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May 10, 2005

Gay Men Smell Like Women

Well, not quite, but just as interesting:

"For Gay Men, an Attraction to a Different Kind of Scent" [NYT]: Using a brain imaging technique, Swedish researchers have shown that homosexual and heterosexual men respond differently to two odors that may be involved in sexual arousal, and that the gay men respond in the same way as women.

The new research may open the way to studying human pheromones, as well as the biological basis of sexual preference. Pheromones, chemicals emitted by one individual to evoke some behavior in another of the same species, are known to govern sexual activity in animals, but experts differ as to what role, if any, they play in making humans sexually attractive to one another.

The two chemicals in the study were a testosterone derivative produced in men's sweat and an estrogen-like compound in women's urine, both of which have long been suspected of being pheromones. Most odors cause specific smell-related regions of the human brain to light up when visualized by a form of brain imaging that tracks blood flow in the brain and therefore, by inference, sites where neurons are active. Several years ago, Dr. Savic and colleagues showed that the two chemicals activated the brain in a quite different way from ordinary scents.

The estrogen-like compound, though it activated the usual smell-related regions in women, lighted up the hypothalamus in men. This is a region in the central base of the brain that governs sexual behavior and, through its control of the pituitary gland lying just beneath it, the hormonal state of the body.

The male sweat chemical, on the other hand, did just the opposite; it activated mostly the hypothalamus in women and the smell-related regions in men. The two chemicals seemed to be leading a double life, playing the role of odor with one sex and of pheromone with another.

Somehow I doubt you needed to do research to figure out that gay men prefer the scent of male sweat over female urine. But the whole article seems a bit distasteful to me. Why do men get divided into “gay” and “straight” but women are just “women”? The way the research is presented, at least by the NYT, it seems to reflect the bias that gay men are just girls with dicks.

There is a big difference between “Gay Men Have Brains Like Straight Women” and “Gay Men Have Brains Like Women.”

[X-posted at Freiheit und Wissen]

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The authors, led by Ivanka Savic at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm (doesn't her name make her sound like a Swedish Vulcan? [Read More]

Comments

I agree that there is something askew about this study, but there is an explanation for dividing men in to gay and straight, but not women. From the article:

Dr. Savic said that she had also studied gay women, but that the data were "somewhat complicated" and not yet ready for publication.

At the very least, though Wade's write up in the NYT is misleading. For instance, he sites Simon LeVay's work on the structure of gay men's hypothalamus as a precurser to this, but LeVay's work has been discredited. (All of his subjects were corpses; he identified some as gay only because they had died of AIDS)

Wade's write up also does not mention the sample size (36) which always bugs me about newspaper reports of scientific studies. I'm looking that the primary source now, and I can't see how the subjects were classified as gay or straight. (Presumably self report, but you never know)

I agree that there is something askew about this study, but there is an explanation for dividing men in to gay and straight, but not women. From the article:

Dr. Savic said that she had also studied gay women, but that the data were "somewhat complicated" and not yet ready for publication.

At the very least, though Wade's write up in the NYT is misleading. For instance, he sites Simon LeVay's work on the structure of gay men's hypothalamus as a precurser to this, but LeVay's work has been discredited. (All of his subjects were corpses; he identified some as gay only because they had died of AIDS)

Wade's write up also does not mention the sample size (36) which always bugs me about newspaper reports of scientific studies. I'm looking that the primary source now, and I can't see how the subjects were classified as gay or straight. (Presumably self report, but you never know)

I did notice the mention about gay women, but I took that to be a separate study. It still does not account for how you could arrive at the conclusion that gay men’s brains are like women’s in general. I would want to know about his sample of women with which the men were compared. Was it just one group of women, undistinguished by sexual preference? Did they have two groups of women, one that identified as gay and the other as straight? If the latter, and the results showed that gay men’s brains reacted the same as both the group of straight women and the group of gay women, then that would be one thing.

