Aella: Sex Work, Sex Research, and Data Science — #42
Steve Hsu: Welcome to Manifold. My guest Aella has been a sex worker, is a sex researcher, and also a data scientist. And as, as I was just saying to her, as we got ready to start recording, the reason I felt she would be a great guest and that my audience would be interested in her is because she's had a very unique set of life experiences, which we're gonna go over, including being a sex worker and including being extremely interested in the important topic of human sexuality.
That's sort of one set of people in the Venn diagram, but I found her to be very analytical, very rational and extremely good at explaining things to an audience. And so, the intersection of those sets is relatively small. And so to the people that I'm aware of in the world, she's almost kind of a unique, unique individual.
So, and interesting. So, I think, a lot of my audience will enjoy this discussion. So Aella, welcome to the podcast.
Aella: Yeah, thank you for having me on. I like the way that you said that.
Steve Hsu: Well, thanks. So, let's start with a quick summary of your upbringing. And for people who are terminally online like me, they already kind of know your story. You're kind of famous for your story, but as much as you're willing to go over it again, I know you've gone over it in other podcasts. We'd just like to explore that so that podcasts have a good basis to understand you.
Aella: Yeah, you know, they're very religious. If you've got some people who are extremely religious. you take it all away, then you get a kind of weird lifestyle. So my parents were like, oh, we should homeschool our kids so they're not exposed to things like evolution or the concept of children being unhappy with their parents.
Like, we weren't allowed to watch media where kids were unhappy with their parents. Like, that sort of thing. Sort of very strong, like, filtering the kind of culture you're exposed to. yeah. Homeschooled with other kids that were homeschooled in exactly the same way. Followed, like, a very strict child rearing program.
And extremely religious. My dad is a professional religious person. So, we grew up... I grew up, like, having some sort of church or Bible study, like, five nights a week. I ended up memorizing, like, inner verses of the Bible. And it was super patriarchal, in a way that actually pretty much sucked. There's some ways where sometimes I suspect that, like, feminism Is kind of like a scam or something, but then I remember being raised in that culture and even though I was, well, I wasn't exposed to feminism at all.
I wasn't exposed to any sort of concept that women could be good. It was very much praised. It's like, ah, and I'm kind of on a tangent now, but it's very much like praise that like, oh yeah, women, your, your role is to be like a housekeeper and mother. Like I wasn't exposed to the outside world at all.
And even with that, I remember being really unhappy with it as a young girl. I was like, this, this actually sucks. Even though I wasn't poisoned by secular culture. So anyway, that did suck. And then I grew up, and then I was like, fuck that. Eventually I lost my faith. It was a huge culture shock.
Translate, transitioning to the outside world. And I worked, minimum wage shitty jobs for a while, before finding sex work.
Steve Hsu: So could I, so I, I come from a religious background as well. So my mother's side of the family were converted by missionaries to Methodism in China, like I think 150, 200 years ago, roughly 150 plus years ago, I think. And so my mom is a devout Christian and I attended Methodist Sunday school and church growing up.
So, and then being a kid who eventually was going to become a theoretical physicist. There's a point where you start to learn about evolution and stuff and then start to tease your Sunday school teachers about dinosaurs and stuff. So I think I kind of understand where you're coming from. And I think in your case, your parents were evangelical Christians. Is that
Aella: Yeah. Calvinist. Yeah.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. And so I'm curious. One thing that I still retain from my religious upbringing is, and there was a time when I was maybe 10 years old where my dad was not religious. My dad came from this more Confucian. He was a professor of engineering, that kind of culture, and he was not religious at all, though he was very tolerant of my mom, the way my mom raised us.
I still retain, though, I think, a sense, oh, sorry, I was going to say, when I was like 10, I tried to convert my dad. I was afraid for my dad's soul, what would happen to him after he died. So you can just imagine my brother and myself as little kids saying, Dad, can you please accept Jesus Christ as your savior because we love you and we don't want you to go to hell when you die.
So that's how devout I was, you know, when I was very young. And I still retain a sense of like, you know, maybe the science stuff isn't everything. And, yeah, there's still something religious in me after all that time. And I'm wondering how, how do you feel about that?
Aella: I definitely agree, but I feel like I'd like to make really careful distinctions around it. Like, for me, if it's predictive, it's in the realm of like, kill it with fire, or like, the way that which can be killed by the truth should be. Like, if you're using like, this belief structure to make like, predictions about what's going to happen, or predictions about your own behavior, if it's falsifiable, then like, nothing is sacred.
You don't get rid of the false beliefs. but if it's not predictive, and there's a lot of things that aren't like there's like meaning making frameworks, for example, I don't think it really falls under this. And in that case, like go crazy. Like in that case, like we're no longer trying to find truth for a reason, which is like winning or, you know, not hurting people.
We're trying to find the truth for something really personal. And it's actually truly divorced from the outside world. And I feel quite spiritual in that sense.
Steve Hsu: Yes. So I think spirituality is what I was trying to get at. You know, obviously, as a scientist, whatever the models we build for how the world works, obviously, we just are driven by, you know, data. And generally, I'm not assuming that there is some superior being that intervenes physically in our universe or even in my mind from time to time.
So I'm assuming none of that's true. But I still have this kind of spirituality or wonder left over. That feeling dominated my worldview when I was very young, and now I can still access it. So, I still have an open mind about what happens to us when we die. Like, is there something beyond just what atoms and, and bits, tell us?
Aella: Yeah, I think that's great. I think it's a mistake that a lot of, like over overly maybe like rational people make where you sort of, there's something like, there's something inherently subjective about the subjective experience that I don't think falls into like the, we're all of like, are we predicting facts about things?
And I think people kind of don't understand that and then they sort of are too materialist about it. Which I disagree with. I mean, I did like a whole bunch of LSD and I remember doing the LSD and like having my brain do crazy shit and thinking like, wow, this feels very similar to being religious.
Like the sense of profound beauty and meaning and like the sacrifice narrative is glorious. Then, you know, Jesus sacrificed himself for mankind, like this ultimate act of love. I'm like, wow, like, sacrificing, like, my ego on the altar of love, right? It's just very, you know, wooey, but really lovely.
And it definitely has a lot of aspects of the religious thing. I'm very sympathetic to that. Have you ever done it?
Steve Hsu: Go ahead.
Aella: Did you ever try psychedelics? Did you have something similar?
Steve Hsu: I was just about to comment on that. So, some people, of the people whom I admire most in this world, either for their worldly success or worldly knowledge, or even some top scientists, have told me you really need to try psychedelics. And whether it's this, this, South American variant or LSD, Tim Leary LSD, whatever, they've all reported that like, okay, surveys say that like, I don't know, 25% of people who do it In retrospect, view it as one of the key experiences that they've had in life.
And so if, if, if I have a 25% chance of just going through this process and subsequently I say, wow, that was one of the key experiences in my life, I should probably do it. I just never have had the chance. I need to find a safe environment where I can do it. And, you know, hopefully it won't wreck my brain for doing physics and AI research.
I don't know, but that probably won't happen. Right?
Aella: It, like, there's like a very small chance it will, but probably a larger chance that it will, like, positively impact your ability to do that research.
Steve Hsu: All right. Well, I'm,
Aella: a bet
Steve Hsu: I'm, I'm going to do it. I'm, I'm, I'm your recommendation. I'm and all these other people, I'm going to try to find time at some point.
Aella: Yeah, I recommend starting with a small dose so you can kind of get a taste of what it does to your brain before you go all the way.
Steve Hsu: Wow.
Aella: Very conservative, but yeah.
Steve Hsu: So coming back to your upbringing, childhood. So, you did, I think, work at a factory for a year doing some kind of electronics assembly or
something. And I think you often comment that, you know, I don't want to denigrate people who are working in factories in manufacturing, but you said, you know, it wasn't a pleasant experience, at least for you.
And comparatively getting involved in things like camming or sex work was actually like a big improvement in your quality of life, relative to basically earning much less money and, and, and having to stand in a factory every day.
Aella: Absolutely. Yeah. The factory sucks balls, man. I mean, I get like, maybe I just suck at it. Like I was actually bad. I tend to be very good at most things I try. I learned skills very quickly and I tend to excel. And so the factory was super humbling because I tried really hard to do well, and I just sucked at it.
And I don't, I don't understand that. But the experience of working at the factory itself was terrible too. Like, I woke up at 4am every day with no windows and you had to stand and it was repetitive work . It was the kind of work that's annoying because it takes up just enough of your attention that you're not able to think about other things. You can't let your mind wander. But not enough of your attention that it's not boring So it's just like mental torture all the time.
I'd like to drink a lot. It seemed like other people and some of my co-workers liked it and seemed to get along with it more than I did and I couldn't figure out if they were just better at accepting their fate or if they actually enjoyed it more.
Steve Hsu: You know, let me comment on that because although I've never done manual work in a factory, one of the comments I often make is that although some people enjoy driving a car, like they just like driving in the countryside or something. I'm not a bad driver. I'm actually a good driver, but I hate actually driving for long periods of time because you have to focus enough for safety reasons on operating the car and what's happening around you that the kind of deep thinking that I would do, say, for fun in physics or some kind of research is off limits. You're going to be unsafe. If you start, you start visualizing quarks or something, you're in trouble, right?
So it could be that I kind of think of you as a high intelligence person. It could be that, like, again, like standing in a factory and focusing enough on the manual work prevents you from doing the kind of thinking you want to do, and therefore it's just torture, like for me, having to drive for six hours is like torture.
And I wonder if, like, maybe some of the workers who like it, they don't have that other mode of thought and they're just like, okay, I can just kind of go into a zone and do my manual stuff and it's, it's, it's okay. It's not a problem. Similarly, people actually like driving.
Aella: Yeah, that is possible. It sounds kind of unflattering towards them, which makes me want to not engage that narrative, but it may be true, nevertheless.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, it could be, I could be totally wrong about this. But, but at least that's my, my interior phenomenology is, I don't like driving because it prevents the kind of thought that I want to do, because if I start doing that I'll crash the car, and then therefore it's torture, so.
Aella: That's why getting auto driving cars is a massive help.
Steve Hsu: Yes, I think auto driving cars is going to be a like, well, just like Uber in a way, in terms of quality of life impact on me. Uber is a huge advantage, at least when I'm in a big city. I live in a small town, so I don't need it. But when I'm in a big city, having Uber there is just a game changer. Autonomous vehicles will be the same thing.
Aella: Yeah. Yep.
