The XX Factor

Not That Time of Month Again

Thanks, Amanda for taking on the Slate story claiming women are more racist, among other things, when they’re ovulating. It was yet another entry into the school of thought which seeks to prove that ovulating females behave in all sorts of evolutionary determined ways of which they aren’t even aware. Often these studies are performed on a fairly small number of college undergraduates, and when you read them you are struck by the speciousness of drawing sweeping conclusions about all human females based on these  frankly sometimes silly research projects.  Researchers have claimed variously that the way women walk, talk, and dance, their likelihood of going to “dimly lit areas,” and their degree of fearfulness of men of other races depends on where they are in their monthly cycle.

I’m interested in the work of evolutionary biologists and I think they have powerful insights into human morality, into how much of our behavior is affected by unconscious responses to others, into the human need for hierarchy. What I do not understand is their obsession with ovulation. Many female mammals go into “heat,” sending out explicit signals that they’re fertile. Female humans do not, which for some reason drives evolutionary biologists buggy. They endlessly do studies trying to prove that the behavior of female humans is dictated by our hormonal status (as Jessica Grose pointed out here ). The most pernicious of these are the efforts, so far entirely unconvincing, to “prove” women are more racist depending on their hormone levels.   Amanda Schaffer debunked a similar study supposedly demonstrating pregnant women are more xenophobic.

One of my “favorites” of the ovulatory genre – how did Jesse Bering miss it? – is the study that set out to show that women walk in a sexier manner midcycle, all the better to attract their partner’s sperm. But the “findings” were that ovulating women swung their hips less (I won’t even comment on the ridiculousness of measuring the relative hip swing of women during the course of a month). Having their thesis disproved was no obstacle for the researchers.  They just came up with an equally spurious thesis: Evolution made women want to look “unsexy” during ovulation to discourage nonpartners from raping them. Actually what the study proves is that there is no finding that won’t prove something about women and ovulation. However, I have the feeling when, say, Mongol horsemen galloped into a village they weren’t calculating, “Hmmm, that one, not so much hip swing, not going to bother to rape her!”

In Slate , Jesse Bering celebrates that these hormonally obsessed researchers “are just getting started.” I wish the uselessness of their work would convince them to stop.