Coastal intellectuals were so uptight about human pheromones

June 3, 2009

And by “were,” I mean in 2006.

Remember the story from that year about an interesting link between smell and sexuality? Well, I was working last night on my single-mechanism theory of male sexuality — how’s yours coming? let’s compare notes — and I got to the end of the theorizing — which is the fun part, involving chemicals — and then started looking at the data — which is the equally fun part, involving telecommunications — and the most salient bit of data I knew of was that 2006 study.

So I reread the NYTimes‘s coverage and was shocked by the unreasonable amount of hedging that in any other beat would be like saying, “This is study is pointless and possibly bogus.” 

The big data point:

Lesbians react to the smell of certain bodily odors in ways similar to heterosexual men and different from heterosexual women, new research suggests.

Interesting. Go on.

The substances involved are a progesterone derivative produced in male sweat and an estrogenlike steroid that has been detected in female urine. The two smells are processed in the brain differently from ordinary odors.


In the experiment, 12 lesbians [small study, I grant you] smelled the two substances while researchers observed blood flow in their brains with PET scans. The scents activated parts of the brain that ordinarily process odors, but the estrogenlike compound also activated a part of the hypothalamus, as it does in heterosexual men.

Animal studies suggest that the hypothalamus is important in sexual behavior. So when that part of the brain lights up under the stimulus of an odor, a sexual response, rather than simply an olfactory one, is implied.

The prior finding:

Heterosexual women responded to the male sweat odor in the hypothalamus rather than in the olfactory portions of the brain, and heterosexual men responded to female estrogen in the hypothalamus. Homosexual men processed the smells in the same way as heterosexual women.

Huh? I can barely follow that. He’s kludging it up so nobody will get what he really wants to say: Here’s another consistency check on whether these chemicals are pheromones, a puzzle we’ll only solve for sure if we knock out a few key control experiments, such as tracking the natural history of these patterns from a young age.

Despite the similarities, lesbians do not respond to these two odors in exactly the same way as heterosexual men, so the analogy with gay men and heterosexual women is imperfect. “This observation could favor the view that male and female homosexuality are different,” said Dr. Savic, an associate professor of neurology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The doubletalk:

The researchers also emphasize that their findings have no clinical application. “It is very important to make clear that the study has no implications for possible dynamics in sexual orientation,” Dr. Savic said.

What?? Seriously? Please show me other kinds of research that would have implications for “dynamics in sexual orientation” without using methods like these! It’s a scent that permits heterosexual members of one sex to recognize those of the other sex! Geeeyaaaaad.

Ok, look, I know it’s all correlation equals causation. Maybe we’re witnessing neural correlates of learned patterns of sexuality. And she did say “dynamics,” which every lay reader knows means change over time. And no, I haven’t Googled any single other thing on the subject. And yes, maybe NIcholas Bakalar had a long day that day.

I want nevertheless to record my first reactions upon revisiting that small bit of history.

The mere way the information was framed indicated a high (if only perceived) level of defensiveness on everybody’s part. From reading and talking to everybody, I feel says saying the evolutionary psychologists refuse to understand the subtleties of sexism, so they won’t acknowledge smart arguments by post-structuralists. And the post-it crowd sure as shit is not going to be having the mass media perpetuating the idea, foisted on us by undersexed nerds, of pheromones — human pheromones, for God’s sake! — when Times readers? women the world over are being treated like this and this.

In microcosm, the above is the bottom line message of Fistful of Science: Masculine and feminine; objective and subjective; scientific authorities and critically oriented academics — neither one knows how to talk to the other in this culture. It’s like a stereotypically bad marriage. One side is empowered but whines whenever he has to do anything; the other side is marginalized and forced to lash out to get fair treatment. Both sides have way, way more in common than they want to admit.

Now, regarding the specific issue of human pheromones, the authoritarian in me says, Yes, some people will misuse the likely fact (does anyone have a better, non-ridiculous explanation?) that human sexual orientation has a strong inborn biological component (to say “genetic” would imply single-gene causation; “hereditary” makes it sound like a disease that strikes both sexes).

The libertarian in me says people have nothing to fear but their chains.

And the empiricist in me says, I need more data. Seen any studies?


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