I saw Seth Stephens-Davidowitz speak at my university this fall. He talked about his new book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, in which he analyzes trends in Google search data to explore topics that might be hard to explore without these data. Seth writes for the New York Times and publishes interesting data-driven analyses of what we can learn by looking at patterns in what people type into Google. In 2014, he published a story entitled “Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius?” in which he wrote about the different things parents ask Google when it comes to their children. And, as Seth found, parents ask Google different things depending upon whether they’re asking about their sons or their daughters. On average, for instance, parents turn to Google to ask about the intelligence of their sons and the appearance of their daughters. It’s not a pretty picture.
Later, I wrote a post asking how commonly parents used Google to ask about their children’s sexualities relative to the searches Seth included in his analysis. And I found that they ask about Google about their kids’ sexuality a lot more than they ask about other qualities–specifically their sons’ sexualities. I found Google searches for “Is my son gay?” to be about twenty-eight times more common than searches for “Is my son gifted?” And I found searches about whether or not sons are gay were almost five times more common than searches for “Is my daughter gay?”
After I wrote the post, I received a collection of emails from people claiming that I had used the incorrect comparison search for daughters. I should have used searches for “Is my daughter lesbian?” or “Is my daughter a lesbian?” I had initially included these searches, but they turned up so many fewer searches than “Is my daughter gay?” that I opted not to include them (though, I should have explained why in the post).
Later, sociologists Emma Mishel and Mónica L. Caudillo built on that in a post at Contexts work to consider how searches might have differed for daughters and sons. But they also showed that the finding regarding a greater volume of searches for queries about boys’ and men’s sexuality relative to similar searches for girls and women. Mishel and Caudillo found, for instance, that “Is my husband gay?” was about 3 times more common than combined search results for “Is my wife gay?,” “Is my wife lesbian?” and “Is my wife a lesbian?”
Okay… so that’s the backstory. After reading Mishel and Caudillo’s smart analysis, I kept thinking about whether and how children might ask Google about their parents’ sexuality. Short answer… they do. And these search data are consistent with my and Mishel and Caudillo’s other findings, showing a great concern with boys’/men’s sexuality relative to girls/women (see below). Below are relative search data for Google searches for “Is my dad gay?” alongside combined search results for “Is my mom gay?,” “Is my mom lesbian?” and “Is my mom a lesbian?” I also looked for searches using the terms “father” and “mother” rather than “dad” and “mom.” But the former are not commonly used on Google for these queries and do not alter the results if included.
In my initial post, I suggested that interpreting Google trend data is akin to reading tea leaves. While it’s not completely subjective, it’s certainly open to interpretation. Google search data show a greater patterned concern with boys’ and men’s sexualities relative to girls’/women’s sexualities. This pattern holds for searches regarding children, spouses, and parents too. It could be one of the ways women’s same-sex oriented sexualities are rendered less visible than men’s. It could be that boys and men arouse more suspicion or are deemed less sexually legible than are girls/women.
I agree with Mishel and Caudillo’s interpretation. They argued that these search data combined result from twin factors: the social devaluation of anything and everything deemed “feminine” in androcentric societies alongside the notion that same-sex sex and sexualities are often presented as (or assumed to be) gender transgressive. These two facts combined, Mishel and Caudillo argued, create a context in which same-sex sexualities and sexual behavior will be understood as more consequential for the status of boys and men than for girls and women. One way that might register in the big data world of Google searches is patterned queries showing greater concern for boys’ and men’s sexualities relative to girls and women.
Note: In this post, I followed Mishel and Caudillo in restricting the results to 2007 forward as it was at that point that Google controlled at least half of the search engine market in the United States. I also restricted the data such that only U.S. searches are included. Searches incorporating the words I used for this post were most common in the U.S. and in the U.K. But, there was not enough data to show any search volume for searches for mother’s sexuality unless I examined search data from the entire world.