The XX Factor

Ovulation Nation

In the New York Times , John Tierney offers up yet another series of studies on the Ovulating Woman. As the fine minds of DoubleX have documented, psychologists appear obsessed with ovulating women , with the secret messages they send with their hips, and the ancient animal wisdom men demonstrate in picking up on these coded cues. (Is there yet a journal devoted entirely to this topic of study, and if not, what is the scientific community waiting for? I propose calling it Ovum .) Tierney offers these findings without a shred of skepticism: Ovulating lap dancers get higher tips!

The study Tierney is most interested in comes from a Florida State University experiment that found male subjects appeared to find a young woman more attractive when she was at the most fertile point in her cycle, but only if the men weren’t already dating someone else. As Tierney puts it, the ovulating woman “posed the greatest threat to their long-term relationships,” so “to avoid being enticed to stray, [the men] apparently told themselves she wasn’t all that hot anyway.” That’s because natural selection sculpted us, Tierney writes, favoring “those who stayed together long enough to raise children: the men and women who could sustain a relationship by keeping their partners happy.”

Here is where I get confused. I could have sworn I’d read work from other evolutionary psychologists suggesting that women want stable providers for mates, while men want to spread their seed far and wide . Which is it? Tierney appears to be trying to have it both ways. He writes that evolution suggests men “would have benefited from the virtue to remain faithful, or at least the wiliness to appear faithful while cheating discreetly.”

But those are two entirely different scenarios. It’s one thing for the male subjects in the Florida State study not to find the ovulating woman attractive; another to find her attractive and want to cheat with her discreetly. If we can’t trust that this study distinguishes between those two desires, what conclusions can we really draw? How much can we believe that we’re seeing into the minds of these male subjects?

Studies like this one are thought-provoking. They should be conducted and they should be reported on, but with skepticism and rigor. Others have pointed out that the popular press seems to demonstrate a surprising degree of guile about Ovulating Woman studies, and studies in evolutionary psychology in general. (Tierney was also recently criticized here in DoubleX by University of California-Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik; she writes that he misrepresented a study on sexism in the sciences.)

Instead of skepticism, we get more than a whiff of determinism-a sense that, A-ha, we are finally figuring men and women out. We get the implication that there’s a certain degree of magic at work in how the sexes relate to one another. Researchers exacerbate this impression by emphasizing how much ovulation influences human behavior without our knowledge. (“The fascinating thing about this time is that it flies under the radar of consciousness,” Tierney quotes UCLA psychologist Martie Haselton as saying). They make it worse by offering strong declarations about how much behavior their ovulation studies can predict. ("’Women who are in steady relationships with men who are not very sexually attractive - those who lack the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail - suddenly start to notice other men and flirt,’ Dr. Haselton said.”)

Top it all off with a headline like the Times used-“The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women.” This isn’t science. This is the cultivation of a mystique.