A collection of short stories exploring themes in the psychology and philosophy of human sexuality, but with horses instead of humans. Each story focuses on a different pony. It's sort of like the My Little Pony fanfiction adaption of my book Empirical Sexual Attitudes. If you're looking for porn, you're going to be disappointed, but hey, you might learn something.
- In "Nature", Rarity learns that beasts aren't so different from ponies—or are they?
- In "Fear", Fluttershy confronts something that makes her deeply uncomfortable.
- In "Identity", Pinkie is asked a rude question, but finds she isn't sure of the answer herself.
- In "Performance", Rainbow Dash and her male clone are infatuated with each other, but find themselves unable to win an important contest.
- In "Contamination", Applejack, while trying to increase her sales at the market, opens a much bigger can of worms than she bargained for.
- In "The Unknown", Twilight makes it all complete… or tries to.
"Yes, it should be lovely." said Rarity. She magically peeled the light yellow dress off Applejack and put it on a mannequin, then took off her big red-rimmed glasses. "Thank you so much for modeling for me, Applejack. I know you're very busy. But your soft orange coat and rich blond mane are ravishing, and just what I need for the Appleloosa market. You really ought to dress up more, darling."
"Shucks, Rares." said Applejack with a wide grin as she put her hat back on. "You know I'll do anything for a friend. 'Cept for wearin' one of those, I guess." she added, chuckling. She waved in the direction of some mannequins wearing fishnet stockings, translucent skirts, G-strings, and other sexualized garments.
"You're too good for exotic apparel, hmm?" said Rarity. "Well, for a long time, so was my boutique—but it's just too big a part of fashion these days to ignore. And I have to admit, I appreciate being able to sell such small garments for such, ahem, generous sums."
Applejack walked over to the mannequins and grimaced at them. "What's the point, anyway? If a mare wants to be sexy, can't she always pick her tail up?"
"That's not exactly courtship, darling." said Rarity. "Or seduction. There's a lot to be said for flirting and teasing—for not showing everything a lady has right away. Something that's at first withheld, and then gradually revealed, is more valued, and, in fact, more beautiful."
"Aw, hayseeds," said Applejack, "pony sex is so complicated. Farm animals have the right idea—ya just go ahead and rut. No fancy dinners or G-strings or nothin'; just copulatin' and then, cute li'l babies!"
Rarity cringed at this indelicate language. "Well, pony sexuality is about a lot more than just reproduction, you know. We have sex to show our love for each other, and for pleasure."
"Well, and who says animals don't?" said Applejack.
"You just said yourself—"
"That ain't the whole story of animals and sex, nohow. Y'know how bulls like to pass the time?" Rarity stared at Applejack blankly. "Jackin' off, just like a colt. And they're not the only ones. Fluttershy told me the other day that flyin' foxes suck each other off! Ain't that wild?"
"Well, I… yes, that's very strange." said Rarity. What was a flying fox, anyway? She couldn't remember. Some kind of squirrel?
"Makes sense, if you think about it. Sex is natural, right?"
"Yes, of course. That's just what we say to colts and fillies who are upset about puberty."
"So a'course nature's full of sex of all sorts. It's one of the simplest jobs animals have. No sense in complicatin' it with all this ceremony, and coverin' it with clothin'. We all got the same sort of wants, deep down. No amount of pony vanity can change that." Applejack snorted in contempt. "Call it love or pleasure or whatever you want, but it's the same thing."
"You always have an interesting perspective." said Rarity with a smile. "But I wouldn't trade a proper night out with a dashing stallion for the world."
Rarity's thoughts returned to that conversation many times over the next few days. That sex was natural was, she decided, a good thing to remember. Sex was something that brought creatures together, not just literally but also figuratively, in part because it was a common experience. Even if ponies (not to mention other animals, talking or otherwise), came in all shapes and sizes, and had a range of personalities to match, sexuality, and its common modes of expression, was something they all shared. Rarity remembered how in earlier, less enlightened times, masturbation had been regarded as an aberration, a sign of some unusual moral or mental weakness, if not a cause of those things. In reality, it had long been among the commonest pastimes, as it still was today. The fact that even dumb beasts like bulls masturbated could serve as a particular wake-up call to anypony who supposed that masturbation was the product of a strange, deranged mind.
One morning, Rarity had just opened for business when a stranger trotted in. He was a stocky, mustached pegasus with an ice-blue coat and a cutie mark of a thick red book on a lectern. "Rarity?" he said. "The village tailor?"
"Ah, yes, and welcome to the Carousel Boutique, Mister…"
"Dr. Small Sample. On the way to a conference in Rainbow Falls tomorrow, and all I have is a lot of heavy coats. Four years in Yakyakistan will do that. Can you fix me up with something proper for presenting myself?"
They chatted as Rarity took his measurements and gave him shirts and ties to try. Small Sample, she learned, was a professor of sociology at the University of Fillydelphia. He had just recently completed the first detailed study of the Ice Cliff Ponies, a rural people in Yakyakistan who had very little contact with Equestrians and civilization in general, partly due to their remote location and partly due to the longstanding frigid relations between Yakyakistan and Equestria.
