentry with Scots Pine, which is soft and easy to cut but with such a pronounced grain that it is difficult to carve. Instead it makes good wood for turning on the lathe, leaving a bright gold and red-brown pattern.

Lime, the wood used in the carved clock above, is very soft and exceptionally easy to carve. The timber is a rather bland pale yellow, and carves in any direction very smoothly but after several frustrated attempts I gradually abandoned it. Lime's softness demands accuracy I lacked; intricate work is prone to snapping.

As this broken piece showed me, nature is cruel to lime too: after a few years hanging in a tree behind my house a large chunk snapped off above the figure's eye.

I simply didn't have the patience for these dramatic set-backs so I gravitated towards another wood, this one probably the one I'm most fond of: elm. At its best elm is a rich, deep red, glinting with threads of light through the darkness. Among the most beautiful wood I've ever worked with is burr (or burl) elm. A burr is a deformation, a growth one sees sometimes bulging from the the side or root of a tree. Inside the burr is a mass of confused grain, rippling and warping back on itself in a maze of irregular knots. This can be extraordinarly beautiful, but difficult to carve as this irregularity is riddled with flaws and weak points: brittle and more inclined to shatter than scrape away. When it works it can take on the chaotic beauty of my turned elm bowl below.

The real advantage for elm, though, is that it is rock hard and carving it is a slow, difficult process: which for me lowered the likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake. Lime wants to be carved. Elm does not, and a slipped gouge tends to do little more than harmlessly nick the surface of the figure. On lime it decapitates.

It's not just the image of wood that appeals, but the texture, even the smell. Left hand guiding the blade of the chisel, right hand providing the force: I can feel the wood's texture reveal itself through the length of the chisel. Sometimes there is more control in using the mallet, that a cool wooden thing too, heavy and reassuring in my right hand.

The smell, well the smell is a mixture of things as varnish and glue from other projects make the air heavy, and draw wasps. The woods do have their own scents, particularly when sanding kicks up a layer of wood dust. The whole workshop is heavy with dust and shavings: messy but not dirty, this is a clean and wholesome carpet of wood that covers tables and floor.

Bog oak - ancient oak wood dyed rich black from thousands of years buried in acidic peat bogs - has a pungent peat smell. It is soft and unpredictable, splitting and crumbling to dust in places, retaining its structure in others but melting away under the chisel leaving a razor-smooth finish. Sight, smell and texture, this is a gorgeous medium indeed, but tempestuous with the flaws of age, and difficult to control.

I can remember going out to the workshop in the dead of winter when I was 14 and 15, working under the flourescent bulbs with the wind and rain howling around the building, the gas heater rumbling beside me and the radio mumbling in the background. Sometimes the cats found me and wandered around the table as I worked, head-butting the chisel from my grip with lusty purrs. It was slow work, gradually stripping the elm down from dull, dusty cubes into gleaming red sculptures. My themes were boyish, the mage:

The boy cowering before his warped shadow:

Both of those took months of work each to finish. As I pushed into my late teens I lost some of the patience needed to stick at those long term projects. But there is pleasure in its glacial progress; I started this one about three years ago:

Perhaps I'll finish it one day. Until then it sits gathering dust in the workshop and that is part of what I love in all of this: slow, slow, slow work that contrasts with the frantic Facebook-checking, Youtube-watching, article-writing multi-tasking frenzy of modernity.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dickheads, yes. Sexists, maybe.

A friend drew my attention to this article in The Guardian about "casual sexism" in British society. The author describes numerous occasions where men refer abusively to specific women they know:

Last month I graced the overground line's replacement bus service to Gospel Oak, north London. Sitting near some posh teens chatting about a party, I heard one boy snicker: "I have never so wanted to slap a girl as I did then." Everyone laughed and nodded.

Cut to a Starbucks in Holborn. Four sleek, Middle Eastern guys, the type who look like sophisticated, multilingual diplomats' kids. They're gossiping about their coursemates. One is laughing so hard he can barely speak: "That Saira, she is the fucking ugliest girl I have ever seen in my life!" Or how about a tube journey last winter. A group of tracksuited, pimply London "youths". One of them mentions a schoolmate and another replies: "Yeah, but she's a slag though isn't she?" All nod sagely.

The author concludes that this is evidence that these males are "woman-haters". Yet we know only that these males treat some women disrespectfully, not how they treat other males. I showed before that male violence against other males is common (men are far more likely to be murdered than women). And I have personally seen teenage boys bully, harrass and batter other boys: in school males were far more likely to be victims of male adolescent violence and insult than females.

So it could once again be that her experiences, rather than proving that these men are sexist, only prove that they are assholes who treat other individuals badly. Speaking of assholes:

Hags, dogs, whores, bitches. It's amazing how much hate you can pack into a few syllables. How do you spot a woman-hater? By the way they talk about women, treat women, react to women, represent women. Bitching about women, slagging off women – even the language used to describe such slander comes from misogyny.

