Shed a Tear for Good Reporting

The MSNBC headline: “Stop the waterworks, ladies. Crying chicks aren’t sexy.”

Now what on earth could that be about? Turns out it’s this study by Israeli neurobiologists :

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, the Weizmann Institute of Science researchers collected emotional tears from female volunteers by showing them sad movies. Then they had male test subjects sniff the actual tears and fake tears comprised of saline.

A whiff of the real deal caused testosterone levels in the men to drop significantly. They found pictures of women less sexually attractive. When the men were sent into brain scanners, and shown a sad film, the men who were exposed to the fake tears didn’t show much lower activity in a region associated with sexual desire, but the activity in the same region was greatly reduced in men who breathed real tears.

The brain scans, the big yawn over alluring pictures and the drop in the he-man hormone led the scientists to conclude that “women’s emotional tears contain a chemosignal that reduces sexual arousal in men.”

MSNBC’s conclusion?

Bottom line, ladies? If you’re looking for arousal, don’t turn on the waterworks.

This reporting may be among the most extreme on the sexism meter, though I’m not sure that sentences like this one are much better:

While this study should make guys feel better about being turned off when their lady cries, the women out there should remember that you—and your tears—are actually the ones in charge here.

In charge! Or how about tears being a weapon in a woman’s arsenal?

They say tears are woman’s best arsenal–and they probably are–for they are powerful enough to dampen a man’s sexual arousal, according to a new study.

How did we move from a study analyzing the impact of tears on arousal levels to the idea that women manufacture tears as a weapon in the battle of the sexes? That women cry on demand, for nefarious reasons of their own?

Not all biases in popularizations are quite that obvious. For a subtler flavor, notice the headline of the New York Times summary of the study:

In Women’s Tears, a Chemical That Says, ‘Not Tonight, Dear’

Or this sentence from The Washington Post:

A team of Israeli researchers believes that tears, in addition to everything else they convey, send a sexual message that can be summarized as: “Now’s not a good time.”

What’s the bias? The assumption that all men are looking for sex all the time and that only the presence of tears will discourage them.

Let’s take a step backwards and look at the actual study and its possible meanings:

For practical reasons, Sobel and his colleagues have studied only women’s tears. But they suspect that men’s tears, and possibly children’s, also contain chemical signals and are eager to find out what messages they may convey.

That snippet suggests a completely different interpretation of the study findings. They may not ultimately be about the effects of women’s tears on men’s hormone and arousal levels but about the effects of human tears on other human’s hormones and emotions. This is not hidden in all the popularizations but it certainly has been pushed behind that “sex sells” curtain, and you have to work down the articles to find it.

Not that Dr. Sobel himself goes too far in that direction. Here’s his evolutionary conjecture on the findings:

Why women’s tears would send a message of “not tonight, dear” is puzzling. Some experts suggested the tears could have evolved to reduce men’s aggression toward women who are weakened by emotional stress. The studies did not measure the effect on aggression, although future research might, Dr. Sobel said. Another thought, he said, is that the effect of tears evolved in part to coincide with menstrual cycles.

“There’s several lines of evidence that women cry much more during menstruation, and from a biological standpoint that is not a very effective time to have sex, so reducing sexual arousal in your mate at that time is really convenient,” he said.

Dr. [Martha K.] McClintock, who reported 40 years ago that women who lived together tended to synchronize their menstruation, objected. “Oh, please,” she said. “Do we know that women cry more often during menstruation?”

She said it was “premature to speculate about the evolutionary function” of chemo-signaling in tears, adding: “I have no doubt that it affected sexuality as they report, but I would be very surprised if it doesn’t turn out to affect other emotions in other contexts. Maybe it’s affecting some deeper, more fundamental psychological process that drives the effect that they’re reporting.”

“Oh, please,” indeed! That was my reaction to many of these popularizations and to Dr. Sobel’s further conjectures.

Here are my further conjectures: It seems like a very useful and common-sense conclusion that another person’s tears will reduce your sexual arousal. Something tear-worthy is happening and perhaps it’s an important survival cue to pay attention to. Don’t you think this is at least as strong a hypothesis as Sobel’s menstruation one?

These popularizations are not a bad example of how studies having to do with women and sexuality are routinely offered to the wider audience. It pays to read carefully. It also pays to remember that sometimes small new studies with exciting findings (such as this one) turn out to be the last studies with such findings. But we seldom hear about such negative results from the popularizers.

Image of Mary Magdalene sculpture in Saint-Martin Church in Arc-en-Barrois (Haute-Marne, France), from WikiMedia Commons.


  1. The study above is extremely exclusive as it does not include same sex relationships and how people involved in them react.

  2. Okay, as a bisexual woman in a lesbian relationship, I want to jump in here and point out the obvious in MSM reporting on this … when my partner is crying because she's UNHAPPY? You bet my libido drops … in sympathy people! Because unless we're both having a good time, it's really hard to feel sexy during sexytimes with one's partner. Tears of joy, on the other hand, are the mark of work well done 🙂

  3. Thank you Ms.! I read the article on NPR and their title was "Smell That Sadness? Female Tears Turn Off Men" which I think was pretty good/ neutral especially compared to the others. And as you & other commenters mentioned, it is common sense for someone to get turned off when they experience another's tears. It would be disturbing if someone was turned on by others crying. It's so upsetting the so many media outlets twist the meaning of the study. Shame on MSNBC & the others. I would guess that they will find men & children's tears have similar effects, like you said; it's a useful cue to danger. Also, as social creatures, we need to be attentive to each other's feelings. Arousal at the smell of sadness would be inappropriate.