Steve Hsu: So, when you got into sex work, I don't want to go into the whole thing of, like, camming to escorting and then to OnlyFans. And I think people can, I guess my comment to my audience is actually all of this part of Aella's life is fascinating, at least to me. But you can find it covered in very good detail on other podcasts, and I'll probably try to put some links into the show notes. So if you want to drill down into that part of her life, you can do it easily.
One thing I want to explore more, because I think not a lot of people understand or have any experience with this world of escorting, I want to talk a little bit about escorting and then also talk a little bit about the sociodynamics and kind of platform of OnlyFans work.
And so, let me start by just saying, okay, my understanding of escorting is It is sex work, so it's not like, in general you're being hired to go to dinner with some billionaire. There's no sex, attached. Is that correct?
Aella: It does, correct. I think I had sex on probably 99% of my appointments.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. And how often, though, is there some non-sexual aspect where the guy says, Oh, I, I need a beautiful young woman to accompany me to this function. We're gonna go to the function and then later we'll have sex. Is that a common setup?
Aella: The most common is something like a date where you go in public to dinner, movie, walk around, that sort of thing, and then you, it's kind of like that. I have occasionally been asked to do something more public, like, where he sees you with his friends, but for me this has generally been quite rare because most guys don't want to expose the fact that, like, it's like trusting you to not expose the fact that you've been hired to do this.
So, I think at one point a guy almost had me do a thing where he wanted me to roleplay, like hitting on him at a bar to impress his friends.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, or maybe another girl. Or maybe another girl, actually?
Aella: Oh, hit,
Steve Hsu: Make him seem high sexual market value, right,
Aella: By bringing another girl?
Steve Hsu: No, by, if he, if they see that he can pull you.
Steve Hsu: Then they might think, oh, he's high SMV. And so there could be. That's a rom com kind of setup.
Aella: Well, I think that's what it was. Like I was supposed to come to him at the bar and like to be really seduced by him.
Steve Hsu: Yes.
Aella: And then all of a sudden he'd be like, Holy shit. How did you get her?
Steve Hsu: Yes.
Aella: She just clearly seems to like you. We ended up not doing that cause he got sick, but, no, most of the time it's just a date, a date situation.
Steve Hsu: I mean, in the Hollywood movies sometimes, it's like, oh, the escort, like, escort. I think you've made this point before, that like, escort you'd rather just say prostitution because escort is not in people's minds. It's not that well defined exactly what is meant by escort. Whereas, whereas in your mind, it really is prostitution.
Aella: Yes. People would ask me, what do I, you do? And I'd say, I escort. And they'd be like, What? Do you, like, do you go to dinner? And I'd be like, no, I have and then eventually it's just simpler. Just be like, I'm a prostitute. You fuck. You get paid. It's great.
Steve Hsu: Right. So I think just to talk about a few issues around that, like if I just mentioned to my mom, oh, I'm interviewing on this podcast, this lady who's a sex sex worker, because she's a traditional Christian, she would, you know, little frown, you know, she'd be like, Stephen. But are you really, you know what, and she would just like then leave it like that, right?
But I think the feeling is that, you know, for most women, but I'm curious whether you agree with this, for most women it's difficult to do sex work for various reasons. There could be an outlier group of women, maybe it's not a small outlier group, but it's, it's, it's not the majority of the population who, who are not psychologically or emotionally damaged by it, maybe even find it stimulating to do that kind of work, enjoyable, and because of the economics, obviously it's, it's much, much more desirable than other jobs open to them.
Is that a fair description of the situation?
Aella: Yeah, I think this is generally true. Like, people generally have quite a lot of shame, or some people are really, like, To them, you know, romance and like a one on one connection is like the true sexually arousing thing. And even personally, like I've known escorts that really take to it. They fucking love prostitution and then other ones that have a hard time.
Like, I, I've, I know one that likes to shower after she has a client. She'd be kind of psychologically shaken up every single time. It was like quite a big,weight burden for her. So it's definitely a lot of variance. I think, like, there's some self selection going on. Like, women who are super averse to it are just much less likely to try it in the first place because you kind of can tell.
Like, for me, going into it, I'm like, I don't know. I, I, I kind of could tell that I was already kind of like it. Because, like, I don't know. I have a lot of casual sex anyway. Sex is, like, pretty, like, a fun recreational activity for me. But yeah, it's not for everyone.
Steve Hsu: I think there are even anecdotes of, yeah, of women who looking back said, oh, when I first learned that there was something called sex work. I just thought wow That's for me. I would really enjoy that. It wouldn't be traumatic for me, I would enjoy it and I was just waiting for the opportunity to do it when I got older. And I think I've heard people say that. I think, I think people who are very anti sex work just wouldn't believe that that that could be the case.
Aella: Oh yeah, you wouldn't, you wouldn't believe the amount of people online who like, insist that I am mistaken about my own experience. They like, tell me that I must secretly hate it and that like, when I quit, like later on in life, I'm gonna look back and be like, oh, that was terrible. And like, Jesus Christ, it's so ballsy of you to like, assume authority over somebody else's self report.
To some extent, like, I kind of get it. Like, like, I have one friend. I, I, I wonder to what degree the amount of women reporting that they didn't like sex work, in hindsight, is, like, societally influenced. Like, I have one friend who, who I did sex work with her. Like, I was quite close with her. I knew her very well. Like over a year, two years, I think we worked. We talked about sex work all the time. We were bitching about it. We're like, Oh, this guy was a stupid client. Like it was, and at no point during this did I have the thought like, wow, she's suffering from this. Like it was just very normal. But then later on, she ended up like dating men who didn't like sex work.
And then she started reporting, well, you know, sex work is terrible. And I really didn't like it. And I'm like, I don't know if I believe you based on being so close to you at the time, and, and I'm wondering to what degree it's motivated by trying to appease your new culture. So I have a little bit of that skepticism going on, but I don't want to make strong claims. Like maybe I don't know. It's hard to tell.
Steve Hsu: So first of all, I would say to me, it's very plausible that the level of, cultural or environmental acceptance of it influences strongly how an individual perceives it. So it's plausible to me that someone could have been, like, really happy to do it at a certain period and then later, like, say, oh, I hated it. I was a prisoner, you know, only because they're under some kind of social normative pressure later on, right? So that to me is a very plausible story.
And what would be interesting to me as a scientist would be, you know, if you could find a culture where there is no social stigma against sex work, what fraction of women in that society are comfortable doing it? And what fraction would say like, no, I, if I sleep with more than one guy, it's going to be like, if I have a higher body count than that, it's going to damage me. Like I can't, I can't deal with separation with a guy from a guy after I've slept with him or, you know, some of that kind of thing.
So what is the distribution of types in a society where there's no social stigma and then in our society where they're obviously there's a heavy social stigma. I would love to see data like that. I don't know if you have access to anything like that.
Aella: Yeah, I, yeah, I, I don't. I, I have been thinking about like how to kind of test this, even if not with sex work, just like stigma in general. But it's hard to like to do things that are both surveys accessible and also don't suffer from selection bias. Like you could ask people like how accepting is your culture about sex work? And then like how have you tried sex work? How do you feel about it?
But then you just self select like people who like sex work are gonna go moved into liberal circles So, I don't know maybe cross cultural might be better because you can't move culture quite so easily.
Steve Hsu: If you go to Thailand, because they have a very strong Buddhist tradition and they're taught not to judge other people, and also since this life, the world, this world is an illusion and this life is just one stage of many stages that you'll pass through, they're much less judgmental about other people. The concept of a transsexual or ladyboy that's been very common there and accepted for a long time and also like, although there is social, more kind of class stigma against sex workers in Thailand because generally sex workers would be drawn from, you know, the poorest social strata, there isn't as much of a moralistic or kind of biblical condemnation of a woman for being a sex worker.
So that's a very different society. I don't know if you've ever...
Aella: Really? I, maybe you can correct me on this. I feel like I remember there's a cam girl that I knew was kind of famous at the time. She went over to work in Thailand. And then she got busted by the authorities for being a cam girl. And then like they would like they paraded all of her sex toys out to publicly shame her and stuff.
And then I was like, then I had in my head like, I should not go to Thailand. They're like really anti sex work and they're gonna fuck you up.
Steve Hsu: So, this could be a situation where, you know, the government is not publicly condoning sex work in any way, and technically it's illegal. Even though it's like fully tolerated in Thailand, it's technically illegal. And something new, which is a broadcast technology like camming, they might react in a very alarmed way to that. Whereas if you talk to a Thai, just a regular Thai, either man or woman, and you, you, you, you talk about like some bar girl or something that's down the, walking down the street or something. I think most people report, and it's been my experience, that they're not very judgmental. They're just like, oh, she does X and, you know, it is what it is.
And they, you won't find any kind of evangelical reaction to it that we might have here. There might be people who slightly disapprove of it, or maybe they sneer at her because they say, well, she's a village girl from Isan, she has no other options, right? You might see something which is like class deprecating, but the concept that it's, it's like a deep moral wrong for them to sell sexual access, I've never heard that in the Philippines.
And also, by the way, in Japan. So Japan has a very, before it became westernized, had a very naturalistic, sense of the body, like they, the, the both sexes would bathe nude together until they realized, like the Westerners thought that was scandalous. So they kind of stopped it. And so sex work in Japan also has a very, very, very different, social, well, I don't know how to say it, moral status than at least traditionally than, say in the West.
So there, there are examples of this. but yeah, again, these are cross-cultural comparisons. I'm, I'm very interested, like, in our society, like, would you say, what, what percentage of women could do your work and find it, you know, not damaging and actually maybe even somewhat stimulating or positive? Like, do you think it's like 1% of women in America or is it like 5% or 10%?
Aella: I mean, depends if you're taking into account the social pressure, like independent social pressure with, but...
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I, I was going to say if you, just hypothetically, I know you can't fully remove the social pressure part, but, but if you could remove the social pressure part, what do you think that percentage would be?
Aella: Maybe, well, we're moving the social pressure part maybe to 20%.
Steve Hsu: Wow. So that's high, right? I think a lot of, a lot of, a lot of people would say, wow, I'm surprised that 20% of women, women could have many encounters, and not be, quote, damaged by it or something like that. Maybe that's my Christian background coming forward, so.
Aella: Yeah, I mean, it is, but to be fair with the pressure, I think it's closer to maybe 2 to 3%.