"The cliffies are a fascinating bunch." Small Sample was saying. "Well-preserved, highly agglutinative language with almost no rules about word order; took me a year before I could so much as ask for tea politely. Very unusual rituals around unicorn magic. Amazing feats of agriculture for such a hostile region. And even some unusual sexual habits."
"'Unusual'?" said Rarity, obviously curious. "What do you mean?" The professor gave her a look as if he was trying to decide what words he could use in front of a country bumpkin like her without being kicked onto the street, and so she added hastily "Don't worry; I'm not so delicate. I have a shop under a rave club in Manehattan."
Small Sample laughed. "If you say so. Well, fact is, the cliffies' sex lives are odder for what they're missing than for what they've got. They're never homosexually active. And they don't have masturbation. Not because they're against it. They don't even know it exists. Celestia, I was trying to get some semen samples for a colleague back in Filly and I had to explain to a dozen grown stallions how to masturbate themselves. It's not rocket science. They're not stupid. I knew the language pretty well by the time I dared asking informants for semen samples. But they found the whole business confusing. And I still got samples contaminated with vaginal discharge. These uncontacted cultures always keep you guessing."
Rarity furrowed her brow. "A funny people, to be sure. There's a friend of mine who's a farmer, you know, and she was telling me how even bulls give themselves pleasure. It's mystifying that what so many ponies do, and animals besides, one tribe of ponies hasn't even heard of."
"Bulls, huh?" said Small Sample. "Hmm. Shouldn't be surprised. Well, culture's a powerful thing."
"How do you mean?"
"The first thing you learn in sociology is how culture shapes a pony. Some of us go in with naive ideas about everypony being the same, every language just a different vocabulary for another language, that kind of thing. But culture is huge. The sins of the one are the virtues of the other."
"Is that so?"
"Oh, yes. Look, you're a fashion expert. You know how mares are about their barrels. Everything's got to be thin. So very, very thin. Right?"
"Yes. Sometimes, tragically, to excess, as with those fillies starving themselves to fit into a smaller dress for their cute-ceañera."
"Exactly. Well, the cliffies have it just the other way. Every mare's got to be round as a bowling ball. That's how a wife's supposed to be. They think it's sexy. Some of them even eat meat products, for weight gain." Rarity's eyes widened. "You balk! So did I. That's culture for you."
"Oh, they don't know. They have explanations, but I trust those as far as I could throw the obese wives, and even Shining Armor would be hard pressed for that. Nopony really knows why they do things. That's the first thing you learn in psychology. It's tempting to think it's an adaption to the cold and the hunger, since a fat wife is likelier to survive a lean winter. But that's just my speculation, so far." After a pause, Small Sample added, "Culture's a powerful thing."
Once Small Sample had left, adorned with a crisp shirt and jacket and a bold orange necktie, and Rarity had gotten the sewing machine running, she found herself thinking once again about the idea that sex was natural. It was surely true in some sense. But she had made too much of it. Sexuality, like most aspects of life, was not just a given with which ponies were created, a natural law that they were compelled to obey like the laws of gravity. It was only expressed as it was filtered, warped, and fashioned by the outside world. Its complexities arose not just from some sort of pure primal impulses, but from the world—natural and pony-made alike—in which ponies lived.
Both of Applejack's examples are real. Houpt and Wollney (1989) report masturbation in Holstein bulls, and Tan et al. (2009) report fellatio in fruit bats. (ESA has an appendix on masturbation in animals; coincidentally, stallions seem to the busiest masturbators in the animal kingdom.) But animals can have elaborate courtship rituals, too, so the contrast AJ draws between ponies (humans) and animals is inaccurate.
The Ice Cliff Ponies' cluelessness about homosexuality, and masturbation in particular, is based on the descriptions of central African peoples in Hewlett and Hewlett (2010). A heavy cultural emphasis on obesity in women appears in, for example, Mauritania (LaFraniere, 2007).
A good citation for Small Sample's statement that "no[body] really knows why they do things" is Nisbett and Wilson (1977).
Fluttershy was not quite as naive to the dark side of life as many ponies believed. She couldn't be: she had comforted a mortally wounded bluebird in its final hours, seen wasp larvae eat their way out of a dead caterpillar, and helped a doe rabbit painfully give birth to a litter of eight blind, hairless red kits. Hence, she knew to be thankful that she and her five friends had avoided death, permanent injury, and serious mental trauma in their many adventures. She was afraid of many things, and sometimes embarrassed at her own fear, which made it worse—but fear wasn't all bad. Fear, after all, was an important feeling that kept her alert for dangers, and careful to protect herself and the many other ponies and animals she loved.
But maybe the most trying times of all were when she was afraid without being sure whether she ought to be afraid, and even what, exactly, she was afraid of. So it seemed to be with sex. She loved her boyfriend of two years dearly, and he was always patient, gentle, and caring with her, especially in matters of sex. After a period of reluctance and struggle, she had learned to enjoy sex, and even assert her own interests apart from his. And yet… something was not right with the whole business. Something was, she had to admit, subtly terrifying; and this latent fear, far from being extinguished as she grew more sexually confident, seemed to only poke at the corners of her mind more insistently as she lay beside her beloved stallion in ostensibly blissful postcoital reverie.
