March 25, 2013
Sexualpedia is an open-ended series of articles that will explain the source of many common erotic interests using neuroscience, biology, and online behavioral data.
WETLOOK (uncued interest; some examples may be cued interest)
Cues: Likely an uncued interest; male anatomical and male dominance cues may be involved
Derek Kroft is a financial manager in Boston. After returning home in 2009 (1), he surfs over to one of his favorite websites and scans a page of new photos. There’s a smiling blonde wearing a white cotton tee, a redhead in a maroon sweater kneeling on a stump, and a Hispanic girl in torn jeans and a tank top, which could work if he was pressed for time, but this evening Derek is looking for something special. He jumps to another website, then another, but nothing gets his blood pumping. Finally, he tries a slapdash British site that rarely posts new content—but this time, pay dirt: a startled brunette in a forest green evening gown. And an added bonus: matching satin gloves. The evening gown is an important part of the equation for Derek—the high point, you might say—but is not absolutely essential. What is essential is the particular state of the young woman’s wardrobe: her expensive dress is soaking wet. The rain-saturated gown clings to her legs and bosom; her carefully-coiffed chestnut hair is a drenched, matted mess; swollen droplets roll off the tips of her fancy gloves; and her pretty, goggle-eyed face expresses total shock from this ruinous state of affairs. Perfect!
Derek’s special predilection might seem a bit unusual, but it’s part of a well-defined erotic niche known as wetlook. Wetlook enthusiasts ogle images of women (and men) in soggy clothing. Before the Internet, the only way Derek could satisfy his exacting taste was the rare movie that featured a wetlook scene (Tarzan, the Ape Man with Bo Derek in a dripping white cotton dress was a magical favorite). Now, dozens of websites devote themselves to this niche, including WetlookPlanet.com, WetlookWorld.com, and WetlookCouples.com (1). But as Derek’s own particular affection for waterlogged evening gowns demonstrates, the wetlook niche can be broken down into even more narrow sub-niches: wet T-shirts are certainly most popular, but saturated jogging outfits have their own devotees, as do men in business suits rising out of swimming pools and women getting splattered by wet dogs. Some wetlook sites specialize in outdoor scenes; some focus on bathroom scenes. There’s celebrity wetlook and group wetlook, while ThaiWetlook.com, DutchWetlook.com, and WetlookRomania.com demonstrate the international diversity of the niche. Wetlook overlaps other erotic niches: muddy (men and women smeared with mud), messy (bespattered with various liquids, suds, and oils), and wam (wet AND messy).
But why in the world would anyone become sexually aroused—sexually fixated, you might say—on amateurs in wet clothing? The answer is somewhat different than the explanation of men’s predilection for breasts or women’s predilection for billionaires. Breasts and billionaires are both cued interests. Most wetlook, however, may be an uncued interest.
According to cue theory, we are all born with specific sexual predispositions—cues—that tend to draw our attention to certain physical and psychological features of potential sexual partners. Most male cues are visual, most female cues are psychological, though the full range of cues for both sexes are quite diverse. The top 50 most popular sexual interests (measured by the frequency of online sexual searches) are all cued interests; if we have a biological predisposition towards certain kinds of erotic interests, then these interests should be most common.
Wetlook, on the other hand, is a rare interest. It does not crack the top 100 list of the most common sexual interests. This fact alone hints at the operation of a different kind of sexual mechanism. But there’s another clue that sets wetlook apart from an interest in busty or billionaires: people who are fans of wetlook almost always have an “origin story”—a vivid memory of the very first time the sexual interest manifested itself. From our research, it’s possible to have origin stories for cued interests, but it’s the norm for uncued interests.
“When I was nineteen, I had a hydrocele, which is the accumulation of fluid around the testicle. The doctor needed to check how it was doing using ultrasound. So I was in the doctor’s office lying on the cot with my pants down, and the female technician rubbed this warm gel on my testicles,” explains Billy Chou (2), a Massachusetts government employee. “But then she took the ultrasound tool and began to roll it around my testicles. Instant hard-on. Ever since then, I get intensely turned on by doctor’s offices. Once I’m on the exam table I can even get hard around a male doctor.”