Steve Hsu: Okay. Yeah. Makes sense. Right. So, yeah. So, in the natural state, maybe it's a pretty decent fraction, 20, 30% that aren't, don't find this kind of multiple partner thing damaging and, exchanging, you know, for, for material goods or something. And, but now that's suppressed down 10 times smaller because of stigma.
Aella: Yeah, I mean, I'm like talking numbers off the top of my head. I don't
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I, I'm not. I'm just asking for your gut feeling. I know, I realize you're not, later we'll talk about stuff you actually have data for and stuff like that. We're not, I don't want my audience to say like, oh, she's pulling numbers out of her butt. Cause I know you're very careful with your survey analysis, and we'll talk about that later. I'm just trying to get your instinct as someone who's been in the field, what your gut instinct is about this.
Because, like, I think for a guy, you, you know, first of all, we lack, we have worse insight into the theory of mind of women than you would. And secondly, like, so if you're a guy and you've ever like, you know, visited a prostitute or something, you probably have no idea. Like, you're kind of wondering like, oh, I'd like to think it was actually not a negative experience for her, but I can't be sure. Maybe she's, you know, really traumatized by what happened between us and I should feel guilty the rest of my life, right? So I think for a lot of people, that's just a mysterious thing. They're not really ever going to know the answer to.
Aella: I guess so.
Steve Hsu: So, I mean, for example, just to take the extreme view, like a lot of people in the U.S. would say, like, as soon as you say prostitution or escorting, they say sex trafficking. Right? They're like equating those two things, whereas I think you, in your research, I think you estimated something like, is it of order, a million or two women in the United States are involved in sex work in some way, but maybe only like a few percent of those are actually trafficked. Is that, is that what you concluded?
Aella: Yeah, that's, I mean, the estimates are terrible because all the base data is terrible. But that's rough. I mean, error bars are wide here. I went and looked like I went and read all the original studies that they're drawing these numbers from to like, to calculate the official statistics, and they're just grievously not substantiated by anything.
So yeah, it's hard to say with absolute certainty. But after doing a couple different estimates and putting them all together, I got around, I think, but 3% of sex workers, some form of trafficking, maybe. So it's quite rare.
Steve Hsu: And, and I think like, you know, if I were to caricature some kind of feminist activist on this issue, they would, they would just be extremely outraged that you thought the number was as low as a few percent. Like they would, right? They would not...
Aella: They would describe me as motivated. Like, oh, she makes money from selling this, this sex thing to, you know, male simps. So of course she's going to say this.
Steve Hsu: Yes. But you know, they, they, they should, if they could take a step back, like you obviously have agency, you're choosing to do this, you're, as far as anybody can tell, and also your self report, you're not being traumatized by doing it. They should, they should welcome people like you because the more people like you, the fewer victimized women who are trafficked, we have to have to service the industry, right?
So it's like, anyway.
Aella: Like, how much I want to steal their position, but my prediction to what some of the more radical ones would say to that is like, oh, the men want the women that are traumatized, it was not actually taking them away from the pool. She's like a top agent. And like, there's men who are deliberately selecting for the women that are sad and can't handle themselves.
Steve Hsu: Okay. I guess it could be true. It seems very, that concept seems very alien to me, but maybe it's true.
Aella: I mean, to be fair, I think that test technically does happen. I just think that it's like significantly rarer than most of the radical anti sex work people think. Hmm.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, there's no doubt there are actually people who are in sex slavery or trafficked or, you know, have no choice. It's just like, what really, what does this marketplace look like? What is the distribution of participants in terms of these different categories? I think that's very mysterious. Well, even I guess for you, you say they're pretty wide error bars, right?
Aella: Yeah, horrible. So, I mean, you probably know, like, one of the ways that I try to estimate the sex trafficking prevalence was by estimating a whole bunch of other things. Like the Who Do You Know survey, did you, are you familiar with this?
Steve Hsu: I've heard you explain it. So you, I think you were asking, like, have you known, ever known anyone or somebody you knew was trafficked? Right. And then
Steve Hsu: You tried to back out.
Aella: But it wasn't just trafficked. I asked, do you know anybody who is blank, like a whole bunch of different items, items for which we do know the prevalence, also items that maybe you have incentive to not share. Like, for example, like, have you been raped? A lot of people don't want to tell other people, but we do have like official statistics on like the rape rates.
So if you ask like a whole bunch of these things, you can kind of see like how much official rates correlates to how much you report knowing somebody who blank, and you can even kind of like, bring into account like, class differences, like, maybe I'm surveying really wealthy population, so they're not going to know homeless person. So let's ask about homeless people where you can see the homeless people rates.
So you can sort of extrapolate back like, to, to predict based on that, like what percentage of, sorry, what, like, what's the absolute number of people who are sex trafficked in the, in the U. S.
Steve Hsu: Right.
Aella: I use that one of my estimates.
Steve Hsu: I thought your methodology was not bad actually. And I, I guess so, so some kind of peripheral anecdotal evidence, like if you look at like seeking arrangement or some of these other things where, clearly the women involved are agenty, like they're doing this, the, you know, I got to pay my tuition bill or I'm going to do this for a while and it doesn't, it doesn't hurt me so much that I, I'm not willing to do it in order to pay my tuition bill or something, suggests that there are a lot of women who would engage in some level of sex work without it, without having to be an actual literal sex slave or in fear of their lives or something like that. Right?
So I think the other lines of evidence support, maybe not the exact 3% number, but I think the exact, they support the idea that it isn't the majority of sex workers that are being trafficked, right? I think that seems plausible.
I wanted to ask you about two different flavors of this kind of activity. So, and I, one you might have some familiarity with, like seeking arrangement, but the one I want to start with is something that there was a lot of, there were a lot of even documentaries made about this back in I think the 90s. And this is the pimp-hoe relationship. Okay, so in this relationship, the pimp is such an alpha that he has a stable of women that are selling themselves, giving all the money to him, and their main motivation is his love. They want to be like the top girl in his stable. They love him. Their highlight of the week is the night they get to spend with the pimp. This is slightly different from the idea that the pimp is beating the women and making them do this stuff. Like, that might be part of it, but in some interviews with former sex workers that had a pimp, you can find evidence for, or anecdotal descriptions of this situation, where the guy is so alpha that he literally can turn out these women, and they're doing it out of love.
And they even look back there, there was a very good set of interviews, done by this guy who does like, documentary work in Las Vegas where he interviewed some women who now work in, not for profits that try to help women get out of these kinds of situations. But they themselves, when they describe when they were working 10, 20 years ago for a pimp, they, they described their own motivation, self report, as, I was in love with this guy, I would have done anything for him.
And, so it, have you experienced, have you had experience with any women that were in that kind of relationship?
Aella: That's, that's the first I've heard this. This is fascinating. Although it kind of makes sense. No, I've never met anybody who's had a pimp.
Steve Hsu: So if you... If you go, you might be able to find this stuff online. Like in the nineties, this was on like, if you went into the, this is, if you went into the, the video rental store, there were lots of like VHS documentaries about pimps and there isn't even, I don't know if they still have it, but there would be like pimp conventions where these are mostly African American pimps and they would dress like incredibly peacock kind of style and have a cane and big rings and stuff. And they would like to compete to be pimp of the year and stuff like this and or have the biggest stable. And so it was like a whole subculture and rappers rapped about this. There's tons of rap music about this exact phenomenon. It's just a very different part of the sex work industry than the agency part that you're in.
So yeah, this doesn't sound like you had any, interaction with this, but I bet you would be interested in it if you, if you listen to the, I can send you some links later, but if you listen to the interviews with women who were in this kind of life, it sounds like they're telling the truth, that this is a real thing.
Aella: I mean, it sounds like it would be more economical. It's probably less expensive to have women do what you want because they love you as opposed to having to beat them.
Steve Hsu: Oh, the, for the pimp, sure. I mean, for the pimp, like, if you, they're not shy about talking about this. In fact, in fact, the rappers also talk about it too. So, the whole thing with the guy is like, I am such. I am like the Genghis Khan of guys because I can, I'm not just trying to get a girl to come home with me at the bar.
I can mind control 10 girls at a time. I am so alpha that these 10 girls are so in love with me. They're selling their bodies on the street and occasionally I have to beat them if they're up in a year or whatever. But mostly it's that they love me. I'm such a masculine Superman that I'm exploiting them. And therefore, I am the king. I am the big pimp, right? And that, that's their whole worldview, which is explicitly expressed. And then also, the women express, they confirm, like women who are veterans of this kind of life, confirm that that is, they weren't afraid of being beaten. They were really just trying to please their man.
Aella: Yeah. That's fascinating.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, it's totally the opposite of you. Like I think of you as like, wow, super intelligent woman who's sex positive is able to basically use this industry for her own benefit and you don't, you don't have a pimp, you don't have a manager, you're, you're, you know, you're the agent and you're deciding to do it, so you're like the opposite limit of this other world that also exists.
Aella: Yeah, my guess is that the other world is changing because of incentives. Like, the benefit of a pimp, right, is that, like, he provides protection against other men. He, like, finds you business. And now you can do that on the internet. Like, the demand for this is kind of reducing. I mean, I would be shocked if it were entirely gone, but I, I just don't think it makes as much economic sense anymore.
Steve Hsu: Absolutely. No, your point is 100%. So my hypothesis about this whole thing is that this was a pre internet phenomenon, but going back for a long time. Like if you went back to the twenties or the fifties of the 20th century, that these pimps were in evidence and most of the girls working the street were that kind of, yeah.
And, and, but now because you have, you have seeking arrangement or whatever it is, I don't even know what the platforms are, sorry, but, but the, because of that, like these pimps are getting cut out of the, of the action.
Now, just a slight nuance here that this video, I'll link to it in the show notes, this video where the guy interviewed these, not for profit, workers in Las Vegas who are trying to help, women escape, if they want to escape this kind of sex work, they were very good looking women when they were younger. In fact, sometimes they were recruited by the pimps because they were, like, trying to become models. And they would turn out women that had come, like trying to start a modeling career.
And so they were very good looking women. And they were, these were, these were, they were charging far, they were charging very high rates. So this was not like low level street walkers who are addicted to heroin or something like this. This is like even at a high level where the high rollers in Vegas are paying for this stuff. Nevertheless, they were doing it for their pimp. So, they weren't, they weren't doing it for themselves, like padding the ALA bank account, turning all their money over to this pimp. And not because they were being beaten, actually.