Fluttershy talked to her friends about this Fear, whatever it was, and read a few books that Twilight recommended to her. She heard lots of reasons why ponies might be uncomfortable with sex, but none seemed to apply to her. She had never been abused. Nobody had filled her head with dangerous falsehoods about sex or her own body. Her relationship with her boyfriend was, to all appearances, amicable and equitable. She was under serious stress sometimes, but wasn't everypony else, too?
"Isn't there something about it that just… makes you want to hide, or run away?" she asked Rarity in hushed tones one afternoon in the steam room.
Rarity frowned, and was quiet for a while. "My dear," she said finally, "I think I can remember such things… when I was younger. But between the two of us, Fluttershy, I used to be afraid of a lot of things. My future was so exciting, dazzling with possibilities, but also fraught with uncertainty. I had a cutie mark, but that was no guarantee I could make my own mark in the fast-moving world of the elite, of high culture, fashion, and design. The boutique struggled for so long. It was years until I felt sure that I was who I wanted to be, or at least that I could become her."
"And did that help you with…?" said Fluttershy.
"With lovemaking?" said Rarity. "It helped me make a few choice catches." she went on with a giggle. "But no, in all seriousness, darling, it helped with a multitude of things. When I had more of a sense of my value, my identity, my special qualities, my place in society, I had more confidence, and with that, I was no longer so afraid of big things."
"I see." said Fluttershy, although she wasn't sure that she really saw.
She posed similar questions to her other friends, and even her parents, and many of them admitted to experiencing a similar inexplicable sexual anxiety, at least sometimes. Thinking of Rarity, she prodded whether achieving some kind of self-discovery had helped them overcome the Fear, and the ponies she spoke to said that sounded reasonable, even if it was hard to judge in their own case.
"Maybe that's it, then." she said to herself. "I just have to focus on what makes me a good pony, and that will make me braver."
That evening, she was feeding some pigs, and her thoughts turned to the prospect of sex with her boyfriend later that night. She felt a familiar prickle in her thoughts, the telltale sign of the Fear looming over her consciousness. She resisted the impulse to shiver, and turned her attention to the pigs. How sweet they were, how smart and funny, and how she loved them. These were among the hundreds of animals she had helped keep healthy and happy. Was that not a noble and praiseworthy endeavor? She was proud of herself. She recalled, with a small smile, that pigs seemed perfectly happy to have sex—why should she be any more reluctant? Why should anypony?
She turned with particular tenderness to Chuck, a sickly runt who she was, with infinite patience, slowly nursing to health. It looked like Chuck was balled up in the corner with his favorite blanket, like he always was. She refilled the little bottle of formula which he depended on (being denied milk by his own mother), straightened his blanket, and lay down an ear on him to listen to his tiny heart. But… what was this? She heard no heartbeat. With a sharp intake of breath, she tore off the blanket, picked up the piglet, and held him close, talking to him, petting him, listening to him, trying to coax some sign of life out of the tiny body. But it was no use. Chuck was dead. Despite her best efforts, he hadn't made it.
Fluttershy was full of a horrible gloom, a dread. This was far from the first animal who had died under her care, and surely would not be the last, yet somehow it never got easier. Involuntarily, Fluttershy dropped the body. She backed away, then turned to the other pigs. And there was Chuck's mother, lying in the same mud in which she had given birth to Chuck and his brothers and sisters, as a male mounted her. Fluttershy gulped. She blinked, and for a moment, in the dim moonlight, that thrusting, grunting boar resembled the intelligent stallion who she knew and loved and yet thrusted and grunted in the same rhythm.
It was then that the scales fell from Fluttershy's eyes, the Fear that had merely whispered at her before burst terrifically into her mind, and she saw how the basic animal facts of birth, feeding, and—especially—the bestial ecstasies of sex that ponies shared with all other animals were the stamp of the same mortality, the same implacable guarantee that she and he and all other living things would someday be ground into the very same mud. All her kindness, her hopes and fears, her pride, and her personhood would be primal mud. Ashes to ashes, mud to mud. The Fear that she had never recognized before had revealed itself it all its infinite power and terror as Death!
Fluttershy blinked again, and the feeling subsided. Over the rest of her life, the Fear, now back to its normal size, drifted in and out of her mind, but she never forgot what it was, and she knew it had no less a permanent home in the hearts of all ponies than the sexuality that provoked it.
This chapter is an exposition of terror-management theory, which is described at length in ESA.
Identity (Pinkie Pie)
When Lyra and Bon Bon were planning their wedding, there was no question of who they would ask to arrange the reception, and Pinkie Pie was happy to oblige. "I've outdone myself this time." she thought, admiring the human-shaped piñata and the cake shaped like a piece of candy that was made out of candy.