I guess I feel that society still tends to think of “gay men” as a distinct category more then “lesbians.” My knowledge of sexual history is limited, but I have been under the impression that many cultures for a long time simply did not place women who slept with women in a sexually defined category, where as they did with men. Some cultures, for example, would have a word for “gay men” but no such word for “lesbians.”

I think we have been a long time in overcoming this asymmetry in how we think about sexuality.

This is a continuation of the "nature vs nurture" on sexual preferences debate. Personally I don't care one way or the other. I think that if you stand in front of the primate cage in any zoo for about a half an hour you will see every sex act known to man. The last time that I looked man... we're primates.

There is one serious misconception about such studies. As one Neuroanatomist pointed out some years ago... brain structures are not static, they are dynamic and constantly changing. As he put it "you can think of it like this... if your brain is like a personal computer and we took the cover off what you would see is that the circuit boards would be constantly rewiring themselves and changing their shape and configuration."

So as to the nature/nurture argument they would be inclined to say that the behavior of the organism shaped the internal structure and responses of the brain, not the other way round.

All the women in the study were straight. Incredibly straight, in fact: all Kinsey 0's. Basically there were originally 24 women in the study, 12 gay, 12 straight, but the data from the gay women was excluded because it confused things.

Both sociological and biological studies indicate that female homosexuality is different from male homosexuality. For instance, one of the more peculiar results (from a guy named Blanchard) is that male homosexuality correlates with the number of older brothers. Nothing like this result holds for females.

There are all sorts of ways to look at these differences. They could simply be a product of researcher bias. They could be real, but a product of the different social histories of male a female homosexuality (as you noted). Or they could have deeper biological origins.

It was my understanding from the Summers/Harvard controversy that there are no male-female differances. Yet this article talks about their being difernces in the very phisology of their respective BRAINS. Excuse me, I think I may pass out....

This is a continuation of the "nature vs nurture" on sexual preferences debate.

Well, it will be taken as such, but it really isn't. It would only be evidence for the innateness of homosexuality if you could infer innatness from distinct neuroimaging patterns. But of course you can't. People who can read look different under brainscans when exposed to text than people who can't read. But reading is not innate.

The problem is that people think that any biological explanation implies innateness. It's like people have two categories in their minds "not biological at all, a total product of human free will" and "innate, biological, out of your control."

You're right that it does not tell us much about nature vs. nurture. It could be that brain structure affects behavior, but it could also be that behavior affects brain structure.

And my own personal bias is that the histories of our sexual categories is as important for thinking about sexuality as anything else. I think those categories have as much to do with gender roles in society as anything.

Stop all this talk about innate differences at all...There is no such thing as sex differences it all a social construct. All dynamics are power dynamics. Your using rational concepts to reinforce existing patriarchal norms…
I demand that several panels be formed to increase the number of women responding to this post. Otherwise Majikthise should simply be forced to resign..

I don't think anyone was claiming that there were innate sex differences. The point was simply that if someone wanted to claim that there were, they could not use this study because it was ambiguous either way.

Good...and thats the line you must always toe.
Any decension from the ranks will be forcefully delt with..
Please continue.

Gay Men Smell Like Women - I really got the title wrong when I first read it, thinking 'so what? - that's what can happen if people choose to use perfume'. No, this is not beside the point, this is how the title was choosen to be worded, making an invalid gegneralization, aluring to innateness (since biological sex is innate) plus giving the likes of me the chance to have a laugh. However this is not the original title, and the original source explicitly states, that the results are ambiguous with respect to innateness: "The different pattern of activity that Dr. Savic sees in the brains of gay men could be either a cause of their sexual orientation or an effect of it." and "'We cannot tell if the different pattern is cause or effect,' Dr. Savic said. 'The study does not give any answer to these crucial questions.'"
Choice of title and shortening of the original article were done here and at that other blog Freiheit und Wissen. As somebody pointed out above, even gay women get a mention in the article. But I admit, that phrasing throughout implies that gay is the minority and the aberration from the norm. Now argue.