Aella: Sounds like mini cult dynamics.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, it's like a mini cult. It's like a mini cult. Yeah. Every one of these little pimp families is a mini cult. It's very, very fascinating to me. It was fascinating to me when I heard about it. And then if you actually listen, like, I'm, I'm older than you, so like, you know, 90s rap music, I was really into rap music.
But if you listen to what they're rapping about, it's like, it's just, this is just some fantasy masculine world that they're describing that doesn't actually exist? Or is this actually their world? Like, there is a world like this. And it turns out, as far as I can tell, there really is, or was, a world like this.
Aella: Damn. I would love to learn more about that. That sounds fascinating.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I'll send you, I'll send you the link to this set of Vegas interviews, which just was, was, was nothing new in it from what I had heard before from these other documentaries, but it's kind of mind blowing at how sincere these ladies are who are now like 40, 50 years old and try to help younger girls get out of this life.
But the way they describe life seems like they're sincere and accurate about what they're, what they're describing. So anyway, I'll send you that.
So let's, can we talk a little bit about Seeking Arrangement? Are you familiar with seeking Arrangement? Have you ever been on?
Aella: I have.
Steve Hsu: Arrangement? Okay. So to me, the funny part of this story is, I think Brandon Wei is a Chinese American guy. So Chinese American MIT grad starts seeking, Seeking Arrangement. And when he started it, I don't know how many years ago it was, probably like 15 years ago or more. I was like, this guy's going to get arrested for facilitating prostitution. Like how can he get away with this?
And then of course, then it turns into a very successful website, and I believe if I do research, like if I go to any college town in America, including my college town, and you just look at the Seeking Arrangement page for that town, it seems like huge numbers of college girls are on there. So does this mean that there's actually a lot of sex work, you know, part time sex work, but it is sex work, that's just going on, and like, our society's just kind of like politely ignoring it?
Is that fair?
Aella: Yeah, I mean, depends on where you draw the line at sex work. Like there's a way you could be like, well, marriage is kind of sex work if you're marrying a rich man.
Steve Hsu: Good point. Good point.
Aella: And the question is like, what additional things are you exchanging besides money? And I think seeking kind of gets away with it because a lot of the time, I think quite practically in seeking, you do try to like the person before you develop an arrangement with them. So there is, in fact, something besides money being exchanged, which is like a pleasure of company, even if it's only a little bit of pleasure. And this is reflected in the lower rate seeking arrangement that you can charge significantly less than traditional escorting.
Steve Hsu: Yes.
Aella: You know, people just aren't willing to pay crazy amounts, and there's also, because there's so many girls willing to do it, because it's not sex work, because you're doing, you know, quote unquote not sex work.
I would say it is, in fact, a little bit less sex work than most traditional sex work for that reason.
Steve Hsu: Right, so if I, again, like, correct me because I might have the totally wrong picture of how this works, so some, maybe, high net, higher net worth sugar daddy meets some sugar baby who needs some financial assistance, but they're, they, they kind of like each other, like, obviously it's very voluntary and, it's not, like, fully transactional, they maybe spend more time with each other, maybe doing non sex stuff.
Like, I remember in the early days of this site, they would say, like, well, this guy can give me lots of good business advice or life advice or, you know, what, you know, career advice. But it could be a little bit of a hack in allowing the girl to not think she's doing sex work.
Steve Hsu: The stigma gets kind of somewhat removed. But ultimately, like, the monthly allowance or whatever that the sugar daddy's giving the sugar babies is mainly for sex. Like, the part that the guy cares most about is that, yes, I'm getting sex.
Aella: Yeah, but like, how is this different than just dating a rich guy? Like, it's well known in our culture like, oh, you know, like a hot girl's gonna like, date a hot guy for his money, like, oh, you bought me a Lamborghini or whatever. And then we celebrate this. It's very much a similar aesthetic.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, so I, I mean, look, I'm not, I'm not anti sex worker, and I'm not trying to draw this bright line, about Seeking Arrangement versus what you just said, which is this age old thing of, you know, hot girl dates rich guy and rich guy gives her gifts and stuff like that. Although in this case, like, it does seem like they're negotiating the gift, like the monthly gift size
Aella: Yeah. It's common to have a non-paid meeting for seeking. where it's nothing like that would ever happen if you were a traditional sex worker.
Steve Hsu: Exactly. So that would be a big difference. But eventually, I think largely it evolves into some. You know quantized, you know transactional kind of relationship
between the two.
you're absolutely right.
Steve Hsu: And I think, like, the funny thing is, like, sorry, slight aside, this is a typical rant that my listeners will, recognize from me, which is that the academics who purport to study society, i.e. sociologists and anthropologists, they're, like, totally clueless. Like, I can learn more about what's happening, like, In terms of seeking arrangement, but just going on to one of the forums and listening to seeking sugar babies, talking to each other and the occasional daddy's in there. And like, I learned more about what Americans are really actually doing than like Joe professor at the university knows.
Like Joe professor or Jane professor actually has no fucking idea like what is happening in society, but I can go, my kid can go, anybody can go on the internet and actually learn more than they seem to know. About what's actually happening. Anyway, sorry, slight...
Aella: No, it's not good. No, I feel passionate about this too. Because like, for a while, I wanted to get survey responses from like a white audience. So what I did was I went and I joined a whole bunch of subgroups that had absolutely nothing to do with me. I'm like, I need to find the farthest away people. So I joined all of these things. And it started a tradition where now like any interesting subculture, I joined like, like Facebook groups. So I just constantly see the discussions on my feed, for example. And it's just such a delightful insight into, like, a completely different world. Like I'm subscribed to car talk, like mechanics for pickup trucks, like mermaids.
Steve Hsu: Pest Club.
Aella: Super religious women talking about how to best please their husbands and submit to like a whole bunch of stuff like that. It's fascinating.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I think the existence of these internet forums and Reddit, like, for people who are actually interested in, you know, what good anthropologists would call, like, field work, right? Trying to figure out what is happening in Thailand or in America or whatever. It's an amazing resource, and, and I, I, I, I'm just amazed that I constantly meet professors who, this is supposedly their expertise, they're quoted on NPR talking about shit like this, but they don't even have, they haven't even spent the time to try to like, go on the seeking site and read what people are writing on the forums there. It's ridiculous.
Steve Hsu: Okay. Let's, oh, so one thing you said about when you were escorting, which I found very interesting is that there's a large amount of cheatin going on, right? Like I think your estimates of like what fraction of married men, I don't, I don't know exactly if there's a numerical estimate, but something you said suggested to me that like, yeah, a large fraction of your clients were actually cheating on their wives or something like this.
Could you comment on that?
Aella: Yeah, I mean it depends on what you're measuring. It's hard because the clients don't they don't always tell you. I would ask if they are married often. But, you know, sometimes you just don't get it. When I did a survey about married men in general I found that roughly 40% of men in a relationship over 20 years have reported cheating, which is very high. And I'm not surprised based on my experience escorting. Yeah.
So it was just very common for like, oh, are you married? And he'd be, you know, like this 55 year old man. I'd be like, yeah, I've been married for 25 years. I'd be like, so how's it going? It's like, not great. I love her to death, but like, you know, there's just the sex isn't there. It's like, I've heard that tale so many times.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I would, I would guess that this is a common situation that you, you're married for a long time. maybe you really in some deep way love your partner, but you know, you're just not sexually fulfilled. And so you go out and you know, you're, you're, you're, you're buying it, from another source and probably not telling your spouse about it.
Right. And I think you have some data which suggests that, is it that men are better calibrated in estimating the probability that their wife is cheating than women are calibrated on the probability that their husband is cheating.
Aella: Yeah, I think so. I think roughly it's, I think both of them are roughly around 50% actual cheating rates. Like if you ask women, do you think your man is cheating? And then like, I forget the exact number. It's like 10% will say yes. And then you ask the men, are you cheating? And then 20% of them say yes. But I do think that men were slightly more accurate, but it's just because men were cheating at way higher rates. Women cheat less.
Steve Hsu: The two robust facts maybe are men are cheating more than women, and both men and women underestimate the probability that their mate is cheating.
Aella: That's correct.
Steve Hsu: It's pretty interesting. See, like, that's, like, if I went to the professor of human sexology in the department of sociology at the University of Illinois and I asked them, like, they might not, I, I would be, not be surprised if they were totally miscalibrated on, for example, that question.
Aella: Because they haven't done research.
Steve Hsu: Or maybe they did research, but they, well, that's a good question. Like, how would they know, like, from some Kinsey study or something? I don't know. I, I could be, maybe I'm not being fair to them on this one. Like, maybe they would say, like, not sure, but if I did have an opinion, it would be some, from something like a Kinsey study or something like this. So maybe they're not, maybe that's not a good example of them sucking.
Okay. Let me switch to OnlyFans. So, is it fair to say OnlyFans is a little bit like Facebook, where, but your friends are kind of sending you money. And in your case, it's typically like the friends are guys, and it's kind of all about you, and what you're giving them back for the money they send you is, like a photo or video of you.
Is that, roughly , the dynamic of how the platform works?
Aella: Yeah, I mean there's varying settings. But the most common thing is like you kind of pay somebody to have access to their feed. Like paying to be their Facebook friend kind of and then you can also chat with them and then they send you more things to unlock and pay for that sort of thing.
Steve Hsu: Right. And is chatting like... I don't want to, this is not Aella of course, but other OnlyFans, stars, are they hiring some dude to chat with their fans? Like is that a, that, is that
Aella: It's quite common, Yes, especially among higher volume people.
Steve Hsu: Yeah,
Aella: Because there's a certain point where if you have too many subscribers, you just can't really keep up.
Steve Hsu: Right.
Aella: So I think we're probably gonna start seeing AI take over.
Steve Hsu: Oh for sure, definitely. We can talk about that later. But, as I said, OnlyFans is some platform for hot girls with a little bit of a flair for self branding and analytics to farm simps and take tons of money from them. Is that, is that unfair?
Aella: I like how easy it is to frame, like, the exploitation going both ways. Like, my favorite kinds of,like, discourse online are ones where you could, like, easily flip the script and it still sounds reasonable. Like, are you farming the simps or are the men exploiting women online by, like, forcing them to take off their clothes?
It's very funny. yeah, but sure, I'm farming sims, if you want to...
Steve Hsu: Well, here, here, okay, a little nuance on that flipping of it. So, imagine you were a high school girl, not very sophisticated, not good at analytics, maybe easily getting emotionally involved with the guys who are simping for you on your OnlyFans. I could imagine situations where it is the girl that's being exploited, right?