"Great party, Pinkie!" said Applejack, raising a mug of punch. She, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy walked up to Pinkie in a group, having just given their congratulations to the brides.
"I'm so happy I could provide the doves." said Fluttershy, as a stray one landed on her head.
"It's awesome!" said Rainbow. "Almost as awesome as the birthday party you and Cheese Sandwich did for me."
"Aww, girls…" said Pinkie, grinning from ear to ear.
"So, Pinkie…" said Rainbow conspiratorially "how about you? When are you gonna get married?" Pinkie shrugged. "By the way, are you gay, or what?"
"Rainbow!" said Applejack.
"What?" said Rainbow. "It's a fair question."
"Um…" said Fluttershy "Pinkie, you don't have to answer that if you don't want to."
"Pff!" said Pinkie. "It's no biggie. I'll tell you anything, Dashie! I just… uh… I miiiight not know the answer myself."
"Oh, Celestia, it figures." said Rainbow.
"Well, I mean, I've had crushes on mares." said Pinkie. "But I've also had crushes on stallions. And my first boyfriend was a stallion. Well, that's just true by definition. But the first pony I dated was a stallion. But he was a big meanie. But then in high school I started dating a mare and I thought I loved her a lot more but the sex was kinda meh and then she moved away so I was looking for another pony and I was casually dating a few and there was one who I saw a lot but we were more kind of friends and then there was that orgy I was in but I had just tried meth for the first—"
"I'm not sure we need that kind of detail." said Applejack, who had stuffed a large pie in Pinkie's mouth.
"She was just getting to the good part!" said Rainbow Dash, her wings beating in irritation.
"I didn't really want to hear it." said Fluttershy, peeking through her mane. The dove had flown away.
Pinkie swallowed the pie whole. "Mmm, blueberry! But anyway, I don't really know!" She grinned as if she had just won some kind of contest.
"Well, um, maybe you're a lesbian, Pinkie Pie." said Fluttershy. "I know that it can take a lot of ponies a long time to figure that out about themselves. We all kind of start from the default of heterosexuality, because that's how most ponies are, and then maybe find our way from there."
Applejack shrugged. "On that logic, seems like you're most likely to be straight. Most ponies are, so why believe somethin' else unless you're really sure about it? Occam's Razor and all that."
"I don't know what you think shaving has to do with it, AJ," said Rainbow Dash, "but it's pretty obvious to me. Pinkie Pie's bisexual, like me! It's the coolest sexual orientation because you get twice as much sex!" She raised an eyebrow at Pinkie. "So, speaking of orgies…"
"Eh…" said Pinkie "I don't know. Nothing sounds like it reeeealy fits. I mean, I don't really like all the stallions I liked in the same way, and I guess I like them more than mares in total, but I feel like my best dates were with mares. Maybe there's something else…" Suddenly Pinkie was flipping through a giant stack of books, peering at them through a giant monocle on a chain. "I could be a homoromantic heterosexual. Or maybe I'm a demisexual, or pansexual, or patasexual or autosexual or Kinsey 2.8 or bicurious or heteroflexible or skoliosexual or fluid or—"
"Can we get back to the orgy?" said Rainbow Dash.
"You gotta show Twi that study technique." said Applejack.
"This is useless!" cried Pinkie Pie bombastically, throwing the books aside, one of which knocked over an ice sculpture, which landed on Spike. "I'm a psychosexual deviant, unknown to science, bereft of a home in the hearts of society!"
"Maybe that pony over there could help." said Fluttershy.
"Howdy, Princess Cadance." said Applejack. "Glad you could make it."
Cadance smiled. "It's nice to get out of the house now that the baby's grown a bit. And to attend a wedding without my crybaby of a husband."
"Princess, ya gotta help me!" said Pinkie Pie, falling to her knees. "I have no idea what my sexual orientation identity is. It's like trying to choose a dessert identity! I like both pies and cakes but I only really like pies with fruit except for pumpkin pie and cake is usually better on average but I don't like to eat as much 'cause it's not as good without a special occasion and cupcakes are more fun to bake than either of those but they aren't really what I'd eat if I could choose any dessert and then there's the issue of candy which is and I'm running out of breath. So I don't know if I should be gay or straight or bisexual or one of these other new sexual orientations that all the cool kids are identifying as."
Cadance gently lifted Pinkie back up. "It is confusing, isn't it? I think you've realized the difficult part yourself. You wouldn't try to sum up all the things you like about sweets in one word, would you?" Pinkie shook her head. "Love is the same way. Everypony has her own things she likes and dislikes, and they can change over time, and she can be uncertain. It isn't realistic to think that everypony is going to be described very well with a few labels, and if you make a new label for every pony, you might as well not have any labels at all."
Pinkie said "So I'm a… what?"
Cadance laughed. "Just don't worry about it. It's the wrong question. Just worry about having good relationships. That's hard enough. Don't let a label tell you who to love."
Pinkie thought about that for a moment, then saluted. "Yes, ma'am!"
"Now, speaking of desserts," said Cadance, "I really have to sample that cake you made."
