Friday, July 2, 2010

The Network.

If we take the axiom "when you sleep with someone, you're sleeping with everyone they ever slept with," and disregard time so it becomes "you're sleeping with everyone they ever slept with or ever will sleep with," and extend it to include anyone their partners sleep with and so on--how large does that group become?

This image shows the romantic relationships over 6 months in a high school. A lot of people stayed in pairs, or switched partners only once. Some of them paired up in ways that created "effectively slept with" groups of six or eight. But then there's the structure on the upper left. The kids who dated a lot of people tended to date other kids who dated a lot of people, and this core group of hyper-daters plus all their partners formed one enormous network.

What I wonder is if you could draw a sexual map of America--or hell, of the world--that looks the same way. Obviously there are some people who've only been with one partner and that partner's only been with them, or have otherwise formed insulated groups with their sexual history, so we can't say that everyone sexually active is connected. But what I wonder is: is there a single mega-network? Is there a certain level of sexual activity and social/geographic mobility (and random chance) at which you join a group of hundreds of millions who have all effectively slept with each other?

I would like to believe that there is. I would like to see it as--better not say an honor, but a distinction--to be "on the network." I wonder which partner first put me on the network--and I can think of a few people I almost certainly put on it. I imagine that most of my current friends are on the network. And I imagine the network as global and possibly reaching into the billions.

This is a depressing demonstration, but think of the spread of HIV. It began with a very small group of people--maybe just one originally?--in the 1980s. Currently there are about 35 million people with HIV. Although there are other ways to transmit HIV, I suspect that for the most part this represents a 35-million-person network.

(Does the fact that not everyone has HIV disprove the existence of a truly global network? Given that my network rules ignore chronology of partners and disease transmission obviously does not, and that the majority of sexual encounters with a HIV-positive person do not transmit HIV... it's unclear. HIV proves that a mega-network can exist, but not whether or not there's just one huge one.

Still, I'd guess that any network that gets to 35 million plus would have at least one instance of sex connecting it to any other network, right? It would only take one. So most likely there is only one mega-network in the world, and the only remaining question is how large it is.)

I would love to see a visualization of this network. I can imagine the relatively thinly linked gaps between localities and social classes, the individuals serving as unknowing hubs or key links, the comparative isolation of small towns, the tight little knots representing swingers' clubs and theater tech crews. There would be lines crossing every national border and every political hatred. It would be beautiful, sad, and complicated as all hell.

So... if my theory is correct, I've most likely slept with you. Whoever you are, if you've had more than two or three sexual partners, we're probably meta-partners. We're on the Network. We're connected by pleasure with the entire world. How cool is that?


  1. This is an example of what is called a scale-free network, wherein the distribution of number of connections per node follows a power law. This means that most nodes (i.e., individuals) only have dated a small number of other individuals, but there are a small number of nodes that have very large numbers of connections.

    Other sorts of networks that exhibit this property are social networks, neural networks, networks of citation in the scholarly literature, etc.

  2. Comrade PhysioProf - Interesting. Although I also note (looking at the high school chart particularly) that a mega-network can exist without any mega-sluts. The high school mega-network looks superficially like a huge orgy, but very few of the individual members have more than four partners, and many have only one or two. So "everyone sleeps with everyone" depends less on a few super-fuckers than on a lot of people who get around just a little.

  3. This was a major plot point on the early seasons of The L Word, from what I recall. (I try not to recall much.)

  4. I can only see two same-sex pairings - one of two boys and one of two girls, and one of each of those pairs had dated someone of the opposite sex too. It would be interesting to see how that changes in older age groups.

  5. Abs - The study was presumably based on self-reporting, too, so there may be more (and in some cases less) going on than the chart shows, but I think it's a decent rough estimate.

  6. There is an article on sexual networks at Wikipedia, it answers your question.

    "In a surprising result, mathematical models predict that the sexual network graph for the human race appears to have a single giant component that indirectly links almost all people who have had more than one sexual partner, and a great many of those who have had only one sexual partner (if their one sexual partner was themselves part of the giant component). Most people who are not part of the giant component are either virgins, or couples who have never had sex with anyone except each other."

  7. Anon - Thanks for the link! (I should have Googled that.) And I'm so proud that my fuzzy logic got the same result as "mathematical models", which sounds very official and serious.

  8. If we're all connected, did we also have sex with our parents? :-D

  9. I was once on a train to Pride with a selection of the London bi-poly crowd and we passed some of the time drawing Langdon charts. Though not historical ones, just current.

  10. I wonder where the age break(s) -- if any -- fall. My parents, for instance, probably were monogamous after age 30, roughly, and lived in relatively small communities (geographically and/or social strata). There's a roughly 35-year gap between my age and my parents', and while I've gone 'up the line' to partners now aged 54 or so, I don't think my parents ever went 'down the line,' so to speak. So I might not have slept with my parents, as their network might've been small enough to never bridge to the meganetwork.

    On a related note, given your history (Hole-y is a Butt Slut!) and mine (I have consorted with swingers, and just two degrees of separation puts me around 2000-3000 folks from those happy humpers alone), I'm pretty sure we've metafucked a dozen times or more.

    Sadly, though, it's like I was drunk: I don't remember a damned thing about it, and can only hope it was good for you.

    And I'll understand if you didn't respect me that (or any other) morning...

  11. Jack - You have to ignore chronology to make it make sense--otherwise people are only connected to their partner's previous partners and your pretty web becomes a horrible multi-dimensional spaghetti tangle. Therefore, you have slept with your parents (assuming they slept with people other than each other at some point), even if no one had truly intergenerational sex, because if you fucked a 54-year-old who fucked someone just one year older, who fucked someone just one year older than them, et cetera... you've fucked Abraham Lincoln, dude.

    Given that we share not just sexual adventurousness but a locality and to some extent a social circle, I'd say we've metafucked a lot.

  12. No wonder I'm so tired.

    I get the chronology aspect, and I know I connect to older folk than the 54-year-old -- but I wonder if my parents' group was old enough and isolated enough that the connection breaks -- closer to their end than mine, if you get what I mean. Casual sex is common enough now (and swingers groups, bdsmers, poly groups, etc., have exploded due to the internet in the last 15 years) that folks age 20-35, even with just a couple partners, will probably be connected (even if it's retroactively) to the meganetwork by the time they're 40 or so no matter what. But folks who were age 20-35 40 years ago with just a couple partners are, I suspect, much less likely to have connected their smaller clusters at a larger starbase (to descend into Trek metaphor). Swingers, bdsmers and polyfolk, and the internet connecting us all -- we've achieved a transcendental state of seepage...

  13. Jack - Maybe? I've learned to never underestimate "normal"-looking people, though.

    I am curious, however, what the networks look like for socially conservative times and places. I'm sure there still are networks, but I wonder if they differ in shape--for example, if there are more sex workers and johns acting as mega-hubs as opposed to a larger number of mildly promiscuous people. I would guess that the Riyadh network actually looks denser (although smaller compared to total population) than the Somerville one.

  14. What's exciting is if you imagine all the future nodes coming into existence. My S.O. and I have each had two sexual partners, including each other. I'm probably not connected to the meta-network *yet*. Even if I never switch sexual partners again, I almost certainly will be part of the meta-network within the next two decades. One day, I'll wake up with the list of people I've meta-fucked having suddenly increased exponentially.

  15. Yeah, that's true that the high-school network doesn't have any super-fuckers. I suspect that's because the super-fuckers simply haven't had enough time to fuck that many more people than the moderate-fuckers. I bet if you look at the fuck network for 30 year-olds, you'll see the super-fucker nodes.

  16. The only time I've heard the "you having sex with all of the other person's previous partners" was in the sense of passing on STDs. Of course at some point this breaks down - not everyone with an STD transmits it to everyone they're with, not every STD is transmitted *only* through sex, and some of them can be cured or even clear up on their own given enough time. So most of the time it only really matters 2 or 3 degrees removed.

    I'm guessing that as advice it really boils down to "don't have sex with sluts, especially not if you're one yourself."

  17. One minor point: the caption notes that the graph is a picture of romantic relationships over six months in high school, not necessarily sexual ones. While romantic and sexual relationships are highly correlated, they are not necessarily the same thing, particularly in high school. Not every romantic couple engages in sex, and not every sexual partner is considered a boyfriend/girlfriend.

  18. And here is an article about the research. They did distinguish between romantic and sexual relationships (about half the students overall had had intercourse), and they did trace the sexual networks as well, but the graph in question is portraying the romantic relationships.

  19. You live in Somerville? Small world! Except no, I guess, since I don't know you, that's evidence the world is *bigger*.

    (I did sort of think all th bi kinksters around here knew each other.)

  20. Not to derail the thread, but I'm irritated that they used pink dots for girls and blue dots for boys in the linked image. Why is pink feminine?

    1). It's binaristic -- and gender is more like a three-dimensional multi-axial scattergram than it is a two-sided spectrum... but even a multi-axial scattergram can be problematic because you're limiting the options to somewhere between A or B, between not A or not B, between both A and B, or none at all -- but you have to start SOMEWHERE, I suppose.

    2). It supports arbitrary gender assignation.

    Obligatory Explanatory Anecdote: One time I asked a friend of mine, "Why construct fantasies between a man and a femme guy instead of between a woman and a guy?" (for the purposes of argument, we defined femme guys as biological males who behaved in a manner typically associated with Western definitions of femininity).

    Instead of (rightly) pointing out that a femme guy and a woman are two completely different things, products of different circumstance and biology, my friend responded, "Aside from reproduction, why construct fantasies that take place between men and women at all?"

    She has a point: though neither she nor I take an "all-in" stance on bisexuality, where is it written that sexual fantasies, created for pleasure rather than reproduction, must conform to reproductive biology? We fantasize about that which attracts us, and what attracts us is constructed by the mysterious alchemy of neurology, development, hormones, experiences, genes, and intellectual-emotional reaction to all of the above.

