Crying is not sexy. In related news, bad health journalism makes me cry.

A new study out of Israel suggests that women’s tears serve a “chemosignaling function” that result in reduced sexual arousal and testosterone levels in males.

Here is the abstract of the study:

Emotional tearing is a poorly understood behavior that is considered uniquely human. In mice, tears serve as a chemosignal. We therefore hypothesized that human tears may similarly serve a chemosignaling function. We found that merely sniffing negative-emotion–related odorless tears obtained from women donors, induced reductions in sexual appeal attributed by men to pictures of women’s faces. Moreover, after sniffing such tears, men experienced reduced self-rated sexual arousal, reduced physiological measures of arousal, and reduced levels of testosterone. Finally, functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed that sniffing women’s tears selectively reduced activity in brain-substrates of sexual arousal in men.

Here is the headline on MSNBC.com:

Stop the waterworks, ladies. Crying chicks aren’t sexy.

I’m sorry, I just threw up in my mouth a little.

The basic finding in the study – that emotional human tears are a turn off – should not actually be that shocking. (Perhaps a better headline should have been: Science supports common sense.) What is shocking is the ridiculously sexist and sensationalist coverage of the study by MSNBC and a number of other news sources.  The Ms. blog has a great roundup of this coverage, and while I don’t want to repeat all their points here, I am going to take a few choice sentences and read between the lines.

Here’s the ending of the MSNBC article:

Other researchers also have detected proteins associated with emotions: They’ve found dopamine and serotonin in tears, as well as prolactin, the desire-squelching hormone that spikes right after a man ejaculates and sends him running to watch SportsCenter rather than sticking around to cuddle.

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

Assumptions made/stereotypes reinforced: Men watch sports; men don’t like to cuddle after sex; everyone is heterosexual; women cry all the time for no reason.

Here is one from “Women’s tears kill men’s sex drive” in the Times of India:

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.

Assumptions made/stereotypes reinforced: There is a “war” between the sexes; women are constantly fighting men’s sexual advances; women do not want sex; man’s sexual arousal is a powerful force.

Here’s one from “The crying game: a woman’s tears aren’t sexy” in Ars Technica:

Finally, scientists have confirmed what men have known for ages: crying women are a turnoff….

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.

Assumptions made/stereotypes reinforced: Again, there is a “war” between the sexes; the status quo for women is that they should be a turn-on for men; the status quo for men is that they should be turned-on by women; women can only gain control via manipulating men with their emotions.

When I first got wind of this, the big question on my mind was this: why were they only studying the effect of women’s tears on men? What about woman to woman, man to woman, or man to man crying? This is the sort of thing a health reporter should do: ask questions. Be critical. The only one who asked that question – or any question, for that matter – was the New York Times:

The researchers are currently studying men’s emotional tears, so the scientific implications of, say, the weeping of the new House speaker, John A. Boehner, remain an open question. But Dr. Sobel said he believed that men’s tears would also turn out to transmit chemical signals, perhaps serving to reduce aggression in other men.

Dr. Sobel said the researchers started with women because when they advertised for “volunteers who can cry with ease,” they could not find men who were “good criers,” readily able to fill collection vials. Fortunately, he said, “we have a male crier now.”

But not even the New York Times could resist the tantalizing allure of a witty, sexist headline:

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

The more I study health communication, the more I realize just how pathetic, lazy, sensationalist, and socially abhorrent most health reporting really is.  I’d cry about it, but that wouldn’t be sexy.

7 thoughts on “Crying is not sexy. In related news, bad health journalism makes me cry.

  1. Great post. The coverage of this story is shamefully sensationalist (and sexist, and heteronormative…) Nice to see the dig at Speaker Boehner (our national Mock Turtle). For a great post on the political hypocrisy around tears, I recommend the Solipsistic Me from yesterday.

  2. The more I study health communication, the more I realize just how pathetic, lazy, sensationalist, and socially abhorrent most health reporting really is.

    You can take out the “health” in that sentence and still be accurate, you know.

  3. What a great blog post! I am going to start following your blog. Lex, webwordwarrior, recommended your blog to me, and I’m grateful. I’m Michael from The Solipsistic Me. Yes, I wonder where is the similar study to see if men’s tears have the same effect. It is hard not to be disgusted in the way this scientific data is reported. More evidence of living in a misogynistic and heteronormative culture. I love how Lex refers to Boehner as the Mock Turtle.

    Your fan,
    Michael

    • Thank you! It’s always exciting to “meet” other bloggers. I will begin following your blog too! I am starting to feel like I want to build my entire career around pointing out terrible reporting. I also loved the “mock turtle” and can’t get over the blatant double standard that moment personified.

  4. While the reporting is clearly terrible, the theories behind the results are interesting.

    One evolutionary theory is that crying is sort of “rape defense,” that tears are produced to try and combat a non-desired mating.

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