"Oooh, me too!" said Pinkie, as she pronked alongside Cadance towards the food.
"Doesn't anypony want to hear about the orgy?" said Rainbow Dash.
"Hey!" said the voice of Spike from beneath an ice sculpture. "I'm, uh, kind of out of fire breath. Is anypony gonna help me over here?"
I criticize existing taxonomies of sexual orientation and raise doubts about the value of any such taxonomy in the chapter of ESA on sexual preferences. Pinkie's soliloquy on dessert is based on a similar analogy using ice cream in the beginning of the chapter.
Performance (Rainbow Dash)
One day, some hijinks involving the Mirror Pool and a baggie of high-grade poison joke led to the appearance of a new rainbow-maned pony. He was a male duplicate of Rainbow Dash, identical to the original in almost every way, who called himself Rainbow Blitz. Nopony was surprised to see the two Rainbows dating. In fact, Twilight Sparkle had barely introduced herself to Rainbow Blitz before she launched into a stern lecture about the perilous genetics of inbreeding. The meeting ended on a sour note when Rainbow Dash, tiring of Punnet squares, said something crude to Twilight about time travel, and Rainbow Blitz added something about Shining Armor. Other than that, the first few days they were together were pure bliss for Rainbow Dash. She loved him, and he loved her, just as much as she loved herself. Occasionally they cuddled or had romantic dinners, but a lot of the time they spent together was trying to outdo each with other with feats of speed and aerial acrobatics. They pushed each other, and Rainbow Dash found herself faster and more graceful than ever before.
The Rainbows eagerly awaited sex with each other, and so they soon had it… or tried to. Their seeming perfect coordination disappeared. Blitz was unable to get a full erection and felt humiliated. Dash tried to urge on his penis as she had urged on his wings, to no effect. Blitz found Dash's attempt at fellatio halfhearted, and Dash found Blitz's attempts to fondle her clitoris clumsy. Dispirited and dissatisfied, the Rainbows turned to a local sex therapist, a yellow unicorn mare named Body Work.
Body Work listened carefully to the couple's tale of woe, and asked questions about their feelings towards each other and their everyday activities. "There's good news." she said with a smile. "You have a very common problem, even if it's an especially pronounced case. You're trying too hard and you're being too serious."
"What?" Dash and Blitz cried with an identically indignant tone.
"I know." Body Work chuckled. "Listen, this is going to be hard for athletes like you two. But some things aren't about competition and winning and performance, and sex is just one of those things. Sex is about communication, cooperation, trust, patience. It's not a way we show how strong we are but a way we make ourselves vulnerable. When you stop fretting so much about how well you're having sex, then it can become natural and easy. Relax, be spontaneous, and don't beat yourselves up so much for making mistakes."
The Rainbows found this advice counterintuitive at best. Dash asked several friends how it sounded to them and was surprised to find a lot of agreement with Body Work.
"Well, duh!" said Pinkie Pie, striding on giant cat-shaped stilts ("It's a long story.") beside the flying Rainbow Dash. "How are you supposed to have fun if you're trying so hard to win all the time?"
"Winning is fun!" Rainbow Dash protested.
"You can't even win sex." said Pinkie. ("Not with that attitude." Rainbow Dash muttered.) "Trust me, if you could, I would've won the grand prize last Hearth's Warming easy! Just try being a little less serious, Dashie."
Seeing as they weren't winning in any case, Dash and Blitz figured they had nothing to lose. And so they took it easy. They told themselves that Blitz wouldn't always be able to get an erection, Dash wouldn't always be able to get an orgasm, and not every move they'd seen in porn was anatomically feasible. They only had sex when they felt like it, not because they felt like they had to.
Nothing improved. Actually, they were pretty sure sex got worse. It was not less, but more stressful than before. The more Dash and Blitz tried to relax, the less relaxed they felt. The more they tried not to think about something other than the possibility of messing up, the more it consumed their thoughts. Soon, they found nothing less sexually arousing than trying to have sex.
Eventually, Rainbow Dash snapped. "Just forget it!" she said to Blitz. "I can clop better by myself anyway."
Desperate times called for desperate measures. Rainbow Blitz flew deep into the Everfree Forest, and then shouted "Yo, Discord!"
Discord appeared in a puff of pink smoke, lounging on a velvet fainting-couch in a red bikini while twiddling a cigarette holder in his talons. "Hello, sailor." he crooned.
"I guess you know what this is about." said Blitz in a resigned tone.
"Call it a woman's intuition." said Discord, batting elongated eyelashes. Suddenly, he was in a fancy waiter's getup and Rainbow Blitz was sitting at a café table, holding some kind of hybrid of a menu and a swimsuit magazine. "What can I get for you? An alicorn princess? A dragoness? Two mares at the same time?"
"I'm not looking for whores, Discord." said Blitz, throwing the menu aside. "I just want great sex with the mare I love."
"Well? What's stopping you?"
"That's the thing! I don't even know! It's like, we tried too much, so we stopped trying so much… or we tried to stop trying so much… but that was even harder! I just can't make myself into some smooth stallion who gets rock-hard without even trying to get hard!" He struck his hooves on the table. "I don't get it!"
