One of my favorite toys from the wunderkinds who gave us Google Earth is Google's Ngram Viewer. Ngram is a free and easy to use graphics program that tracks the ebb and flow of ideas through a culture. At its heart is a massive data set consisting of 500 billion words taken from 5 million digitized books published between 1500 and 2010.
Ngram makes anyone a player in the new science Ngram devotees call "culturomics." Plug a few words, names, or phrases you want to track into the search bar and off you go. In a click of a mouse, a graph pops up showing changes in the relative importance of the concepts over time. Ngram's uses are endless. For example, its developers tracked the Nazi suppression of modern art, and I used it to trace changes in the role of pets in American culture.
And I recently used Ngram to test a theory about rise of oral sex in America.
Bryan Fischer's Oral Sex Hypothesis
Politics is getting particularly dirty as we approach the presidential election, and my foray into the culturomics of American sexual behavior prompted by a statement made by Bryan Fischer, the preacher and radio commentator who is the new darling of the religious right. While you may never have heard of him, his status as a culture warrior was described by Jane Mayer in a recent article in The New Yorker. Though not as well known as Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh, his radio show, Focal Point, reaches a million listeners -- about the same number as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
Fischer is most famous for his gay-bashing diatribes. But in a recent attack on Democrats, he also took on heterosexual oral sex (which he cryptically refers to as "the kind of activity that President Clinton practiced in the Oval Office"). Specifically, Fisher makes two claims about oral sex on his radio show (click here). The first was that oral sex has caused a dramatic increase in the number of cancers of the head and neck in the United States. The second is that Bill Clinton is the culprit. ("An entire generation imitated his behavior.") Let's examine these claims separately.
Is Oral Sex A Health Hazard?
Fischer says that oral sex can be bad for your health. Unfortunately, he may be right. With more than 30,000 new cases a year, cancers of the mouth and throat are on the rise, especially among the young. A 2007 study found that people with oropharyngeal cancers were considerably more likely to have had multiple oral sex partners than a cancer free control group. Another study found that oral sex (and even open-mouth kissing) facilitates the transmission of human papillomavirus. (HPV is the malicious family of bugs which can cause genital warts and cancer). But what really got Fischer in a twit was a January 2012 study which found that 7 percent of Americans aged 14 to 69 are infected with oral HPV. This spells trouble as the most common variety of the HPV in people's mouths is also among the most virulent in terms of causing cancer.
Oddly, Fischer neglected to mention another STD that is associated with oral sex -- herpes. In times past, the simplex 1 variant of herpes was considered a non-sexually transmitted oral form of the virus which caused cold sores around the mouth. A different form, herpes simplex 2, was thought to cause the STD, genital herpes. But because of the increased popularity of oral sex, more and more people are showing up at their doctors with cold sore herpes infections on their genitals. Indeed, at the University of Wisconsin, the proportion of students' genital sores caused by herpes simplex 1 jumped from 31 percent in 1993 (the year Bill Clinton became president) to 78 percent in 2001 (the year Clinton was replaced by his less kinky successor). Hmmm...
Testing Reverend Fischer's Oral Sex Hypothesis
So, while I hate to admit it, Fischer's claim that oral sex can cause health problems is indeed scientifically justified. But what about his second claim -- that the former president's "inappropriate relationship" (Clinton's term) with a White House intern instigated an epidemic of oral sex among the youth of America? Fischer is, of course, dredging up a charge that has been floating around for years. But now, thanks to Google, for the first time we can put it to an empirical test.
It was the easiest research project I ever conducted, and you can replicate it yourself. Here's how. Pull up Ngram viewer by clicking here. Then type Bill Clinton and oral sex separated by a comma into the search bar. Now limit the dates to the period you are interested in and specify the correct language. (I used the years 1960 to 2000 and American English). Finally, hit enter. Bingo...
Here's what I got.
In the graph, the relative frequency of usage of the term "oral sex' is in red and "Bill Clinton" is in blue. Ngram clearly shows that the rise of oral sex in the American lexicon began nearly three decades before Bill met Monica. The bottom line -- President Clinton had essentially no impact on America's sexual landscape.
So, sorry Mr. Fischer. Your theory on is wrong. When it comes to oral sex, Bill Clinton was product of his times rather than, as it were, a taste-maker.
By the way, I also used Ngram Viewer to test a well-known claim about religion and rock music. This time Bryan Fischer would probably approve of the results: John Lennon was wrong -- The Beatles were never more popular than Jesus (see the graph here). It's not even close.
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Hal Herzog is Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University. He is the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals.