When it comes to the subject of sex, Wikipedia editors often dispense with their careful research to draw on cringey personal experience.
The image used on Wikipedia's "Sexual intercourse" page. Image: Édouard-Henri Avril/Wikimedia
Whether or not Wikipedians actually know about sex, they certainly think they do. Clicking through edit histories and Talk pages, sex-related topics have incited some of the site's most heated and at times most ludicrous arguments, with editors dispensing with their usual careful research processes in favour of drawing on cringey personal experience.
When I was in my early teens I remember learning about sex from an encyclopaedic dictionary on our bookshelf at home, and a bizarre internet virus which infected my family's PC with pop-up porn ads. It made for a pretty skewed view of the world: I learned that men enjoyed watching experimental lesbianism, as well as the correct way to spell "gonorrhea."
These days, online sex ed is easier but also a little more complicated. Friendly educators like YouTube activist Laci Green field questions from the young and confused, there's no shortage of TED talks on the subject, and if you're really stuck you can always turn to Reddit to crowdsource guidance.
And then there's Wikipedia, which is alternately blocked from schools and encouraged as a homework assignment. Wikipedia has replaced the books we consulted as children: one 2012 survey of US teachers found 75 percent said their students were "very likely" to use Wikipedia for an assignment, and another the following year found that 87 percent of teachers use Wikipedia too. In SEO terms it reigns supreme: Look up anything, and however obscure—"obscene phone calling," "prostitution among animals," a "list of lists of pornographic actors"—you'll find Wikipedia on the first page of results.
Click through to the Talk page on any of these articles, and you'll see the debates which emerged while writing them.
—Talk page, "La Petite Mort"
Wikipedia here is used less as a resource than as a forum or social network. The tone is belligerent and at times uncharacteristically personal. This is something every Wikipedian has their own opinion on, and is prepared to risk scrutiny, debate and even an arbitration committee to air their views on.
For Wikipedia's page on semen, one user took it upon himself to contribute a, ahem, personal picture
The biggest advantage that Wikipedia has over traditional media is also its biggest shortcoming: No statement is finite, and everything can be questioned. The Talk page debates are so protracted one might wonder why editors do their work for free. In a sense they reveal Wikipedia for what it really is: not a source of accurate information, but a view of what society has currently reached consensus on; a temporary agreement on the truth.
When applied to sex, however, this can go spectacularly wrong, with embarrassing consequences. Pages like "Manhood," "Homosexuality and the Church of Latter Day Saints," and, tellingly, "Gender bias on Wikipedia" are fully 'padlocked' against prank edits, but even seemingly scandal-free subjects can be targets. In 2009, Wikipedia vandals started the rumour that mild-mannered BBC gardening journalist Alan Titchmarsh had authored a new guide to the Kama Sutra.
Men faking orgasms is impossible ... or is it?
—Talk page, "Fake Orgasm"
Wikipedia aims to provide free licence, open domain images with every article. Illustrator Seedfeeder's work contributing hyper-real, spectacularly spooky illustrations for sex-related articles has been well documented, but there are other pages where heated debates ignite over whether or not to include a photograph of a "forced orgasm" at what appears to be a porn convention ("I don't think there's any need for pornography in a Wikipedia article," writes one unnamed user, who deleted it), or a picture of stained bedsheets ("Their authenticity is undetermined but appear to resemble in fact the aftermath of a typical nocturnal emission," says user 'Nocturnal Investigator').
The entry for "vanilla sex" features a picture of an ice-cream cone, prompting one user to cry "Uh, lolwut?" (Perhaps Seedfeeder was not available to contribute).
Okay, having an image of a vanilla ice cream on a sex-related article makes no sense and made me burst out laughing. Sure, it's related, but doesn't illustrate anything or add to the article.
—Talk page, "Vanilla sex"
Some of the quasi-academic debates listed on Wikipedia's "lamest edit wars" page verge on hilarious. Contributors to the "Anal-oral sex" page ask, "Would biology students find a picture of a disembodied mouth licking a disembodied asshole informative?" For Wikipedia's page on semen, meanwhile, one user took it upon himself to contribute a, ahem, personal picture.
A statement appears at the top of many Talk pages: "Wikipedia is not censored. Images or details contained within this article may be graphic or otherwise objectionable to ensure a quality article and complete coverage of its subject matter." A glance through the archive of "bad images" proves efforts have been taken by editors to police themselves: almost everything there relates to sex and human anatomy.
I have removed the image. Surely everyone conducting "cybersex" does not sit at the computer nude with a dildo in the person's mouth. Is there a better, more accurate image available? I can make one that is more descriptive and less, for lack of a better word, trashy, if need be. Thoughts?
—Talk page, "Cybersex"
To their credit, the Wikipedian community is aware of its troll issues and has created taskforces and initiatives to fight them, including Wikipedia Project Sexology and Sexuality. Many of these pages show Wikipedia to be sex-positive and earnest about offering an unbiased education on controversial topics. Though the site's gender bias is real, it's at least trying to be considerate: The Talk pages are full of bros helping bros try to understand issues like slut-shaming, transgender terminology, and whether butt plugs were used as an instrument of torture in ancient times.
At the very least, these pages are fascinating as a look into how the hive mind views sex. They are antithesis to Wikipedia's obsession with antiseptic objectivity; instead you get to read people's views, pick up strange pieces of trivia, and watch important and highly scientific questions get resolved, like whether "sex includes such things as cuddling and beheading after intercourse" ("Death during consensual sex") or if "all four hosts of The View reportedly have vagina dentata" ("Vagina dentata"—this one has yet to be verified).
This story is part of Motherboard's Sex Ed Week, a series of sex-focused science and technology stories. Check out more stories here: http://motherboard.tv/sex-ed