Discord fingered his long, curly mustache. "It's a tough role to play, isn't it? I know Rainbow Splash or whatever her name is always had a bit of stage fright. Truly, theater is among the most challenging of the arts."
"But that's the thing. I'm—we're trying not to perform anything. We're just trying to…"
"…Play the role of somepony who isn't playing a role, which is all the more difficult. It takes a true master to make an act look natural."
"This is so stupid! Can't I just stop performing?"
Discord laughed. "What a quaint idea! 'Stop performing'! Do you think there's anything anypony ever does that isn't some kind of performance? All the world's a stage, little pony!" Discord's outfit became Shakespearean, the trees around them turned into cardboard cutouts, and rows of theater seats appeared, filled with Discords eating popcorn. "Just be glad you get to choose your part."
"Knock it off!" said Rainbow Blitz, flying up to Discord's face. "Listen, buddy; you can do anything, can't you? Then just make it stop! Make me stop performing!"
Discord scratched his chin thoughtfully, hemmed and hawed, and then said "Very well." He added gleefully "You asked for it!"
Blitz had barely a moment to realize what was happening before Discord had snapped the pads of his lion's paw, and with a loud whooshing noise, Rainbow Blitz was sent flying through the air and back into the Mirror Pool from whence he came.
"Just one of those obnoxious blue ponies" Discord said to the other Discords "is really more than enough."
This chapter is inspired not by scientific research but by the essays of sex therapist Bernard Apfelbaum. According to Apfelbaum (2002), performance anxiety is often actually performance-anxiety anxiety (that is, anxiety about being able to perform), and conventional approaches to treating performance anxiety tend to only reinforce the patient's higher-order anxiety, by leading them to feel bad for not being able to have sex effortlessly. Sex, at least among humans, is inherently and inescapably a kind of performance. This is one way in which we seem to dismiss sexual reality (Apfelbaum, 1984).
Apfelbaum died just a month before the publication of this story, on 5 July 2016. I dedicate this story to his memory.
"Bodywork" is a sex-therapy practice that involves the therapist touching (and sexually stimulating) the patient with his or her hands. (There are also sex therapists who actually have sex with patients, but this is called "sexual surrogacy".)
Every Sunday at six o'clock, Applejack set up a stall in the Ponyville market arrayed with produce, cheese, pastries, and lots of other good things to eat. With each thing that she sold, she added a tally mark to a list, so that after she closed shop around two, she could see which items were selling briskly and which weren't selling at all.
"It's funny how much the list changes from one week to the next, sometimes." said Applejack that night at the family dinner table. "Last week, cherry pies were hot and the apple pies just sat there. Today, I was wiped out of apple pies by ten, but only two cherry pies sold."
"Maybe everypony who got an apple pie last time wanted somethin' different." said Apple Bloom. "Or maybe they think the apples are better now that we're more into fall. Or… maybe they're goin' in, uh, backwards alphabetical order?"
"I'm sure it's just chance." said Granny Smith. "Don't read too much into these li'l things, half-pint. Besides, ponies don't look closely at things, and they always think that apples are all we grow. They probably think they're all apple pies."
"Eeyup." said Big Mac ruefully.
"If they really can't tell the difference," said Applejack, "shouldn't they buy the same amount of each, 'proximately?" She looked at the two lists, frowning. "No way to tell the difference means no way to choose. If the pies look the same, the only difference at all to 'em is what stack they're in on the table. D'ya think where the pies are on the table could change what the ponies buy?"
Granny Smith laughed. "I've heard of stranger things. Time was, I could sell more pies to young stallions if I gave 'em a wink."
AJ said "But how am I supposed to know whether it's the place on the table that made the difference, or if it's one o' those other things you thought of, Apple Bloom, like the season?"
"You could use, uh… random assignment!" said Apple Bloom.
AJ raised an eyebrow. "Is that some kind of fancy mathematics?"
"It ain't too fancy." said Apple Bloom. "Twilight was tellin' me about it just the other day when we were makin' potions. The idea is, if you want to know whether one thing causes another thing, you flip a coin to decide what to do with each case, then you look at what you get. So, you flip a coin to decide whether you put the cherry pies on the left or the right. Then after you do that for a few weeks, you can see what the left side does or the right side does all on its own without seasons or nothin'. That's what they call a 'true experiment'." She grinned.
Applejack had already learned to accept help from others and to think critically about tradition, and the logic seemed clear, so she tried it at once. She found that, sure enough, pies placed further to the right on the table of her stall sold substantially better, whether they were apple or cherry. She wasn't sure why, but she had no intention of looking a gift horse in the mouth. Quite the contrary; in the spirit of maximizing the bottom line, she used the experimental method to test lots of other things, too. Did she sell more if she greeted passers-by, or waited for them to approach? Did she make more money on an item if she marked it up or discounted it? Did she get more customers if she placed her stall by the other produce vendors, or at the other end of the market, near the flowers and crafts?
