Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Newsflash: Women threaten men

February 22nd, 2011 by Chris Hitchcock

The NYT article title reads The threatening scent of fertile women. I’ve felt it for years, and I still haven’t quite figured out why I react this way to this kind of article. Certainly it echos the age-old misogynistic discomfort of learned men for their own sexual urges, projected onto women. I’m trained in evolutionary biology, I believe that humans, like other animals, are subject to natural selection, and I believe that there are things that affect our behaviour that are not processed by our consciousness. But, for some reason, I feel a visceral reaction when I read discussions about the sex-related behaviours of women and men around ovulation.

Some of it is that I’m still annoyed that Nancy Burley’s American Naturalist article has been pretty much ignored. Yes, it’s well cited, but the fundamental conclusions seem to have been lost. In 1979, Burley proposed that so-called “concealed ovulation” is a mystery not just because it is concealed from men, but because it is also concealed from the ovulating woman. And she argued that the leading male-centred hypotheses did not account for this. Burley proposed that ovulation is unmarked because humans are smart and can count, and if they had a choice, many women would choose not to go through childbirth, or do so less often. She argued that natural selection acted to make it harder for women to know when to abstain from sex to avoid pregnancy. In other words, maybe concealed ovulation is not all about men, maybe it’s all about smart women.

4 responses to “Newsflash: Women threaten men”

  1. Paula Derry says:

    I have a somewhat different emphasis from Chris when reading this kind of article. I always feel uncomfortable with articles published in newspapers when I can’t read the scientific article. It shouldn’t be this way, but the reality is that reading a scientific article you always have to ask: Are these results accurate? How large is the effect of what is being studied, compared to everything else also going on? Is the interpretation of the results accurate or sensible? It’s impossible to evaluate this without reading the original article. And here, we have researchers in the NY Times who are quoted as assuming, not knowing, what their results mean.
    I think, also, that what is most typical of human biology is how often it happens that phenomena are complicated rather than simple. Many factors go in to causing a phenomena, and many outcomes are possible. Even if people in committed relationships do react differently from those not in these relationships, how important is this to understanding what underlies commitment, relative to all of the other factors?

  2. Chris Hitchcock says:

    Agreed, Paula, there’s lots to ask about the content of the NYT article. For example, I take issue with their statement that “… recent studies have found large changes in cues and behavior when a woman is at this stage of peak fertility.” I think a number of studies have found statistically significant differences with menstrual cycle timing, and have attributed them to fertility. Sometimes the studies have included actual hormonal measurements, often they just use the calendar method, which is only a rough and often inaccurate guide. The actual magnitude of the effects may or may not be very large. And if they were *that* large, everyone would already know about them and you wouldn’t have to do fancy studies to prove it.

    I guess my blog was as much about the choice of language and framing for the article, as it was about the science on which it was reporting.

  3. Maman A Droit says:

    Interesting hypothesis-I wonder how they account for the dramatic & definitely noticeable difference in cervical mucus quantity & texture around ovulation time?

  4. Chris Hitchcock says:

    Yes, it’s interesting that, once you know what to look for, there are signs that allow women to observe their ovulation. Stretchy mucous indicates estrogen stimulation of the cervix during the pre-ovulatory estrogen peak, so it’s a good sign to watch for.

    It’s helpful to think about what is meant by concealed ovulation in the context of other animals, who may bleed when they are fertile (think, dogs in heat), or who may have bright red genital swellings (some primates), which are unmistakable obvious signs of fertility.

    Human females can learn to detect signs of ovulation, but it doesn’t come naturally, and we generally couldn’t tell you if our workmates are ovulating on a given day. That’s what’s meant by concealed ovulation.

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