"The different pattern of activity that Dr. Savic sees in the brains of gay men could be either a cause of their sexual orientation or an effect of it." and "'We cannot tell if the different pattern is cause or effect,"

I didn't read Dr. Savic's article but as I stated previously it was certain to become part of the "nature/nurture" debate.

From my own point of view, I don't think people have to justify their sexual preferences, or be made to feel guilty about them as regards to hetero vs. homosexual orientations.

What is interesting is why so many people think they have to justify their orientation with "innateness." That is a psychological question more than a physiological one.

I don't think it serves much purpose to critique the choice of topics for the studies.

One might equally assail studies of mating behaviour in monkeys for ignoring other primates.

I guess the next step in the "ex-gay" movement will be to make women wear men's cologne to attract gay men?

It was my understanding from the Summers/Harvard controversy that there are no male-female differances.

Well then your understanding is wrong.

The Summers/Harvard controversy was about the president of Harvard, who had already been criticized for a lower rate of female hiring during his tenure, defending his record by explaining that the problem was more the fault of inferior female brains than discrimination.

He got his understanding of human abilities from Steven Pinker, a prominent evolutionary psychologist.

Evolutionary psychology is the paradigm of choice for anybody who wishes to bolster patriarchy against women's continuing advances in education, test scores, and income.

So stuff it, troll.

False-
The "paradigm of choice" for bolster’s of the patriarchy is Christianity (silly)

So there - feminist ideologue

That sounds like a bunch of hooey from pointy-headed (obviously liberal) scientists. Like them Darwinists. The Bible says that queers are evil. End of story.

No gay guy is going to be surprised by this study.

We have always known we could smell it on each other. I know right away if a guy I run into is gay or not. And, I'm right every time. Gay men do smell different/better/sexy. Women smell bad. Eww.

All gay guys already knew this.

Apparently people can even tell gay and straight men apart from their pheromones:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4532029.stm

"The preferences of gay men were strikingly different from those of heterosexual men and women, and lesbian women. Gay men preferred the odours of other gay men, and heterosexual women. The smell of gay men were the least liked by heterosexual men and women, and lesbians."

A pheromone-based mechanism for gaydar?

Evolutionary psychology is the paradigm of choice for anybody who wishes to bolster patriarchy against women's continuing advances in education, test scores, and income.

It's hard to decide things based on such associations, because atheism is the paradigm of choice for Stalinists whereas theism is the paradigm of choice for theocrats. Only cranks would seriously want to discredit a discipline or a view because of such connections.

My big question is, What about bisexuals? Do bis just love the smell of everything?

I'm sure there will probably be some measurable phenomena regarding pheremone reactions. There was a study done a few years back where men of all economic strata were told to wear T shirts for 48 hours.

Then they gave the T shirts to women volunteers and asked them which man would they rather sleep with. Consistently they chose the T shirts worn by the guys who made more money.

So is it valid research... yes. I just feel uncomfortable when people have to use the "innate" argument to try to justify their sexual preferences when I don't think they have to. You like what you like after all... what ever floats your boat... bangs your shutters... what ever.

I love the t-shirt sniffing experimental protocol. It’s really one of my favorites. For sheer inventiveness, it is even better than the strap-babies-in-a-car-seat-and-watch-their-eyes-as-we-put-on-a-puppet-show-that-seems-defy-laws-of-physics protocol.

But it is worth noting that the how-gays-smell experiment demonstrated something deeper than any of the t-shirt sniffing experiments. First of all, it looked at an unconscious mechanism: none of groups gave remarkably different answers to whether the smell was “pleasant” “familiar” “intense” or “irritating.” Nevertheless, their brains were responding differently. Second, specific chemicals were tested. Rather than relying on a vague sense that rich guys must smell different, Savic et al had identified the exact chemicals that play a signaling role.

I think I would prefer the smell of any animal's sweat over any other animal's urine. Doesn't mean I want to fuck the former. Just sayin'.

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