    A lot of that which we consider conventionally feminine and masculine (and what we think should go on betwixt the two) is either based on biological determinism or ultimately arbitrary. VERY arbitrary. But such values are conditioned into us without awareness of the fact: through schoolyard lessons, parents, neighbors, churches, and the media. It's not as though someone is constantly lecturing us from on high as to how things "should be" (though that happens, too :P); it's in the little things, like the way a chivalrous character gets the girl in a movie and a less normative character is punished in the narrative. It's pervasive, and in order to be tolerant, egalitarian, and accepting of others, we must consciously make an effort to unlearn it.

    Asking questions (like the one I mentioned above) with an open mind is just one way I go about doing this.

  21. Anon - That's a good point. On the one hand, you could argue that the kids themselves were identifying as boys and girls; on the other hand, I imagine this was just another "please check only one" situation on the surveys that were handed out.

    Creepy thing: I found several Photoshops of this chart online where people had circled particularly multi-partner girls in the network and declared these faceless nameless pink dots to be sluts, ha ha, SLUTS. (Faceless nameless blue dots were "lucky bastards," of course.)

  22. I'm a particularly multi-partnered pink dot and I'm definitely a lucky bastard. :-)

    This is really cool to think about, especially in the context of being an internet sex blogger type. I'm almost certainly connected to all the people whose blogs I read, including this one. It takes an electronic connection and makes it seem a little more real in the flesh. Yay!

  23. Update:

    Holly, you're right about the binaristic nature of the survey (please check "male" or "female"), but I was choosing to rant about the comparatively minor representative issue of the color of the dots on the frickin' chart!

    I know it's but a symptom of the larger problem of binaristic thinking, but seriously: why'd they go with pink and blue? Why couldn't men be red and women gold? Why couldn't men be purple and women orange?

    Regarding the issue of people applying labels to the couples represented by the chart based solely on their relationships with different partners despite a lack of temporality... despite being an attempt at humor, it is indicative of a social tendency to apply judgments to behavior.

    I do have one confession to make: for funzies, I downloaded and then zoomed in on the chart looking for any homosexual relationships that happened to be present. There appears to be only one, on the right side of the chart (between two women); it is part of a triangular relationship with a male.

    I'm fully aware that we lack the necessary temporal data to make any accurate judgments, but on seeing that relationship between two girls and a guy, my brain gleefully shouted "Threesome!"

  24. "Not to derail the thread, but I'm irritated that they used pink dots for girls and blue dots for boys in the linked image. Why is pink feminine? "

    Because it's fucking hard to color octarine on a chart on this turtle's back, and the other option of "everything is grey" sort of defeats the information-conveying point.

  25. Anon@9:18: There's also a same-sex relationship between two males, at the end of a branch of the big network - it's just right of the midpoint of the diagram-as-a-whole.


  26. @Sunflower:

    You're right! There it is! :P

  27. @Stingray:

    Speaking of Octarine, there's a particular color which I call by that name. You know when you stare at something bright for too long and a spot appears in your vision? I have no idea what it looks like to other people, but my brain interprets it as vivid blue-green-purple. This can't actually occur in the real world as far as I know; any mix involving green and purple is always a dull color. So I call it "octarine".

  28. Actually the PUA contention is that the global network is The Secret Society of libertine straight women and men in the know. However, underdevelopment probably skews the global network tremendously, by stable multiple simultaneous marriages, migration route sex work, and war-rape. So you'd have to specify a Consensual Global Network. And I thought the whole point was you're not on my network and I'm not on yours, something we're both thankful for.

  29. My friends and I made a chart in college of who the girls in our sorority had slept with, giggling at the interconnections.

    I sort of wish there was some way to chart it allll out, so I could see how many degrees of separation I am from people.

  30. My partner and I have only had each other. We like it.

    But reading this does make me feel...strangely lonely.

  31. The last guy my girlfriend was with before we met had had (or claimed) dozens of partners. Her ex-husband dated some, ah, adventurous women after they split. So even with only two partners I'm part of a huge network. Hell, Kevin Bacon and Paul Erdos may be in there somewhere.

    This gets kinda gross when you consider the possibility of two generations of Aerosmith or Rolling Stones groupies.

  32. I'm waaaaay late to the party here--new here and I've been reading some of your archives over the past week. But I thought you might like to know that there's a new book out about the origins and spread of HIV called the Origins of AIDS, by Jacques Pepin. He hypothesizes, with strong support, that there was in fact a "patient zero" for HIV (who got simian immunodeficiency virus from contact with an infected chimpanzee), but this occurred much longer ago, I think he says in the 1930s, but I could be off by 10 years. Early spread of HIV was through contaminated syringes used in colonialist healthcare systems in Africa until a critical density of infected persons was reached for sexual transmission to become a major factor. One example is the campaigns against the sleeping sickness epidemic. In the short term, this cured and prevented many cases of a fatal disease-one that was killing off entire villages. But treatment was 12 weekly injections with syringes that were not properly cleaned between patients. Disaster for the spread of blood-borne pathogens. Anyways, a fascinating read (as is your blog-thanks for writing).

    I'm not sure what the most prevalent vector of HIV transmission is right now (and I think it depends on where you live), but so little is known about the emergence of HIV and AIDS that I thought you might be interested to know that there's a new body of knowledge about it.