Dickheads, wankers, pricks, assholes... we can't conclude that these men are motivated by sexism unless we know for sure that their aggression and rudeness is reserved only for one sex.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Loyalty, Love and Darth Vader

A constant theme of the Harry Potter series is the importance of loyalty and friendship. While there are some rules about behaviour towards enemies, prohibitions on Unforgiveable Curses in battle for example, the positive effects of loyalty to friends and allies are emphasised. Albus Dumbledore states in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that:
"I will only truly have left this school when none here are loyal to me."
Voldemort and Vader and Sauron, oh my

When the Harry Potter series speaks of "love" it tends to be the natural love of friends and family for one another rather than a more abstract compassionate love for all. McGonagall remarks in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, on the marriage of their friends Tonks and Lupin, that:

"Dumbledore would have been happier than anybody to think that there was a little more love in this world."
Love, here, was romantic love exclusive to that relationship. Later books in the Potter series deal with greater ambiguity in these relations, but friendship and family remain prominent. Other fantasy series deal with similar moral questions, but from rather different perspectives. The Lord of the Rings features this discussion between Frodo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf, the former disturbed by the news that the evil Sauron's agents were coming thanks to information from Gollum. Frodo's uncle Bilbo had once had the opportunity to kill Gollum, but had let him go.

[Frodo]: "What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that foul creature, when he had a chance!"
[Gandalf]: "Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need."

This is a slightly different take on morality, shifting notions of right and wrong away from loyalty to people one already loves towards respecting those one despises.

Both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter obsess about the dangers of power. Harry Potter describes Tom Riddle's corruption based on a friendless lust for power; The Lord of the Rings focuses on the non-use of the One Ring for fear that it would corrupt the user. In the introduction to the second edition of the book Tolkien denied that The Lord of the Rings had been influenced by World War II:

If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Rule of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

So Tolkien emphasises the non-use of power, and the ambiguity of war. Fighting for the "good" side is no indication of morally good behaviour. Loyalty to allies is a lesser good than adherence to objective moral standards, and allies may become corrupted and lost to darkness.

The Star Wars series takes this one step further, showing that love and loyalty can inspire evil behaviour. In The Return of the Jedi, the wicked Emperor uses Luke Skywalker's loyalty and love towards his endangered friends to fill him with vengeful rage, all the better to inspire his shift to the Dark Side. The prequels build on this, showing how Anakin Skywalker's love for Padme lead to his corruption.

Padmé: "Are you allowed to love? I thought that was forbidden for a Jedi."
Anakin: "Attachment is... forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi's life... so, you might say, we are encouraged to love."

Here Anakin confuses love with compassion. Loving friends and family is easy, but the Jedi is expected to be compassionate even towards his enemies. This is an ancient theme:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?"
- Matthew 5:43-46

So this well worn message is that there is an objective moral order that extends beyond loyalty to one's allies. A well-meaning individual, moved by loyalty or love, may murder, rob or defraud innocent outsiders in defence of their friends; behaviour to one's enemies may be a better indication of character.

Sixty-five years ago tomorrow an American bomber, as part of the worthy cause to halt Japanese imperialism, killed tens of thousands of civilians with the atom bomb on Nagasaki City. Perhaps this is a real-world example of the immoral behaviour on behalf of a just cause warned about in The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Either way it indicates the relevance of great children's fantasy to serious world issues. What is right, it tells us, is not just what is right for us.

Friday, August 6, 2010

"Don't intellectually objectify me!"

One of my favourite authors is the philosopher Robert Pirsig, creator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. I never met Robert Pirsig, and while he is a person in his own right, with his own emotions and desires and fears, I know him only through his intellectual output.

That is: he is an intellectual object to me, an instrument towards my intellectual stimulation.

When I visit a supermarket I commercially objectify the shop staff, treating them mainly as means to satisfy my own demand for groceries. I treat them with courtesy of course, try to acknowledge their shared humanity for a second with a smile, but our relationship is brief, shallow and professional. I use them to buy food, they use me to pay their wages.

Almost all professional relationships are based on the objectification of both partners, as either ignores the full personal potential of the other. This is taken for granted and so long as it is accompanied with a little polite thanks there is no controversy.

Sex, though, is different. The sexual objectification of individuals, even when they specifically choose professional careers as sexual objects, is seen as shameful and abusive:

In the socio-psychic phenomenon of the “sexual objectification” of girls and women, massively manufactured by certain media and the majority of pornography, woman is represented, perceived, assumed and treated (by the innumerable viewers), in reality, as a sexually materialized object ready to be exploited (like a disposable toy) exclusively as a means to produce sexual gratification, but not at all as an end in herself i.e., a human subject with her own sexual will and human dignity.