It's, it's, so, so she doesn't really know what she's doing, and I don't know, maybe this is, I'm just making this up. But, I can imagine in that case it's easier to tell the story that she's being exploited by these men who are trying to get her to send nude nude videos. But, you're definitely exploiting them because you're really good at it.
Like, that's, maybe that's a distinction.
Aella: Like, whenever we talk about exploitation, like, It feels like a, like a puff word to me. Like, what does it actually mean for something to be exploitative? Like, what are we talking about?
Steve Hsu: Absolutely.
Aella: You're being tricked into making a decision that you wouldn't have made without more information?
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I think exploitation here is not being defined well. And I think it's, it's more at an emotional level. It's like, do I feel sorry for the simps that are sending money to Aella? Or do I feel sorry for this high school girl who's sending, you know, sex videos to guys, you know. She's the more sympathetic figure and the guys are like, not.
I think that's really what it is. It's not a like libertarian view of exploitation. It's like, oh, are you involuntarily being forced to do this or something? It's more like, no, I feel more sorry for the girl who doesn't know what she's doing, then the girl who is making 100K a month doing it.
Aella: Yeah. I guess here then that means that the harm is like, oh, probably she's going to get a little bit older, look back on that and then regret the decision. Seems to maybe be at the core of it.
Steve Hsu: Right. The temporal aspect of it too. It's like, Oh, you're ruining yourself for marriage, right? So, or you can't have a healthy relationship once you, right, your body count is over 50 or something.
Aella: Yeah. A lot, I think of hindsight regret comes from just like culture switching. Yeah.
Steve Hsu: Yes. so OnlyFans is huge, right? I mean, are there any numbers on the total amount of money that's flowing through OnlyFans like platforms?
Aella: I don't know?
I don't know.
Steve Hsu: Seems people talk about it all the time. So, I mean, it's like, or even like you have some woman who's like a golfer and she's really hot. Right? And it's like, oh, she's going to have an OnlyFans. Of course. Right? So is it? Is it like, I mean, I'm, I'm asking this as an old nerdy guy, like, I don't really just don't know, like, is OnlyFans, like, basically now, like, a pretty mainstream part of America?
Aella: I think so. I mean, I also don't know the numbers off the top of my head. I don't even know if they let you know. I'm sure people have done an estimate. But yeah, it's extremely common, like it's in rap songs and people have discourse about the OnlyFans all over. Like when it blew up, because I was on OnlyFans, I was on OnlyFans since 2017.
And then when it exploded, everybody was asking to talk to me about it. I was like the infinite podcast circuit. I was in magazines just because it was OnlyFans, right? It's because it's doing well on OnlyFans. That was it. And I've been a sex worker for so many years in different aspects and nobody gave that much of a shit about it before then. So it's definitely been like a huge cultural bomb.
Steve Hsu: Right. Now, you know, I, I was joking when I said this, but, you know, I said, like, the guys who are sending you money, they're, you're, they're simps, right? And so, from my audience, even the word simple probably isn't that commonly used. So, what I mean by that is, like, some guys, you know, a little bit hopeless for women and have kind of like gotten emotionally attached with, you know, some women maybe in this case virtually that he's never going to actually meet in person, interact with in person.
And so that's what's meant by a simp. To what extent is this related to the idea that the dating situation or maybe the testosterone levels of young men are extremely poor these days? Like, are these, are these related things?
Aella: I mean my guess is it's more of a symptom. Like if you have unhappy men, they're going to look for intimacy where they can find it. It feels like an overflow of a deeper problem.
A lot of people are like, ah, is OnlyFans not causing men to, you know, not be interested in real life women? I'm like, no, I think, I think this is, I think it's the opposite. I think this is like the band aid that we're using to treat a hemorrhage. It's not great. I'm not huge, I don't think OnlyFans is like that healthy for society, but I think it's better than not existing.
Steve Hsu: I agree with you 100%. I, I think that it's, it's not that OnlyFans prevents men or turns men into incels because they prefer interacting over that platform to trying to find a real woman. It's because for some reason in society today, young men are not having a lot of sex on average and they're turning to things like porn and OnlyFans.
But let me ask you this. So when you were either in on OnlyFans or when you escorting, do you get any insight into the more millennial experience, like are there young men who are your clients who then like explain to you like, yeah, for our generation, like, we don't know what the hell to do and like, I'm paying you because I don't know how to pick up a girl in a bar or all the girls on Tinder are going to the 10% hottest guys and I don't have access now. Do you get any information about that situation?
Aella: a lot more of that through escorting, not OnlyFans. OnlyFans is a lot more impersonal. And so it's hard because they're very different demographics. Like, the average age for escorting that I saw in my records was around 45 years old. And my guess is OnlyFans is closer to 25. So there's very different, there's like a different generation going on.
And so I have a bunch of information about one generation and not a lot of information about the other. But for the older generation, it's usually like, more well established in life kind of things.
Steve Hsu: I realized it would be rare for a young guy to have enough money to afford, like to hire you as an escort. But what's the youngest client that you've ever had?
Aella: I think 20.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. So like I can imagine some young
Aella: Yeah, that's true.
Steve Hsu: or kid from an affluent family could afford it.
And then like maybe from that you could get some insight.
Aella: Yeah. No, there's like a couple were like a virgins who were really nervous around women and wanted to have their first sexual experience so they didn't like fuck it up when they had a real woman.
Steve Hsu: Yep.
Aella: Some people, there were a couple people who were just like actually quite unattractive And it was kind of and this had affected their self esteem. Like it was quite clear from their body language that they're like, I am a disgusting person. I'm like, aww.
Steve Hsu: Was that, was that hard for you at all?
Aella: Ah, no. No. I think this is unique to me. I'm really not that impacted by somebody's physical appearance. I don't mind at all. Other things matter quite a lot more, but my standards are very... I
Steve Hsu: So if it's not physical appearance, what do you like? What, what, what are the things that you find attractive?
Aella: I mean, it depends on what we're doing. I really like intelligence a lot. Like, the smarter somebody is, the more I'm like, maybe we should try going on a date. But sex is different. Like, you can have, like, really good sex. Like, my favorite clients that I had were maybe not the smartest. I don't know. It's hard to know sometimes.
Steve Hsu: So you're in the rare sapio sexual category?
Steve Hsu: It's so funny because, you know, if you're a theoretical physicist, your dream is like, oh, there are actually sepia sexual women out there, but I've never met one. So.
Aella: There's, there's, there's dozens of us.
Steve Hsu: Dozens. Yes, there are dozens across many continents.
Aella: I have a couple of really beautiful female friends who are also very into intelligence and then they date hideous looking guys who are brilliant. I'm like, ah, that's so good.
Steve Hsu: Oh, wow. Wow. I had to be young again.
Okay. Before we get into embryo screening and fun stuff like that. A couple more questions on the sexology stuff. So, you know, we live in an era where porn is, you know, available in unlimited quantities, on demand, et cetera, et cetera. Wanted to ask you, so I guess two aspects of it. One is the impact on young men who, for their entire lives, like I guess when I was a kid, like being able to look at a Playboy centerfold was a big deal. But, now like the little kid, once the parent gives him a cell phone at way too early an age, it can just be like streaming porn on their phone. So impact on... If you have any thoughts on the impact on young men or women from that porn access.
And then secondly, we could get into this in more depth as the insight porn gives you into individual sexual preferences, what people really actually are interested in sex. So I just wanted to talk about that for a little bit.
So first on the, on the youth question, like, are young people being harmed by porn? What, what is it doing to them?
Aella: Nobody knows. Nobody. Everybody has strong opinions on this. Nobody fucking knows. It's so easy to make narratives in hindsight. If I had to talk out of my gaping
Steve Hsu: Speculate. Yeah. Don't, I mean, we, we understand like you're smart. So what you, you know, the difference in saying like, this is based on evidence. This is my conjecture. Yeah.
Aella: Yeah, I just, I just, I'm, I'm just pessimistic about the general discourse around this. In general, I'm like quite more pro porn than I think most people, especially, I'm gonna get, I'm gonna get, like I say it, so people cannot screenshot this. I am, there's like this trick where like when you tweet, like if you want to tweet something really spicy, you have to break up the tweets in like in a thread.
Steve Hsu: don't get quoted.
Aella: Right. Yeah. So you can say a spicy thing. You just can't be in like a cute little voice clip. No, I, I, I'm, I think that all the porn exposure I had as a kid was awesome. And I wish I had had more. I think it was good for me. Because I was in such a sexually suppressive thing where, like, I'm not supposed to. I'm a kid. You're not supposed to have sexual impulses. You're supposed to, like, be innocent and good and pure.
And I was like, fuck you, God. Like, I I was I think just, like, treating kids who have sex drives as though they're not supposed to have the sex drive, It's like fucked up and like really shames them for it. And I'm not saying that just like giving them access to you know the most hardcore slammy banging stuff is like auto good. Like it might be good, but I I, like, if there was, like, maybe, like, a porn line for teens where it was, like, here, we're going to, like, respect your desire to witness this content, but, like, it's going to be more educational, and maybe we're not going to have some stuff that might give you bad ideas about the way sex is supposed to operate.
Like, I think sex is generally fine, I'm just like a little worried that maybe if you're like looking at a certain niche kind of style, that you might like assume that this is what my sexual partner wants, and then be like more inclined to like warp yourself to try to become that, as opposed to naturally discovering what your partner wants in the moment.
That's, that would be what I would consider the worst part.
Steve Hsu: Let me drill down on that a little bit. So, some people sometimes make the argument that like when inexperienced young people first have sex, that the normative thing that they have now is due to watching comes from watching lots of porn So the woman thinks it's she's got to do all the things that porn stars do, and the guy thinks like he's got to pound the girl the way that you know girls are pounded in porn videos. And that's unhealthy. So I think probably anybody could disagree with that, surely like if the main examples of sex that I'm seeing are a certain way I'm gonna that's gonna kind of have a normative effect on me. I think that seems.
Aella: I might disagree a little bit with it. Like, I don't know if you saw the survey I ran about porn use and prediction of preferences.
Steve Hsu: Yeah.
No, I don't I don't tell me about it
Aella: I, I asked, I paid for responses for this one so that I wasn't just getting my audience, but I, I asked people, how much porn do you watch? And then I gave them a list of, I think it was like 40 things and then asked them to predict things that people talk about in porn a lot. They're like, ah, you want to be, you know, spit on the face. Like I asked about spitting on the face. And I asked
Steve Hsu: Right. Choking is
Aella: Yeah, Choking is one of them. So I asked men to predict, like, imagine you're, like, on a first date with a woman and, like, and you want to try this thing, like, predict how much you think that she would like it.