After many months of experiments, Applejack had substantially increased income from the market stall, between the many useful strategies she had identified. She set about looking for new ideas to test. When she asked Big Mac, he answered her with a coy grin.
"Aw, hay no." said Applejack. "That was only to make a point to Rarity, and I gave the dress back right afterwards. I ain't goin' out in broad daylight like that."
Big Mac waved a hoof off back towards Ponyville.
"Hmm…" said AJ, tapping her chin. "Yeah, we could try that."
Applejack was then accompanied in her market stall (on several randomly-assigned days) by Rarity, who laid the charm on thick for every potential customer. It seemed to work. Stallions were more likely to approach the stall, and were eager to please the pretty mare. Rarity had to rebuff a few customers who got the wrong idea, but she did it gently, and only once they'd paid for all the pies they were carrying.
"Thanks, Rares!" said Applejack. "I knew I'd find a way you could pay me back for that modelin' work."
"It was my pleasure." said Rarity. "By the way, have you seen Rainbow Dash about?"
"No. Come to think of it, I don't think I've seen her for a week… maybe I'd better check in."
One cloud-walking spell and balloon ride later, AJ was rapping on the door to Rainbow's palatial house. Only when she called out did a weak voice say "Come in", and she entered to find a sniffling, unkempt Rainbow tossing and turning in bed, her brilliant blue coat blemished by bare patches.
"Land sakes, Rainbow, you look awful!" said Applejack, taking off her hat and letting it hang from one hoof. "What happened?"
"I got sick." said Rainbow hoarsely.
"I can see that. What is it? You've seen Dr. Stable, ain't you?"
"Yeah. It's VD. I should've stuck to mares." She blew her nose. "Don't worry about me, AJ. He says it'll run it's course in another week. I'll be awesome again in no time." She smiled.
"Rainbow, that was careless. Couldn't you… he was a stallion, you said?"
"Yeah. I was still pissed about Blitz."
"Well, don't you have any condoms?" said Applejack, gesturing vaguely at the bathroom.
Rainbow Dash glared back at her. "Don't judge me! We were horny and tired, and it was late, and we didn't have any, and you know how the nearest place that's open late is over—"
"That makes no sense, putting yourself in danger 'cause you're impatient. You know better than that, don't you?"
"Yes!" Rainbow cried out, exasperated. "I made a mistake, okay? Sometimes, ponies make mistakes, Applejack! I got caught up in the moment and stuff happened! And—" Her next remark was interrupted by a fit of coughing.
Applejack's expression softened. "You're right, Rainbow. I'm sorry. You've probably been beating yourself up about this enough already."
"Bingo. It was real fun to tell him, too." She rolled over and sighed. "It's hard to make good decisions sometimes. There's always something distracting, trying to mess you up. It's like flying. You're out there trying to go in one direction and there are all these little air currents trying to push you in another and obstacles you have to fly around." She paused. "D'ya know what I mean?"
"To be honest," said Applejack, "I think I do."
Shortly thereafter, Applejack told Rarity she was no longer needed at the market stall, and ceased most of her experiments. She realized that more than she wanted ponies to buy her goods, she wanted them to make good decisions.
This chapter draws from the ESA chapter about cognition, and more generally, experimental psychology research on decision-making. The title comes from the term "mental contamination" used by Wilson and Brekke (1994).
Apple Bloom's explanation of random assignment is essentially right. Random assignment is one of the most important tools provided by scientific method, especially in social science, because it allows for straightforward inference about causation.
The Unknown (Twilight Sparkle)
One fine day, when Starlight Glimmer was off having a friendship lesson with Trixie in some distant place, and Spike was busy sinking too deep into the Cutie Mark Crusaders' latest zany scheme, Twilight Sparkle decided a little relaxation was in order. And what was more relaxing than reading? She trotted into the Castle of Friendship's library and settled herself at a desk with a stack of new books.
Soon, the day's first patron arrived. "Good morning, Twilight." said Rarity. "I was wondering if you could help me learn about something I was just talking about with an acquaintance. Perhaps you could point me to a book, or—"
"Of course!" said Twilight, her ears perking up. "What do you want to learn about?"
"Well, forgive me for the strange topic, but I was wondering if you had anything about cultural differences in love and sexuality. You know, different practices and mores and so forth."
"Sure, I'd be happy to—"
"Oh, excuse me, I'm so sorry if I'm interrupting something important." said Fluttershy, who had floated into the room so quietly that nopony had noticed. "I just had to speak up when I heard what Rarity was interested in. I wanted to ask you about something like that, Twilight. I was wondering if maybe you had a book about ponies' fears and anxieties about, um, sex."
"Hey!" said Rainbow Dash, flying in and nearly knocking over a bookcase. "You better not give Fluttershy a book I need, Twilight! 'Cause I need a book about sexual performance! Y'know, not being able to get it up and stuff. I mean, I'm totally awesome at sex—I don't have any problems—but I want to know how to help other ponies."