The academic who wrote this is treated by readers as an intellectually materialised object ready to be exploited (like a disposable toy) exclusively as a means to produce intellectual gratification but not at all as an end in herself. After all, we readers simply use what she has learned and don't care much about her human dignity, her physical strengths or her personality.

For some reason the intellectual objectification of academics, the commercial objectification of shop staff, the artistic objectification of actors and physical objectification of sports stars are all accepted and enjoyed, but not the sexual objectification of porn stars or Hollywood sex symbols.

Why? A hundred years ago there was strong religious and social opposition to this: socially acceptable sex was contained within marriage and the commercialisation of sex was believed sinful. Today this is no longer so. Men and women meet and have sex with one another outside marriage, yet there lingers this attitude that sex is exceptional, that the sexual relationship should not be a professional one. You can sell your mind, your labour, your artistry, but not your body.

In Lila Pirsig describes sitting in a cinema as a young science student, watching a comedy movie:
In one scene the dumb-cluck girlfriend came home from a dance and met Priscilla Lane and Richard Powell who were standing arm in arm - blue-eyed, radiant and beautiful - and they asked her, 'How was the dance?'

She said, 'Awful. I danced every dance with a chemistry professor.'

He remembered how the audience tittered.

'Have you ever danced with a chemistry professor?' the dumb-cluck girlfriend asked. The audience laughed. 'Ohhhwww, my feet!' she groaned.

The audience howled with laughter.

Except one. He sat there, his face burning, and finished the movie with the same kind of stunned depression he felt now, a feeling of dislocation and paralysis, devoured for a moment by this other pattern that made himself and everything he believed in worthless and comic.
The joke there was that a scientist, at the pinnacle of intellectual achievement, was presumed to be socially and physically awkward: he was denied his full humanity as a social and sexual being, and dismissed as an intellectual object. I bring this up because some might argue that the sexual objectification of women happens even when women choose careers in intellectual or artistic professions, i.e. women are sexually objectified even when they don't want to be. But this stuff happens all the time. Pirsig was intelligent, and chose a highly intellectual education, but he had never agreed to be viewed as an intellectual object devoid of personal needs: the butt of the joke, the sexless asocial outcast.

Why is sex the exception? Is it because people believe sex is sacred and inappropriate for trade? If so, why does the attitude towards commercial sex differ from private one night stands between strangers, when both male and female offer themselves as sexual objects?

Or is it because sex is seen as dirty and inferior? In that case the man is admonished because he objectifies her only for her sex, rather than for her intellect or labour. The woman is only a prostitute, using only her sexual skills rather than her interpersonal or intellectual skills. This is the confusing situation when people applaud female tennis players for their sports skills but chastise them if they use their sexual attractiveness to sell advertising. Why? Tennis stars work hard to get those bodies but they are admired only if they use the body for the non-sexual entertainment of sport.

To summarise, I don't understand why a sexual service is deemed worthless and shameful, while an intellectual, artistic or physical service is celebrated and prestigious. Not everyone can become a sex symbol. Why that lacks dignity but, say, sweeping rubbish off the streets doesn't, I do not know.

Any thoughts? I post this more as a question than editorial, I haven't entirely thought it through yet. Why is it not acceptable to sexually objectify people, but it is acceptable to objectify them in other ways?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Two Dragons Entering into the Sea

video

In 1992 a Chinese trumpet player called Li Hongzhi began to preach a new religious movement, called Falun Gong or Falun Dafa. The movement grew rapidly into millions of followers before being banned by the Chinese government in 1999.

According to the government, Falun Gong was an evil cult, its members violent criminals. According to practitioners Falun Gong was a peaceful spiritual movement, while they alleged torture was used against them by the Chinese government.

In the meantime practitioners scattered and started attracting new recruits around the world. In 2005 I made this 44-minute radio documentary about Falun Gong and the Irish and Chinese people practicising it in Dublin. Two Dragons Entering into the Sea: A Radio Documentary on Falun Gong explodes many of the sensational claims of violence made by the Chinese government, as well as some of the extraordinary claims of practitioners. "Two Dragons Entering into the Sea", by the way, is the name of one of the Falun Gong's yoga-like exercises.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Just how kinky is Pakistan?

Fox News recently ran a controversial story claiming that Pakistani people use Google to look up pornography more than other nationalities.

Pakistan is top dog in searches per-person for "horse sex" since 2004, "donkey sex" since 2007, "rape pictures" between 2004 and 2009, "rape sex" since 2004, "child sex" between 2004 and 2007 and since 2009, "animal sex" since 2004 and "dog sex" since 2005, according to Google Trends and Google Insights, features of Google that generate data based on popular search terms.

