CARNAL KNOWLEDGE: Whose gaze goes below belt?

In this era of political correctness, any hint of male/female differences often leads to roaring anger among the masses and, if possible, the firing of a powerful male a la Harvard's Larry Summers -- unless, of course, the said sex difference makes men look animalistic or ridiculous.

Take what happened two months ago, when researchers at Fremont, Calif.-based Nielsen Norman Group, consultants that specialize in "human-centered design," were experimenting with an eye-tracking device to find how people viewed Web pages. Shown an image of a person or an animal, they said, women looked mainly at the face while men looked at the crotch as well.

The finding was presented at a conference and included at the bottom of an online trade journal article. Shortly after that, all sorts of publications and blogs around the world repeated the "results" of this "study" verbatim -- with "men are dogs" or some equally snarky cliche tacked on.

The picture that was widely posted showed, of all things, baseball player George Brett poised to swing -- muscles tense, bat over the shoulder, eyes focused on the ball.

I have no reason to doubt men looked at the crotch zone, but I can't buy the claim that women only looked at the face. Four reasons:

1. This was not a peer-reviewed study and has not been replicated.

2. There wasn't much of Brett's face to see. His head was turned partly to the side, and in shadow.

3. I recently read evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller's tome "The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature," which makes a good case that men's penises evolved to their current size because that's what women preferred. If our female ancestors were considering men's members all through the Pleistocene, why would we stop now?

4. I looked at Brett's crotch.

Granted, when I first saw the picture it was displayed below the headline "Where Men's Eyes Wander," which might have planted a suggestion. Still, I can't believe women could be shown an image of a man sporting an athlete's body in snug pants -- even snugger around a cup -- and not peek below.

This is one of those reports that cries out for a follow-up. As Carl Sagan used to say, extraordinary findings require extraordinary evidence.

Kara Pernice Coyne, an expert in user experiences who holds an MBA and is director of research at the Nielsen Norman Group, said she picked Brett because she used to have a crush on him. But she said subjects in the experiment weren't asked to look at a picture, and her team hadn't even thought about what body parts viewers might focus on.

Participants were simply given Brett's name and instructed to use the Web to figure out what sport he played and in what position -- on the field, that is.

Search Google for "George Brett" and the photo pops up atop the third-baseman's official bio page at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. If you were part of Nielsen Norman survey, your eye movements were recorded.

But a very different result was found by Heather Rupp, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta who also uses eye tracking devices to record where subjects look.

Rupp, along with Kim Wallen of the Kinsey Institute, did an experiment similar to Nielsen Norman's -- except that this one used nude pornographic images downloaded from various Web sites. They showed heterosexual couples engaged in intercourse or oral sex.

Rupp was interested in a number of things, including male/female differences in sexual desire and how the use of oral contraceptives might alter female sexuality.

She used an eye tracking camera to compare the gaze patterns of 15 women on the pill, 15 not on the pill, and 30 men. She found that the women on the pill focused more on the background and context of the images while women not on the pill looked more at the male and female genitalia.

And the women in both categories looked at the private zones more than the men, she reported last month in the journal Hormones and Behavior.

"It was a fun and surprising study," Rupp said in an interview. "The general stereotypes would make you expect men to have more focus on the genitals and the breasts."

The differences were relatively small.

"Overall, the gaze patterns of men and women were remarkably similar," Rupp said. "They all looked at the female faces and female body and genitals the most."

Aside from the different implications of the two surveys, why were Rupp's conclusions largely ignored and the Nielsen Norman findings broadcast everywhere?

Perhaps even in 2007 the world isn't ready to accept that the female brain is equipped to solve differential equations and perform matrix algebra but that, like the male brain, it sometimes gets caught up in sex and leads the eyes to the naughty parts.