  4. Brilliant article. I agree with you saying it is more likely to be the fact that something tear-worthy is going on and that is what reduces sexual arousal.

    I love the way the angle seems to be, "so don't turn on the waterworks, you silly ladies," like we just bawl all the time by choice. Not many people can cry on demand. Let's say your parent dies or you lose your job. Switch of those tears, women, or you won't be able to satisfy your man! And the only one you can blame is yourself! It's like blaming women in advance for everything bad that could ever happen to them, and the natural biological response to sadness that we have been given by evolution.

    This is a great example of how "scientists" test something only on women when they should test both of sexes. Predictably, the results are seen through that lens of gender binary and heteronormativity. Sigh!

  5. There is another reason to be annoyed at this coverage. Its ONE study, people, and now they`re blasting it all over the major media. I`ve noticed the New York Times in particular tends to do this, i.e. to make much of a single study when in fact replicability is the hallmark of good science. I bet you can get a single study to find just about anything, and interpret it in a variety of ways that suit your purpose.

    I am still waiting for headline news about a single study seeming to prove something stereotypically negative about men…unless, of course, if can be used to excuse their behavior.

  6. I can't believe they spent money on a this study. There are people starving and they are trying to find ways for men to feel MORE horny. Honestly, it's just heartless.

  7. I've always hated that term "sex sells". Reading how the headlines twisted the report I'm saddend. As for the report, well as Valerie said "people are starving". But instead hey lets figure more ways to make sure a man always gets laid….= lame and sad really.

  8. snobographer says:

    Dr. Sobel: "Why women’s tears would send a message of “not tonight, dear” is puzzling."

    Why on earth would that be puzzling? Was it commonly assumed before this study that seeing a person in tears was a turn-on?

  9. It really defies any normal parameters of a relationship, doesn't it? The times I've cried, I haven't been wanting sex anyway! Maybe comfort from my husband and understanding because, as annajcook says, I've been unhappy. Besides, which when either of us have cried it's been an expression of closeness and grief, not a "let's get it on moment."

    At the very least, I'm glad I'm not a German or Israeli tax payer and my irritation is just at the stupidity of such a "research" study, and not at the waste of my tax money!

  10. Thank you for your well-written & insightful commentary on both the study itself and the media's reaction to the study. Your last point regarding whether or not subsequent negative findings would be published is also extremely well-taken. It has been demonstrated beyond any doubt that negative findings in pharmaceutical studies never see the light of day. Having just now read the synopsis of this study that appears on the Science website, I am astounded that this was published. The "emotional tears" that were obtained were from 2 (count 'em, 2) women who were known to be able to "cry on demand". The male who were subsequently scanned consisted of a sample of 24 men. This is essentially (at best) a pilot study and of course (surprise) it focused on male sexual response. Because that's the only kind of sexual response that counts, right? I could go on for quite a while with what's wrong with the study both in regard to the hypothesis that drove it and the actual methodology, but I'll stop now. Thanks again for bringing this "science" to my attention.

  11. Barbara Mor says:

    So, I wonder what the increased popularity — & acceptance — of tears among male leaders & media
    blubberers (e.g. John Boehner , Glenn Beck & many tv preachers) really means? 'Oh my, people, I
    might be a zillionaire privileged person but I want you to know I'm so vulnerable & sweet & ordinary,
    just like a little girl, please don't hurt me…!' — ?? Media tears, that is, have become increasingly used
    as weapons or tools of political & celebrity power, & what does this say about American society?
    'Oh, all those female complaints, they're always whining & crying about something, it's a turn-off! But
    when men cry, well, this means they are SINCERE common people full of good heart feelings…' ???
    Let's not just react to such 'scientific studies' — let's analyze them with very clear & dry feminist eyes.

  12. I read "Lord of the Dead" by Tom Holland, and I was puzzled at the idea that women cry to have sex. Here is some context: Lord Bryon is talking to the "slave" Haidee and she is crying about her current situation. The direct quote: [Lord Bryon's thoughts] " God, I thought she's going to cry, and I almost took her there and then, but no, she had the strength and passion of a mountain storm, and I couldn't do it. If she was some drab …, well-I was rake enough to know that a woman cried generally to lubricate herself– I would have pressed her.’" pg89 Before reading this book I hadn't heard of the idea that men thought women cried to "lubricate themselves" for sex. It was shocking to read.

  13. What I don't understand is why this study is so one-sided! Why is it a woman's tears that dampen a man's sexual arousal when it is just as likely that tears of any gender reduce sexual desire in another of any gender? As a woman, I know that if I were to see my man crying, I wouldn't necessarily be "turned off" but I wouldn't be thinking of sex, I would be using a different part of my brain to see what was the matter… isn't that just as much of a possibility as well? I don't understand why the absence of thought of sexual activity means that they are "turned off" or aren't as likely to inquire about sex, when clearly, the opposite is true. Wouldn't one need to be turned on to be turned off anyway?

  14. So, maybe if I’m being beaten and raped, and it happens to make me cry, he’ll stop?

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