Love & Sex

How Are We Having Sex? A Chart-Based History of Sex Acts Since 1950

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I conduct an exhaustive search through Google Books Ngram to figure out that blow jobs weren't a thing before 1970 and "hooking up" is surprisingly less popular than some other sex terms.

After the success of last week's graphic analysis, Every Dick Pic Search Ever, it seemed only right to expand Nerve's chart coverage to include broader measures of sexual predilections. There's been a lot of talk lately about kids and hook-up culture: NBC claims that even boys (surprise!) are affected by hook up culture standardsHannah Rosin wrote about the history of "hooking up" as a sexual category; and the American Sociological Association released the "hook-up" debunking brief that set off helicopter moms and sex bloggers everywhere.

With that in mind, I decided to start  my investigation of sex terminology by searching for "hook up," "fuck," and "sleep with" in Google Ngram Viewer. For those not in the know, Ngram allows users to search the full text of Google Books for any term published in print between 1500 and 2008.

I neglected to include the term "sex" in my graph because it showed up way more often than any of the other terms– no fun. So here's a visual representation of the popularity of "hook up," "fuck," and "sleep with" from 1950-2008:

As you can see, "sleep with" is pretty much a classic, while "fuck" doesn't really take off in print until 1960. This is pretty obviously chalked up to the sexual revolution and more relaxed censorship. For frame of reference, Howl, the landmark Allen Ginsberg poem, was tried and acquitted for obscenity in 1957. It includes lines like "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy." In contrast, "hook up" has maintained a distant third to "sleep with" and "fuck," although it's beginning to get some usage by the mid-to-late nineties. So far, this all makes sense.

So I decided to go into more detail. What about more specific sex acts, like the popularity of "blow job" vs. "blowjob" vs. "BJ"? At first, I typed my search terms into Ngram and got this chart:

Yowza, what happened in 2006? My coworkers and I threw around some ideas. Maybe, we said, the spike in "BJ" has to do with YouTube? YouTube was born in 2005 and sold to Google in 2006. Back when people were still trying to find porn on YouTube, it didn't seem so unreasonable for abbreviated online searches to change the print lexicon. Or maybe it had something to do with the prestigious Time Magazine selection for Person of the Year, "You"? Narcissism=BJs. It works. Or perhaps it had to do with the rising star of B.J. Novak, comedian of the then-new hit show, The Office.

Then I realized that Ngram is case sensitive and I had searched for "bj," not "BJ." So I made a new chart. It came out looking like this:

What a difference the shift key makes. Unexpectedly, among published authors "BJ" is wildly favored over "blow job" and "blowjob," with a serious jump in "BJ" popularity around 1977. "Blow job" also becomes distinctively preferable to "blowjob" around the same time. This probably has something to do with the golden age of porn. The porn mega-hit Deep Throat, for example, was released in 1972 and Stephen Ziplow's frugal porn manual was released in 1977. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find a copy of Ziplow's manual to determine whether he refers to BJs as "blow job" or "blowjob." I can say with certainty, however, that Andy Warhol made a controversial film called Blow Job (two words) in 1964, which may have contributed to the seventies' eventual two word "blow job" preference.

But can we infer anything about our collective desire for blow jobs from this chart? Not really. So I decided to check out some terms that were definitely lustful: "give me a blow job" and "give him a blow job." Here's what that chart looks like:

This is one of the most intriguing charts I've come across so far. The most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that "blow job" doesn't become a published, fantasized sex act until 1966 and doesn't even become popular until the early 1990s.  We can also see that there's a strong relationship between descriptions of giving and receiving blow jobs, although on the micro level those two terms are sometimes inversely related. For example, in 1995, the popularity of "give me a blow job" formed a mirror image with that of "give him a blow job."

We can also see that published blow job fantasies reached their peak around the time of Bush II's second election. Are blow jobs to political climate as lipstick is to economic climate? Just a theory. (If this formulation confuses you, go read up on the lipstick effect.)

We can also learn a little something about the specifics of blow job perspective and fantasy from this chart. By the late 1990s, "give him a blow job" was published with demonstrably greater frequency than "give me a blow job." But why? Are more women fantasizing about giving blow jobs? Are there more female authors than there used to be? Are men publishing books in greater numbers about blowing other men?

Or perhaps this phenomenon comes down to straight men fantasizing about blow jobs from the position of women. I don't mean this in a queer or gender bending way. Think of porn published by men in which women are eager to bestow blow jobs upon the masses. This was actually the plot of Deep Throata porno made to titillate men but told from the perspective of a woman who needed to give blow jobs in order to achieve orgasm. Maybe these days male authors get off on thinking about women blowing men instead of thinking about men being blown by women. This might make more sense from a film perspective: in a porno geared toward men, a sexy female nurse could walk into a room and eagerly volunteer to put her mouth around her male patient's cock. The camera would follow the nurse into the room and go with her when she cleaned up and left. Or the male patient might ask his comely nurse to blow him while he's getting his sponge bath, with the camera stationed near the patient while he waits for the nurse to enter the room. Both pornos are made for straight men, but the former is more or less from the perspective of a woman while the latter is more or less from the perspective of a man. (In narratology we refer to this phenomenon as "focalization.") So perhaps the millennium-era dominance of "give him a blow job" signifies a shift in blow job focalization preferences rather than adjustments to the publishing world's demographics.

Speaking of porn, how do we talk about things like ejaculate? I decided to plug "cum shot" and "money shot" into Ngram.

Whoa, slow down there money shot. I'm starting to get why people talk about the prolific influence of porn all the time.  I expected the more generic "cum shot" to be far more popular than the porn-specific "money shot," but I was totally off. (Or should I say, "I blew it.")

But I'm a woman, and like many women, money shots just don't do a whole lot for me. I had one last chart in mind.

Just as I suspected.

Got any weird Ngram insights of your own? Know why we're suddenly obsessed with giving blow jobs? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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