And then I asked women, like, predict you're on a date with a man, and he tries this thing. Assume that he thinks that you're going to like it. So we're not assuming malintent here, but how much would you actually like this? So I got men and women's ratings for the exact same items. And then compare it to their porn use.
So do men who watch more or less porn, are they more or less accurate in predicting what women want? And do you have a prediction for what I found?
Steve Hsu: Porn makes men better calibrated.
Aella: Yeah. Slightly. It's not a huge effect, but slightly. Based on almost every single item that I asked about, men who watch porn are more likely to rate.
And to be fair, I think it's slightly confusing. Like, men who watch porn are probably more sexually liberated. You know, in cultures where people talk about sex more. So it's like, hard to know for sure. But the thing is, this is correspondent Or cor Blah. Basically the thing I always find when I research this is that women are more interested in violence than men. And violence being like a very umbrella term for anything involving coercion or like physical roughness.
Steve Hsu: So just so I understood that. So women are more interested than men in coercive type stuff in porn. Is that okay? And including, and also in, in actual sex, like, is that, you know, that too.
Aella: Yeah, women rated when I asked like, what if a guy tried choking you in bed? I think that actually may have been the biggest discrepancy. What men were way more likely to say yes, and then like when you ask men, like, do you think it would like it if he choked her they were like, nah. It was pretty significant.
Steve Hsu: So that result, like, I'm trying to understand, like, is that, do you think, again, I'm just asking you to speculate, not that, again, I'm never trying to make you look like a sloppy data scientist, I'm just trying to ask you to speculate on this. Do you think the causality of that is that women saw it in porn and thought, wow, that is hot, it makes me hot, I wish my partner would do that to me? Or do you think that's something that's been present since the beginning of evo psych time for humans, like?
Aella: It's hard to disambiguate, right? Because I did ask about women's porn use also, and it was strongly correlated. Women who watch more porn are more likely to want to be choked. But which direction does it go? Like, do you have a woman who's innately like much more sex drive, much more kinky, and she's the kind of person that's going to go seek out porn?
My guess, in general, based on my research, because this is a big, one of my big questions I'm trying to answer is like, what causes sexual interests and in general, I'm inclined to believe that sexual interests are innate and that the things that you do are like manifestations of a thing that's already existing This is I'm not doing the thing where I'm hedging a hundred percent sure it just seems to be sort of in this direction But even still women who didn't watch porn at all still had stronger preferences for being choked out than men predicted that they would.
Like if you like if you take the categories of men who watch porn or meet men and women who don't watch porn or like to watch very little porn. There's still a gap. The gap was basically just held strong across all categories of porn watching.
Steve Hsu: Interesting. Sorry, really dumb baseline question, like, what fraction of women actually at some level consume porn? Like, like almost every guy probably will occasionally go onto a Pornhub like thing and look at some stuff. I, how many women are like doing that versus like, oh, I would never go on, I would never look, I avert my eyes when that,
Aella: I don't remember what I asked in my big kink survey. I have this so it's around 600, 000 people answered so I've got a pretty good sample and this is younger women. And the thing is, it differs a lot if you're asking about porn versus erotica. So I think this is where a lot of the studies kind of fuck up because they, they sort of are assuming that like pornography consumption is the same thing. And a lot of women don't watch porn, but a lot of them read like literotica. com, for example.
And I forget exactly the rate I can look at it up, but I think I want to say 80% of women watch and consume erotic content at least once a month.
Steve Hsu: Wow, interesting.
Aella: It drops a lot if you say porn, but if you're just saying consuming erotic content is pretty high.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. Wow. Okay.
You know, about this, like choking, maybe violence is not the right word, but maybe dominance exhibiting physical dominance exhibiting type of sex kind of thing. I think you had a finding that, well, I guess you just expressed it, that maybe a surprising number of women actually like it and guys are not calibrated. Guys don't, wouldn't expect that number of women to like it who actually do. Is that, is that accurate?
Aella: I think it's partially because guys don't like it as much as women do. This is like the big thing that got me started. There's a couple, there's a couple of key things that got me started really on sex research, but one of them was why, like, roughly around 40% of men report interest in dominance and 60% of women report interest in submission.
Roughly. Do you find it?
Steve Hsu: gap.
The famous dominance
Aella: Yeah. What the fuck? What the fuck is going on? So my guess is like a big reason why guys think women don't like it is because they're just not thinking of this as a sexy thing to do.
Steve Hsu: I was, I was introspecting, so when I heard you talk about this, maybe on some other podcast, I was introspecting on this and trying to understand it. So, first of all, younger guys have grown up in a feminist era. So, even if they felt that was, like, they liked it, they would be inclined to suppress either the liking of it, or the talking about liking of it, because my, my feeling having been like kind of growing up in the much less feminist era and now we're in a much more feminist era is that like, you just realize like, even if that's what you like, you're not, you wouldn't say it and if, if you like it, you're not supposed to like, cause it's like demeaning to the girl or something like that.
Like, I think that's, that's pretty, again, like I'm just speculating, but that's, to me, that's an important dynamic for the way that men would think about this.
I also want to just add that back in the day, like when I was in high school in the 80s, if you were in the locker room and you're talking with other guys about sex, or maybe in college you're talking about sex, people would say, like, oh, I like this, or I don't like that, or whatever. But not too many guys would say, like, I like to, like, choke the girl, or, you know, or, or, like, physically dominate her in some way, which, I don't know, modern feminists might say is demeaning or something. I just don't remember a lot of people, they would say, like, I like to do this, or I like to do that, but they wouldn't, I very seldom ever hear anything like that.
I don't know what the explanation for that observation is.
Aella: I mean, it's just rare. I mean, there's also like uh, it's like It's hard to disambiguate if somebody... Like, in my data, there is in fact a correlation between people who reported sexually assaulting people and people who are aroused by the thought of, you know, dominating a woman. It's not a very high correlation, but it sort of makes sense, right?
Like if you were going to go out and sexually assault somebody, you're probably drawing from the population of people who are interested in doing it. I think, again, I think that this correlation is way overstated in most circles. But you probably want to avoid even the appearance of being a threat to people.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, exactly, because, because taking it to a certain extreme is criminalized, and so therefore, like, you don't even want to go in that, you don't want to admit to going in that direction, either admit to yourself, or admit to your buddy at the loc in the locker room that you're kind of edging in that direction. Because go too far and suddenly you're a rapist right or something like that.
So there is that like suppressing it I think a little bit. Even if it's finally in private for these guys, if they find a partner that also likes it, they're overjoyed like oh now we can do this in private. I don't have to tell my buddy about it and I don't have to suppress my desire because she obviously likes it, too. And that maybe that's a dynamic.
Aella: Hopefully, like probably the girl's gonna be overjoyed. I remember I read on like FetLife There's the kink discourse where people are talking about it. And I remember I should have saved it. There's just some post or people somebody was talking about like why is there a problem for submissives to find dominance? Like there's not enough dominance to go around. Everybody wants too many women like searching for a master.
Steve Hsu: Wow. Yeah, I never knew that. I guess that's yeah, that's surprising to me
Steve Hsu: Yeah, amazing yeah, it's weird. Yeah, hard to understand.
Aella: Yeah, my guess right now my leading theory is that this is more of a hormonal thing? Like, either it's genetic in some way, like, maybe, I don't, like, really believe in, like, the gay uncle theory, where, like, why are some men gay? I'm like, well, you're sort of self selecting out of competition. Like, maybe if, if there's any truth to that, like, maybe something's going on here where, like, submissive men are people who aren't interested in being dominant or sort of naturally self selecting out.
Well, I don't know if I actually believe that, but, or, or maybe it's, like, some sort of hormone thing. Like, testosterone does seem to be correlated with dominance in my research, although it's, like, might be due to a lot of other confounders, so. Who knows for sure? I have to do more, like, actual research to find out.
But, my guess is that those are the leading theories. Like, some sort of, like, innate sort of biological or, like, hormonal thing. My guess is it's less about culture. My guess is that culture is, like, pretty bad at stamping out sexual inclinations, as evidenced by gay conversion camps not really working.
Steve Hsu: You know, this might be something that I think I recall, like, when I was reading Freud a long time ago. I think Freud, like, pointed out, or, you know, said, like, oh, the child could be traumatized if he saw mom and dad having sex because the child would think dad is, like, hurting mom. And it kind of made me think that like, if you look at animal sex, even like bunnies or dogs or whatever, it does seem like the, in a lot of cases, not all cases, now some biologist is going to like, attack me or something, but in a lot of cases, it does seem like the male animal is pursuing the female and dominating the female and then, not, maybe not forcing, but, but in a way, kind of forcing the sex upon the female. So, yeah, it doesn't seem that unnatural that that could then be reflected by, you know, what people like or don't like.
Aella: Oh, yeah. No, like sexual coercion in animal species. His primates were just so horrible, horrible. And like, if we're looking at our closest relatives, they just are fucking raping each other all over the place. And I mean, like, we're loosely defined, like, I think only orangutans, like literally, right.
But there's like, like coercion in various forms, like threats and beating people until they give up and let you have sex with them. Like chimpanzees. It's terrible infanticide. Like, it's just like part of the innate right. part of like most primates. And I'm like, it's crazy that we managed to stamp it out in humans so much.
Steve Hsu: Well, this is the kind of thing that's, again, like coming back to my rant about academic sucking, but this is the kind of thing that gets suppressed. So in other words, like if you tried to write a paper which just pointed this out, and this would be a paper that would be totally normal to have been published in like 1950 or 1960 or something.
Today, if you publish it, you're just gonna be attacked because like, wait, what are you saying? Like, well, if I extrapolate from what you're saying, I don't like the normative implications for how humans should interact, and then you could literally get canceled for, you know, by the journal. You know, for putting too much emphasis on these kinds of observations. That's the state of academia right now.
Aella: Yeah. Everything I hear about academia is not exciting. I'm starting my own journal. I just got a little bit of funding for it. so hopefully combat some of this.
Steve Hsu: Will it be about sexology mainly?
Aella: Yeah. Primarily about sex, but mostly things that are just difficult to research in academia as it stands. So anything that's particularly underserved and sex is one example of this.