What’s going on? For men, there appears to be a special window of time when sexual interests can form—what biologists call a critical period. During the critical period, male sexual interests are acquired and consolidated during a process of sexual imprinting. While it’s not ethical to experimentally manipulate sexual imprinting in humans, biologists have been studying imprinting in animals for a long time.
In studies where male sheep were raised by goats, the young sheep sexually imprinted upon goats during the sheep’s critical period. Afterwards, the male sheep would only try to mate with goats. Other sheep were not sexually desirable. In contrast, when female sheep were raised by goats, their imprinting was reversible. The female sheep could become willing to mate with other sheep. This same pattern of irreversible male sexual imprinting and weak female imprinting was observed when young goats were raised by sheep.
A critical period for sexual imprinting is also supported by research on birds, including the “guinea pig of sexual imprinting research”: zebra finches. A male finch’s ideas about what a sexy partner looks like are strongly influenced by how its mother looks. However, this influence only operates during a few months when the bird is about a year old. During this critical period, a visual representation of the ideal female is burned into the male finch brain and will guide its sexual behavior for life. (Intriguingly, female finches are more likely than males to form “visual fetishes”, such as preferring a single brightly colored feather, if their father possessed such a cue. But, unlike humans, the male finch is more colorful and ornamented than the female.) When researchers prevented a male finch from seeing its mother during the critical period, it never developed a visual attraction to female finches.
Scientists have discovered two relevant discoveries in sexual imprinting in animals, especially birds. First, some things are more easily sexually imprinted than other things—it’s easier to sexually imprint a rooster on a chicken’s wattle than a chicken’s legs, for example, emphasizing the role of cues. Second, it’s not just the initial exposure that matters for imprinting (what is called “acquisition”) but also a period of “consolidation” where contextual factors influence whether a novel interest gets fixed. If other erotic contextual stimuli are present and highly salient—or, most powerfully of all, if ejaculation accompanies the exposure to the novel interest—then the male is much more likely to imprint.
In men, sexual imprinting seems more likely to occur when two different contextual factors are present. First, a strong tactile or olfactory stimuli. If a male is touched, especially around the genitals, or smells a strong odor this seems to increase the likelilood of imprinting. This may also contribute to many latex and leather fetishes. Second, if there’s a strong emotional response, this also serves to increase imprinting. Billy Chou was touched on his testicles during a striking emotional experience where he felt vulnerable and exposed.
There are several types of wetlook interests (3) and several of them appear to be examples of sexual imprinting on an uncued interest. Many wetlook fans are sexually aroused by being soaking wet themselves. These interests may have formed during an early incident when they were pushed into the water by someone or fell into the water with members of the opposite sex present. A strong tactile sensation (immersion) accompanied by a strong emotion (fear, embarrassment, pleasure). Other male wetlook fans (both gay and straight) had an early experience where they cuddled or kissed someone in the rain or in another situation where they were clothed but soaking wet (one man told us that when he was 12 he rolled around in the mud with a girl).
However, other men report no “origin story” for their interest and assert that they simply like the way women look when they are wet, muddy, or messy. It’s possible that this might reflect a form of cued interest—the natural male predilection for female gynoid curves, whose geometries are visually enhanced by the body-clinging and body-emphasizing effects of wet or muddy clothes. In addition, the male dominance cue might come into play, as some wetlook fans appreciate the look of surprise or concern on a women’s face when she is unexpectedly doused or muddied up.
Before the Internet, wetlook fans had a difficult time indulging in their interest, as the opportunities to ogle wet or muddy women were relatively rare. Today—as with so many other uncommon interests—it’s possible to obtain a near-constant supply of new wetlook material. Whether this should be celebrated or condemned is not something that science can decide.
(1) The websites mentioned here are from 2009.(1)
(2) We’ve changed the names of Billy Chou and Derek Kroft.
(3) The vast majority of wetlook fans are male. Though there are anecdotes of female wetlook fans, we couldn’t find enough relevant online behavioral data about them during our research to draw any conclusions about them.
Dr. Ogi Ogas received his PhD in computational neuroscience from Boston University and was a Department of Homeland Security Fellow. His writing has been published in the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Wired, Baltimore Magazine, and Seed. He used his knowledge of cognition to reach the million dollar question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and battle Ken Jennings in the finals of Grand Slam.