Oh, Science – What’s Your Point?

The headline of the day, apparently: Sniffing women’s tears dampens sexual desire in men, study suggests.

That was from the Guardian. But in case you are wondering if news agencies and other interweb sites think this is a big time study that deserves coverage, it is: CBS News, Dallas Morning News, Slate Magazine, Times of India, Business Week, WebMD, TIME, New York Times, National Geographic, Bloomberg, NPR, Jerusalem Post, and Scientific American.  It’s obviously all over the world and across many different types of websites, including lots of popular science sites.

What is the study exactly?  If you want to read the exact study, go here.  But I’m not a scientist and I’m not actually concerned with the study (on SA, someone offers a very good reason for a study like this in comments: “the possibility of finding a way to suppress sexual arousal in men and controlling the libido could have some pretty positive ramifications. Millions of men who have an overly active libido may benifit from this type of research.”).

I’m interested in how the media is reporting this, though, and even more, I am interested in WHY this has gotten so much publicity.  So…. according to the Guardian:

Women’s tears contain a chemical signal that lowers testosterone levels and dampens sexual desire in men, according to a team of scientists in Israel.  They studied the effect on men of sniffing fresh tears, which the researchers collected in vials as they rolled down the faces of women watching weepy movies.  The surprise discovery may help scientists solve the mystery of why humans shed tears when they’re distressed or sad.

The researchers measured a small but persistent fall in men’s sexual feelings when they sniffed women’s tears, but the chemical or chemicals responsible may work primarily by suppressing aggression, which then has the effect of reducing sexual arousal.

There’s also this:

In one experiment, a group of 24 male volunteers sniffed either fresh tears, or drops of saline as a control, before being asked to rate the sadness or sexual appeal of women’s faces that appeared on a computer screen. The men’s sadness ratings were the same regardless of whether they sniffed tears or saline, but 17 men ranked women as less sexually appealing after sniffing tears.

To explain why the tears are women’s, it says:

The scientists enrolled people for the study by posting adverts around the institute’s campus asking for volunteers who were easily moved to tears. They didn’t specify whether they were looking for men or women, but out of more than 60 people who responded, only one was a man. After an initial test that involved watching a sad film of their choosing, Sobel’s team picked the most tearful, all of whom were women.

But despite the fact that only women participated in this study, the scientists made sure to say (and of course this was at the very end of the article):

Sobel said his lab is now trying to identify what chemical in tears might be responsible for the effect and whether it is also present in men’s and children’s tears.  “We don’t think there is something special about women’s tears,” he said. “We definitely predict chemical signals in men’s tears and children’s tears too.”

So, I don’t have a problem with this article or this study. I HATE how this is being reported. Because in these days of Twitter and sound bites, the title of an article is supposed to encapsulate what one thinks is most important and most sell-able about this story. So, what does this story mean to our society:

  • Women’s tears are a real turn off for men, new research claims
  • Women’s tears tank men’s libido
  • In Women’s Tears, a Chemical That Says, ‘Not Tonight, Dear’
  • Tears in Her Eyes: A Turnoff for Guys?
  • A woman’s tears can cripple the male libido, new study finds

Perhaps the best one is from MSNBC (of course!): “Stop the waterworks, ladies. Crying Chicks aren’t sexy“.

Because this is the point, right?  Instead of it being that scientists have isolated a chemical (or set of chemicals) that can reduce testosterone and/or aggression (which some articles did choose to highlight, I might add), the articles I listed above, and especially this one from MSNBC, want to drive home the point that it’s all about how ladies crying make it so men don’t want to have sex with them.  And that men should not be turned off.  So women should stop crying.  Because men should never be denied their arousal, right?  And women cry too much anyhow, right?  I love studies.  Actually, I hate them.

OR as Jezebel titled their article about this: “Lady-Tears are Total Bonerkillers“.  Amen.


8 thoughts on “Oh, Science – What’s Your Point?

  1. I have to question who cares what men like and don’t like? I personally don’t care if my tears turn a man off. If I’m crying I oh so OBVIOUSLY don’t want to have sex anyway. I really wish they would do a study entitled “Why Women Don’t Give a Shit What Turns Men on and Off.”

  2. Found you through Shakesville.

    Very well said. It makes me mad how often science gets turned to reinforcing cultural narratives of power and such.

  3. I’m so glad you blogged about this, because I’ve been bothered by this “story” for days and I couldn’t come up with a coherent enough Facebook status to express my anger.

    WTF, MSNBC? Makes me want to puke.

    I have many things to say about this, but I just can’t articulate them right now. Blerg.

  4. Thanks for rounding up the media reports on this study and
    highlighting what is so problematic about the way it’s being
    reported and discussed. I read the NYT’s article this morning and
    rolled my eyes SO HARD. I’ll note that the researchers’ quotes in
    the NYT article are also rather heterocentrist and gender
    essentializing–so, yes, while the popular media often do a
    terrible job of science reporting, this isn’t helped when the
    researchers themselves have a tendency to interpret the results
    through the lens of their own bias.

  5. Here via Shakesville, as well.

    The really sad thing about this story is that I read it in the Guardian, and thought, oh, thank goodness, a story about how our bodies have an inbuilt evolutionary response to protect us when we feel vulnerable. Maybe we can use this to counter rape culture.

    And then I saw how it was being reported. And I should be surprised, because this happens EVERY SINGLE TIME, but I really didn’t see this one coming.

  6. I love your comment. Why didn’t the scientists test the tears on men and women? That’s a damn good question. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. I think it’s interesting that your article is all about media mishandling, but the title suggests the problem is bad science. I read someplace recently that in these days of Twitter and sound bites, the title of an article is supposed to encapsulate what one thinks is most important…

    (Mind you, I’m not at all convinced that this particular study was *good* science – mostly it seems like `very early science, possibly indicating something to look into more to see if there’s actually anything going on at all’ – but I think there’s a definite disconnect between your chosen title and actual point.)

  8. I agree. I should have changed it but by the time I realized my error, it was too late. So I left it. But you are right and I am trying to be more careful about that. I wrote the title and then the entry, failing to go back and change the title at the end. Classic editing error on my part.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

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