Steve Hsu: Well, you know, I, I don't know how much you know about me, but I, I, I do work in computational genomics, and that, that field is like, full of this stuff where if you, you know, there's certain things that you, you cannot get any funding for, and if you publish it, you're gonna get canceled, and et cetera, et cetera. So.
Aella: Well, if you want to publish anything in my new little, little upstart journal, then.
Steve Hsu: Aella Journal or Nature? I'm trying to think. What are the pros and cons? No. No, definitely. It's good. It's good to have more outlets because academia is so constrained these days.
Okay. So having, having talked about, I could talk to you about these sex related things for hours, but I want to be respectful of your time. And I do want to get to the original thing, which I think when we were corresponding setting this up, we were going to talk about, which is embryo screening. And I think where you are also. Possibly think about egg donation or, is that something you thought about? So, what was I going to say? So I think you expressed a fairly positive attitude toward when you, it's time for you to have children, you do want to have, you know, what would be considered fairly aggressive embryo screening because screening for intelligence is very controversial right now. My company doesn't actually offer it because, we don't think society's quite, you know, equilibrate it in accepting it. So we can talk about that a little bit.
So, let's talk about egg donation. So I think if you were willing to sell eggs, I'm guessing a lot, there would be a very high price on these eggs. And is that is that something that you're
Aella: Yeah, I'm thinking like roughly a hundred grand.
Steve Hsu: Yeah.
Aella: I've been in talks with some people, it hasn't fully worked out, but, It might, it might.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. our, our, company, genomic prediction, which is the leading company for embryo screening and stuff like this. One of the sets of entities that we deal with quite a bit are egg donation companies. So oftentimes like the people who they've thought about this and they want to use donor eggs and they want to find a good IVF clinic and then they want to screen the resulting embryos. So we're, we're sometimes involved in that. So we have a kind of a view of what's happening in that space.
One of the things that's shocking to most people is that most of the couples going through IVF are older and they have a fertility issue. So that's why they're at an IVF clinic. But occasionally, when you have a younger woman who's an egg donor, like this could be even like a 22 year old woman or something. If she goes through the same hormonal stimulation that normally it's like a 40 year old woman doing or something like that, she might produce a hundred eggs. So it's got a little bit crazy. And so people didn't, I didn't realize that until some of these egg donor people were telling me this, the companies that do egg donation.
So that's really interesting. And I guess one thing I would encourage, I think you're still young. So like. the sooner the better if you're gonna produce them and freeze them.
Aella: I, I've, I'm, it's taken me, I have a needle phobia, which has taken me many years, and it's like, it's finally under control to the point where I think I can do this. but I do wish I had done it earlier.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I think it's not a pleasant process, but it's also not a, I guess, it depends on the person obviously, but like Diana Fleischman? Do you know who she is? Yeah, so she just went, has just, oh great, so she has just been through a few cycles and she talks about how like what for her at least it was not really tough sledding at all.
And so I think that's a little bit encouraging. I think to, to be honest, like, again, I don't want to mischaracterize anybody's experiences, but I think for a lot of women, the unpleasantness is largely coming from the, in a way, desperation that they're older, they love their partner, the two of them really want to have children, they're having trouble.
And it's really the pressure, because it's costing them money, and they then have to go through these hormonal stimulation shots and stuff like that. But the actual shots themselves, like compared to a root canal or something, is actually I think not that bad.
Aella: You're talking to my rational brain, which is not in control of my phobia.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. No, I'm just, I'm not trying to, I'm not trying to judge your phobia or anything like that. Just trying to characterize the experience.
Aella: Yeah, I don't think, I think, though, I'm not, the whole process I'm like, not worried about. It's just specifically the needle thing.
Steve Hsu: Understood. I think the main thing is that again, which I think all women should learn, should be taught this as they're growing up is that the curve of fertility decline, you know, varies by individual, but for a lot of women, it's already starting in late twenties, early thirties. And so it's, if you can afford it, it is a good idea to freeze eggs.
Aella: Yeah, that's this year. I'm in talks with them, I'm preparing to do it very soon.
Steve Hsu: Great. Well, by the way, you should reach out to us, Genomic Prediction because we, we, we know. You know, really all the clinics in the country and we work with a couple hundred clinics.
Aella: Okay. Yeah, that would be great. I would like to go through several cycles, which means that price starts to become an issue.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, so we can work, we can help you with that because we know so many clinics. And one of the things I'll say, which I don't want to get the company in trouble with, but, you know, because we work with so many clinics, we have a lot of data and the success rates vary quite a bit.
Aella: Ooh. That's such, that's so exciting.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, it's this hidden data that like, okay, let me make a broad statement about medicine in general. Like if you need a standard procedure done, say it's a surgery, there could be a huge variation in the efficiency with which a particular surgeon does that. And but the profession is preventing you from learning, which is the really great surgeon for doing that, which is the one which, you know, causes 10X as much bleeding and, you know, it's just not good. They don't want you to know that. And in the same way, the clinics don't really want you to know which ones have, like, a really good embryologist who, when they handle the, you know, samples, is extremely good. And for some reason their success rate is really substantially higher than some of the clinics in the same city.
But we see a lot of that data. And like some of our data scientists have actually analyzed that quite a bit. You have to remove confounds like, oh, is the average age of the women different? Are the medical conditions of the women different? You have to try to remove all these confounds and ask like, oh, well, at the end, is there really substantial variation in the quality of the clinic in terms of success per cycle? And there is.
Aella: Yeah. I would love to know, this is exactly the thing that I want.
Steve Hsu: Great.
So, I guess you kind of move in rationalist circles some. Would you say there's pretty broad acceptance of all of this stuff, in your world? Yeah.
Aella: Pretty unabashed. It's non-controversial , like, clearly, like it might even be like, this is like a moral obligation that we should be selecting for as best properties as possible.
Steve Hsu: That's, that's my impression too in that world, but then like the, the broader IVF world is obviously more, I don't want to say this in a pejorative way, it's a normie world, because it's basically just, I guess that the couples are selected to be more professional and all that, educated, because that's, that's kind of why they got into a fertility problem in the first place, because they waited to get married and have their kids later.
It's skewed that way, but otherwise it's very normie. And so the physicians And the clinics are very, very, very cautious about adopting these new technologies. So even if they like to know that they work well, and in fact, actually, our technologies actually improve the success rate. So because the easiest thing for us to do before we compute a polygenic score and all that stuff for a particular individual embryo, we can detect abnormalities in the chromosome structure, which is very, actually very quiet, it's quite common.
So, of embryos produced in sex, or in, in vitro, it's very common for there to be a chromosome problem. And then, like, people don't know that, and then when they transfer or implant that embryo, the chromosome problem is the reason that the pregnancy occurred. So a lot of people are actually getting, like, having sex just in their bedrooms, and are getting pregnant. But there is a chromosome problem with the embryo produced. It doesn't implant properly or the pregnancy does need some miscarriage and that's happening more often than people actually realize. And it can be traced often to chromosomal abnormalities, which we can detect easily.
So the clinics that use are what's called aneuploidy. Aneuploidy just means a kind of abnormal chromosome structure. The clinics that just use our aneuploidy screen, which is nothing like computing a polygenic score or something, but it's just the aneuploidy screen, they report much higher success rates per cycle because they're not accidentally transferring some embryo that has a problem, and which isn't going to take.
So yeah. Nobody knows this. I mean, even in the industry, you know, like probably only a fraction of the IVF doctors know this, right?
So, equilibration of knowledge is slow. You know, similar, similar to like, you might learn something about male female sexual preferences, but it might take like a decade before like, Professor X at University of Vermont understands what you learned, right? So, there's a time scale for equilibration of knowledge, so.
Yeah, so, I don't know. Do you have any questions or thoughts about embryo selection or egg donation? Obviously offline, I'm happy to talk to you more about it, but.
Aella: Yeah, I don't know. I've done a pretty good amount of research by this point. I want to know how far IVG is off.
Steve Hsu: IV, sorry.
Steve Hsu: What is that? In vitro?
Aella: It's, or, or, the way, where you, you do it with cells, and you make, like, whatever, like, skin cells, so you can make, like, vast...
Steve Hsu: I see. I see. Yes. So, using pluripotent skin cells to make eggs, kind of de novo. The situation with that is the following. So, labs have gotten it working quite well in other animal species like rats. And I believe actually maybe there's some primate species where they've maybe got it working. Nobody has reported getting it working in humans yet. It's a very complicated subtle wet lab thing where if you like just change the procedure slightly you could screw it up.
Like for the rat stuff, for a long time It was just a few Japanese labs that really had it working well, and maybe that spread a little bit. Now there's some startups that are actually trying to do it. But one thing to consider is the following: do you really want to be the first to test this? Because how, although it appears that the rats produced and monkeys produced by this are normal, who knows what effects there will be on your child from having been, having been produced from an egg made in this way. We don't really know.
And so my prediction for that industry is, since we already have tried and true IVF technologies and stuff, which don't require that, it'll take a while for that to get normalized and adopted at scale. That's my thought on it.
Aella: So I think you were saying in order to, what, what would be the method to decide like an egg produced originally from a skin cell is just as good as one produced the other way, the original way. In a way like this question is still not known for IVF. You know, the oldest IVF person is under, I think under 45 or around 45 now.
Steve Hsu: In fact, the oldest American produced the first American baby produced in IVF turned 40 just recently. She actually works for Genomic Prediction. She's a customer. She's a patient advocate for us. And the British baby who's a little bit older Is in the UK.
But still like you like in principle one could say, oh, you know when these IVF babies turn 65, there's something really terrible is going to happen to them. Now, you might say, oh, mechanistically, that's implausible because like, what's the difference? you know, and whatever effects were happening were happening, like when the thing was only like 100 cells big. So really, by the time they're 60 or 70, it's all got to kind of even out. But in principle, people are still monitoring like the oldest IVF babies to see if they can detect any, you know, differences between those babies and babies produced the old fashioned way.
Okay. If you introduce something really radical like, oh I made the egg that became you out of a skin cell, and wow we found out that cancer rates are like 10x higher, 3x higher for that population, but we only found that out when people got to be 60 or 70 years old. That that's that would be the concern that people have yeah.
And you can say like, oh, but we've been studying these rats and monkeys that were made through this technology, you know, and the rat in the rat case, many generations have been studied in the monkey case, not so many actually. Probably not even one. But that would be the concern.