The country also is tops -- or has been No. 1 -- in searches for "sex," "camel sex," "rape video," "child sex video" and some other searches that can't be printed here.

The headline called Pakistan "Pornistan".

The first surprise for me was that this took mainstream media so long to report. I have been reading online discussions of the wide range of sex-related search terms supposedly associated with Pakistani Google users for years. Some of these debaters argued that this indicated something fundamental - and dysfunctional - about Pakistan: inhabitants of the sexually conservative "land of the pure" looking up donkey porn.

There are problems though. First, Google Trends shows the popularity of search terms as a proportion of all terms searched in a given region, not, as the Fox journalist claims "per person". If the demographics of internet users in that region are skewed in any way we would expect skewed Trends results since men and women of various ages presumably search for quite different things. World Bank puts internet users in Pakistan at 18.5 million, around 11% of the total population (compared with 62.7% in Ireland). If that 11% is not a representative cross-section of Pakistan's population then the Trends results tell us little about the rest of the country.

Another obvious weakness is that Google is not a necessary step to accessing pornography, as one conservative Pakistani pointed out to me some years back. He had been attacking "the West" for its sexual hedonism so I pointed out the list of pornographic terms Pakistanis appeared to be searching online. He rebuked me with the angry explanation that wank-savvy Westerners probably had porn toolbars running across the top of their browsers whereas Pakistani porn users were naively going through Google. He seemed to know quite a bit about it.

A third concern is that Trends results show what words or terms are searched, even when they were searched along with other unknown words. For example, a Trends result for "child sex" would include data from a search by a journalist for "clerical child sex abuse scandal" - a completely different meaning.

In any case journalists began to pick apart the Fox story, this one from Pakistan's Daily Times pointing out that while "donkey sex" has high results in Pakistan, "sex with donkey" is topped by the US.

Along similar lines, the US has also been ranked #1 or #2, for the period 2004 through 2010, for the following terms that are slight modifications of terms in the original article: ‘Sex with school child’, ‘sex with farm animals’ and ‘sex with camel’. Pakistan was not ranked in the top ten countries for any of these search terms.

Google itself threw Fox's results into doubt, remarking in a statement to Pakistan's Dawn that "the results for a given query, such as those reported in this story from Pakistan, may contain inaccuracies because the sample size is too small for the results to be statistically sound." Meanwhile a Pakistani friend drew my attention to his own research:

I seriously doubt the method by which Google trends articulate results. Not that I'm saying Pakistanis don't watch porn, but there seems to be some problem. For instance, I put "rat sex" in Google trend and Pakistan popped up on the top.

http://www.google.com/trends?q=rat+sex

Now, who imagines about "rat sex", a seriously impossible thing to imagine. What I did is, I chosen some random mammal and put sex with it.

Let's see what comes up in ant sex.

http://www.google.com/trends?q=ant+sex&ctab=0&geo=all&date=all&sort=0

Lithuania on top and Pakistan on second. I don't get what's this exactly.

Liking this train of thought, I put a few more obscure words followed by "sex" into Google Insights for Search, the more advanced version of Trends used by Fox. Each time I am careful to search for complete phrases.

"Sheep sex" - United States
"Fucking sheep" - United States
"Turtle sex" - United States
"Spider sex" - Italy
"Lion sex" - India (a daring people, apparently)
"Whale sex" - United States
"Robot sex" - United States

Beginning to spot a trend here? I decided to recheck some of the searches done by Fox.

"Donkey sex", they said, was searched most in Pakistan since 2007. Yet my results show something quite different: India in first place with Pakistan showing too few results to include. If, however, I change "donkey sex" as a phrase to donkey sex as two individual words, Pakistan pops back to the top.

Now this is important since it suggests the Fox journalist was searching not for complete phrases, but rather for individual words, which loosens the accuracy of the Trends results even further. A Google search for influenza prevalence among donkey population by age and sex, would show up in a Trends result for donkey sex.

Looking at some more of the Fox terms, but as phrases instead of individual words, we get:

"Rape pictures" (2004-2009) - Pakistan
"Rape sex" (2004-present) - Pakistan
"Dog sex" (2005-present) - Pakistan
"Rape video" - Bangladesh
"Child sex video" - India
Sex - Vietnam

Let's throw in a few more:

"Gay porn" - Trinidad and Tobago
"Lesbian sex" - Pakistan
"Blow job" - United States
Masturbates - Australia
Orgasm - Kenya
"Incest video" - Slovakia
"Gay incest" - Australia
"Pussy sex" - Czech Republic
"Anal sex" - Tanzania
"Gay anal sex" - Australia
Porn - Trinidad and Tobago (Ireland comes a proud fifth!)

What we are seeing is that countries like Pakistan and India and do tend to have higher results for some pornographic terms but the strength of that correlation is pretty weak. Pornistan? Only if you cherry pick the results.