"Fancy meeting you here, Rainbow Dash." said Applejack, trotting into the room. "Hey, Twi, totally unrelated, I was wonderin' if you had a book or two about how ponies make choices about sex. Or how their sex thoughts change their choices. Maybe both. It's a complicated business."
A familiar bouncing sound heralded the arrival of Pinkie. "Hi, Twilight! Hi, everypony! Twilight, where's the glory hole here?"
Everypony stared at Pinkie.
Twilight said carefully "Pinkie, are you looking for the new book about underwater oil drilling called Glory Hole?"
"Yup! My family's expanding the rock farm! It's so exciting!" There was a tangible sense of relief in the room. "Also, do you have any books about taxometrics?"
In the evening, Twilight's five friends met her again at the same desk. "Hello." said Twilight, stifling a yawn. "So, I plumbed the depths of the collections for sex, psychology, and statistics" (she glanced at Pinkie) "and I have some good news and some bad news."
"Is the bad news that we have to read all this?" said Rainbow Dash, waving a hoof at a leaning tower of books.
"Not exactly." said Twilight. "Y'see, when I looked, I found that there are indeed a lot of books about the things you'd asked me about. And that's what's in this pile. But when I looked closely, I found that for the most part they aren't very helpful. For everything that ponies have to say about sexuality, there's not much of a reason to believe it. Either they're citing tradition as if it were truth, or they're arguing on the basis of ostensible divine revelation, or they're just talking about their own feelings or a bunch of other ponies' feelings. There's a lot of opinion but not much solid evidence beneath all of it."
"What are we to do then?" said Rarity.
"Well, I decided to avail myself of all the journals I subscribed the library to once I started drawing the royal allowance. And a photocopying spell I just worked out with Starlight." She put five piles of paper on the desk. Each was thick, but not so intimidating as the tower of books. "You might be surprised how much scientific research there is on sex. Here's a comparison of sexual attitudes in dozens of preindustrial societies for Rarity, and here's a meta-analysis of treatments for erectile impotence for Rainbow Dash."
"This is a lot to process." said Applejack, flipping through her stack and frowning at some boxplots.
"Yep." said Twilight. "And you know what's crazy? It's still not enough. The more you read these articles, the more you realize how much research still needs to be done! The effect of sexual stimuli on aggressive behavior in heterosexual males doesn't sound so complicated at first, but then you realize how many different kinds of sexual stimuli and aggressive behavior you could consider, and then there are other possibly important factors to think about like whether he's in a relationship, not to mention that the measurement of sexual orientation is a literature unto itself."
"Oh, my." said Fluttershy. "Should we still read the papers, then?"
"Definitely." said Twilight. "You'll know more than you did going in. But it's humbling. Maybe one of the most important things you can learn, when you study a subject, is what you don't know. It's easy to think things are simple from the outside. Once you have some expertise, you can appreciate how what seems obvious can easily be wrong. And that's an important epistemic virtue, knowing not to jump to conclusions."
Pinkie nodded. "Never set your priors to 0 or 1."
This chapter echoes a point made in both the preface and the epilogue of ESA: doing and paying attention to scientific research on human behavior is more important than people tend to think, because we don't know as much as we think we do.
Taxometrics is a family of statistical methods with the goal of identifying latent subgroups in an undifferentiated set of scores. Here I'm insinuating that Pinkie wants to use it to study sexual orientation, as in Norris, Marcus, and Green (2015).
Pinkie's last remark is a statement of Cromwell's rule, which is a statistical take on the idea of epistemic humility.
Apfelbaum, B. (1984, November). Sexual reality and how we dismiss it. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20010627190317/http://www.bapfelbaumphd.com/Sexual_Reality.html
Apfelbaum, B. (2002). On performance-anxiety anxiety. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20020318172711/http://www.bapfelbaumphd.com/performance-anxiety_anxiety.html
Hewlett, B. S., & Hewlett, B. L. (2010). Sex and searching for children among Aka foragers and Ngandu farmers of central Africa. African Study Monographs, 31(3), 107–125. doi:10.14989/128939
Houpt, K. A., & Wollney, G. (1989). Frequency of masturbation and time budgets of dairy bulls used for semen production. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 24(3), 217–225. doi:10.1016/0168-1591(89)90068-3
LaFraniere, S. (2007, July 4). In Mauritania, seeking to end an overfed ideal. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/04/world/africa/04mauritania.html
Mantonakis, A., Rodero, P., Lesschaeve, I., & Hastie, R. (2009). Order in choice: Effects of serial position on preferences. Psychological Science, 20, 1309–1312. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02453.x
Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231–259. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.84.3.231
Norris, A. L., Marcus, D. K., & Green, B. A. (2015). Homosexuality as a discrete class. Psychological Science, 26(12), 1843–1853.
Tan, M., Jones, G., Zhu, G., Ye, J., Hong, T., Zhou, S., … Zhang, L. (2009). Fellatio by fruit bats prolongs copulation time. PLOS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007595
Wilson, T. D., & Brekke, N. (1994). Mental contamination and mental correction: Unwanted influences on judgments and evaluations. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 117–142. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.116.1.117