And so, like, the question would be, like, what's your reason? Like, if you're a woman who missed her fertility window and wasn't able to have any kids and you're 55. And but you still want to do it and you're going to use the skin cell for sure. I think they're going to be people because the desire to reproduce in some people is so strong that you will have some cases like that. But I think as a fraction of the utilization relative to the utilization of standard IVF I think these new technologies are going to be tiny for a long time to come and in for IVF in particular like in some countries, like Scandinavian countries, or I think maybe Israel, I think almost 10% of babies now born are actually born via IVF.
So it's a non-trivial fraction of the entire birth cohort each year.
Aella: Yeah. I think like for me, it's like a trade off, right? Like the benefit of IVG is that you get to make a shit ton of embryos and then test a shit ton. And if you can, if we had the technology to select for IQ or happiness or whatever, then like the potential to be truly brilliant, to really introduce like truly brilliant people into the population, which is, what would be a magnificent benefit. Like, to me, it's probably worth the risk. I would rather want to see because it's like we're not just risking, like maybe We make babies that get cancer. We're also risking it not having a universe where we have a bunch of brilliant people I don't know.
So I hope it gets made pretty soon.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, you know, your, your take is the rationalist take which, you know, I'm obviously sympathetic to. But then that gets me called a eugenicist and all kinds of nasty names and stuff like that. So obviously, over the years, I've become sensitized to the other point of view, which is that, oh, it's...
Aella: yell eugenicists at you.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, well, okay. One thing is that as a company, we have to be sensitive to public opinion, and we can't, we can try to push the normative equilibrium in a certain direction, but if we get too far ahead of it, then, you know, we, it's not good for our reputation within the industry.
So the decision we made was, you probably already know this, but we only report health related polygenic scores. We don't report IQ scores. We don't report height. We don't report the cosmetic traits like eye color, hair color, skin tone. And we did that just because you know, the, the set of people that can agree, and even that is not universal, but the set of people that can agree that the health risks are important to report and not somewhat non controversial, that's, that's, that's large enough that it isn't a problem. And it's these other things we've been, you know, fairly cautious about.
Aella: Like, if I, like, made embryos with you guys, for example, could I, can I just get the raw data from all the embryos myself?
Steve Hsu: Yeah, absolutely. So our policy is that you can download it, it's your data, right? So our policy is you can download your data and then, you know, just to be totally frank, there are people that can help you analyze. the data for all the other traits that you're interested in, but we, as a company, don't, in our official report, don't report that stuff. We can compute it trivially, but we don't, we don't report it to the patient. So that's where we've come down on it.
Now, we're probably going to shift over time, because in some countries, people are much more positive about this. Like, in a lot of Asian countries, they, they, they want the cognitive score. They, you know, and so we, we may eventually evolve to something like, well, in country X, The normative consensus is kind of here. So that's what's in the report in this country. The normative consensus is over there. So that's what's in the report in that country. So we may have all
Aella: Does he have the capacity to predict IQ?
Steve Hsu: Okay. So good question.
So for quantitative traits where it's like some kind of measurable number that you would assign to the trade, the one that we can predict most accurately is height and we can predict height for people that are going to grow up in a good environment where they have plenty of nutrition and sleep and all that the uncertainty is only a few centimeters.
So we can predict. We can definitely tell the difference between, like, some kid is going to be 6 '3 and some kid is going to be 5' 11, though, you know, it's very unlikely for us to confuse those two phenotypes. So height is very accurate.
For intelligence, the predictors are not as accurate, and the reason is that we do not have access to as much labeled data. So although we have access to millions of genomes, very few of those genomes have accurately measured IQ scores. And so the predictors and, and we can see it in the machine learning or AI predictor training that we're no for height, we're kind of saturated, like adding more data to our training set doesn't really increase the accuracy of the predictor very much. But for IQ, it's still like this very strong slope. So in other words, if you would fund a study for us, that lets us have like a million people with good IQ scores, we're confident we could build a very strong IQ predictor which is in a way kind of comparable to the height predictor that I mentioned to you. But the current situation is that the best intelligence predictor probably correlates between 0. 3, maybe almost 0.4 with the actual score. So, whether you regard correlation of 0.4 as good or bad. It’s kind of subjective, right?
Aella: That's pretty good.
Steve Hsu: It's pretty good for social science, right? It's not as good for like, because yeah, but not perfect.
Now, the way we would use that, so if just hypothetically, okay, all you haters who think I'm the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler just settle down. hypothetically, the way we would use the current set of predictors in operation is we would flag embryos that are either positive outliers on the predictor or negative outliers on the predictor and then, or just kind of like in the middle. And so the main utility in my mind is like for negative outliers, there is a, with a correlation of 0.4, there's a very good chance that that kid will struggle in school if he's a negative outlier. So like the bottom 5% or 3% of embryos. Probably if you have other options, you might want to implant one of the other ones. And then also, like, if it's a, if it's a strong positive outlier, you're more confident this is going to be a kid who is not going to have any problems in school, okay?
But, like, which one's going to be the von Neumann and which one's going to be the Oppenheimer and which one's going to be, you know you know Bill Gates? No, we can't, can't do anything like that at the moment, but in principle, in the future, for sure. We, scientifically, we're quite confident that if we had enough data, it's, it's really just the data problem. The algorithms are good enough, and if we had SAT scores for all the 23andMe genotypes, we would be able to build this predictor in one day, for sure.
Aella: How many people do you need?
Steve Hsu: You know, it's interesting. So, one of my specialties is the theory behind the, so theoretical prediction of algorithm performance. And so for the algorithms used in genomics, I've predicted that on the order of a million or maybe a few million genotypes with good, good cognitive scores attached would allow us to build a pretty accurate IQ predictor, like maybe plus or minus 10 IQ points or something like that.
So, that's where I think science is going. Now, if, like, I'm very disappointed that this field isn't moving forward, but it's mainly because, like, even talking about it gets you attacked. So, let alone, like, going to the government and saying, can I have a hundred million dollars to collect, you know, a million genomes and administer good IQ tests to all these people? Like, no one will give me that money. Other than Sam Bankman, Fried might have given us that money, but something happened to him. I'm not joking about that, actually.
But yeah, so the science is just stuck. It's a little bit like if you wanted to answer a particular question about sexual preferences or this or that, and you could design, you could perfectly design the experiment or the survey or the test that you need to answer the scientific question, but no one will fund it. Not only will no one fund it, but they'll attack you personally. They'll look, they'll say like, what, you must be a racist Nazi for wanting to actually do this analysis or collect that data. That's the situation that we're in.
Aella: That's rough. It's really rough.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, that, I'm not, you know, it's like the smallest violence. I'm not complaining or anything, but it's just an observation of where society is.
Aella: As you're talking, my body is like, filling up with fury. I can't believe that society is so fucking stupid that we're just like, cancelling the people doing the shit that could be radically changing humanity for the better. It's so infuriating.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, you know, to be honest, it, it, in a way, it's almost like, again, this is the kind of thing like a rationalist would say, it's like, it's kind of like a cognitive limitation of society itself, because if you are for social justice, and you think there are some families that generation after generation, they're not doing well in school, and some component of that is genetic, and I'm not talking about black versus white, this could just be all white families, or just all Japanese families, there's some families where just generally they're not, you know, their polygenic scores are kind of low for cognitive ability or educational attainment.
And let's say you're not a libertarian, you're actually a massive social progressive, almost like a communist. If you wanted to help that section of society, you'd like a genetic technology that allows you to transfer resources to that portion of society and not just giving them checks or cash, but actually allowing them when it comes time for them to have their kids to boost their kids back up into the normal range or beyond the normal range for polygenic scores for intelligence.
So, even if you're an egalitarian, progressive wealth transfer person, you should say, yes, let's do this science. And then if we want to do this, society can transfer genetic resources to the underprivileged and that would be possible. But even like, to me, it's almost like these progressives are too dumb to even know, like, what is the right way to execute the progressive program? So they didn't want to know what the root causes of the problems that they're most concerned about are.
Aella: You seem so calm. You seem so like, like at peace.
Steve Hsu: Well, you know, one of the things I learned in life, again, I'm a lot older than you, is that every person that I admire, who managed to push like an area of science forward or an area of technology, whatever they had to commit a lot of effort, a sustained effort over a long period of time. And then they had to deal with society as it is. They had to operate within the limitations of society and figure out a strategy for moving things forward.
So just have to kind of be patient and a little bit zen about it. You can burn yourself out and just say like, okay, this is I really want to solve this problem. I worked five, ten years on this. I, we couldn't get it going and I'm just going to quit and do something else.
But I, the people who really move the needle over time, I think they have sustained commitment over time to do it. I'm not even the best person at this because I'm more prone to get pissed off and switch to like, I'm just going to work on pure AI now. Fuck you. You know, fuck you guys in genomics. I'm off doing AGI-related stuff, which is kind of true because my latest startup is in the large language model space. It's not genomics. I kind of feel that way. But I aspire to be one of these Zen guys that can push the needle forward over many decades on a particular matter.
Aella: Well, you're better at it than I am. Good job.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, but it's because you're young. See, yeah, it's good. You're fiery. You're young. You know, when you're old, you can be like, okay, this,
Aella: It also, it also feels innate, like all, I'm like so outside of the norm in every way. Like all of my research is done completely outside of the existing frameworks. Like I'm self-taught.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, it's great. It's phenomenal. But you know, a lot, a lot of great scientists were self-taught and driven by, you know, the best motivation is not like, I want to get tenure and have this fancy title at Harvard.
Aella: Yeah. It's the burning curiosity.
Steve Hsu: The burning curiosity.
Aella: Just literally to find out what answers to the question.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's the greatest thing. And I think You know, I wish you all the best. I think these questions like it's just so amazing to me. I don't know again, like maybe I'm weird like you are, but if you're at all interested in social science or human psychology, aren't you interested in how people feel about sex and their sexuality and what they do in private? This is like the hardest thing to get at because it's, you know, stigmatized and it's private and all that.
But, surely, like, it's worthy of our efforts to try to figure out, like, what are people actually like? Why are they that way? And what are they actually doing in the privacy of their own homes? You know, these are all important aspects of humanity, right? So, I think it's awesome.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. Well, hey, maybe that's a good way to end it.
Really enjoyed talking to you. uh, are you, are you mostly in Austin? Cause maybe I'll, I'll ping you next time I'm in Austin.
Aella: Yeah, sure. I, yeah, I live in Austin, but I travel to SF frequently.
Steve Hsu: Okay, awesome.
Aella: Yeah. Thank you so much. This was great.