How many Eiffel Towers would it take to fuck the world for 72 hours? These and other salacious math questions are keeping Reddit’s amateur mathematicians up at night.
I recently spoke to Gareth May about something fascinating and brilliant — what he calls “salacious math.”
Found on the sub-Reddit theydidthemath — a forum for people to present and solve esoteric mathematical conundrums — bananas math questions are things like “How many ducks would it take to pull an average sized car and get up to 35MPH?” and “How much pollution did the Volkswagen emissions scandal has caused on our planet?” (1.4 million tons of nitrogen dioxide, apparently.)
In amongst the SFW requests and solutions there are salacious ones too. “How many miles of penis has Jenna Jameson received in her pornographic career?” was one example Gareth found. He and I chatted a bit about why we as a society are interested in the empirical knowledge of salacious acts (way more so than the SFW questions too, btw).
Read Gareth’s piece about salacious math — “The People Obsessed With Solving Bizarre Sex-Related Math Questions” — on Broadly/VICE right here (January 6, 2017). You can also read our full correspondence below.
Gareth May: From a sociological point of view, why do you think we’re interested in the empirical knowledge of salacious acts? It seems on the forum that people are more interested by the maths of masturbation, for instance, rather than SFW equations. In your opinion why is this?
DrCT: From a sociological standpoint, we live in a world that claims to appreciate various forms of qualitative data, but what we really have been conditioned to value is the quantitative. For various reasons and through various longstanding social constructions and processes, we have set numerical data up as “more correct,” and thus, more valuable than other forms of data.
Because numbers are unbiased, numerical data allows us to forget the human bias that goes into setting up studies, conceptualizing problems, etc that are the precursors to all numerical data. So we think numbers mean ‘fact’ and uncorrupted by human opinion and irrefutable (which they do not). As such, we then feel like we’ve “won” or are super smart, etc when we can cite some numbers – think about it, being able to pull stats is a sure fire way to win an argument or at least be lauded as an authority.
So in terms if why we’re interested in the empirical knowledge of salacious acts, it’s exactly this – the same social norms that tell us “numbers are most correct” also tells us that sex is weird or dirty or not a worthwhile preoccupation in various “legitimate” forms – so if one can find a way to quantify those socially “unworthy” questions, it suddenly legitimizes them as a preoccupation or query.
GM: Are forums such as Reddit allowing us to explore sexuality etc. in different ways?
DrCT: Absolutely 100% — conversations with people you’d never be able to talk to otherwise without the pressure of filtering your responses due to your IRL identity? Reddit has the capacity to tap into all sorts of “truths” we could never get at otherwise. (It can also point to all sorts of unpleasant truths as well – meanness and such, but this is the blessing/curse of most aspects of the Internet)
GM: Why do you think we’re drawn to apply maths to sex? Does it prove that sex is just like everything else — a fascinating part of human behaviour and that it doesn’t always have to be about the f*cking.
DrCT: I think this is definitely part of it — sex is absolutely just like everything else that humans do. Human behavior, though not always kind or uplifting, is fascinating. And when we ignore the parts that make us uncomfortable (because we have been made/conditioned to feel discomfort – this is the classic tension between social structures/norms and individual social actors), we lose out on knowing that.
It’s unfortunate that we have painted ourselves into such a social corner re sex. Because it could be that the people who are doing these maths on Reddit see sex for what it is (interesting, compelling, and totally ordinary) and are posing questions that range from fun to serious with this in mind. But it could also be that these deeper questions manifesting in this form and on such a forum are a product of repression – there’s no other place or space to get them out. It’s probably a bit of both.
(pictured: doing salacious math, image via Broadly/VICE)
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Get Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment on Amazon and CT.com.