Category: news

Do beauties inspire higher sperm counts?

Posted in news by jenapincott on July 24, 2009

HughHefner Not all orgasms are created equal. For instance, intercourse orgasms are known to trump masturbatory ones, as evidenced by the amount of dopamine and prolactin produced. For men, sexual excitement produces higher sperm counts. As I recount in BLONDES, men who felt jealous or threatened by the possibility of a cheating partner had higher sperm counts than men who did not. The same is also true of male porn-watchers masturbating to a threesome. When guys watched two men attending to one woman, they had higher sperm counts than when watching one-on-one sex.

Sperm competition is the reason, according to the notorious British biologists Baker & Bellis. Men produce more copious, higher quality semen in situations in which those sperm might compete with rival sperm from other males.

And now there’s more — speculation that beautiful women also inspire men to have better quality sperm.

Female beauty has been found to enhance male sperm quality in other species. The latest evidence comes from a study led by Oxford biologist Charlie Cornwallis on Gallus gallus, a species of bird. Cornwallis and his colleagues discovered that the comelier the chick — e.g., plump with an elaborate comb — the better the quality her partner’s sperm (more motile, higher velocity, with a higher sperm count). Interestingly, this was true of dominant males but not subordinate ones, who appeared to put everything they had into every copulation. From Cornwallis’ perspective, the most fit males invest their best loads in the most reproductively fit females.

No study has yet proven that the same is true in humans — it’s not exactly ethical to recruit a guy to have sex with both a beauty and a plain Jane and then compare the aftermath. A beauty bias that affects sperm count may be true only in a wildly polygamous species, which humans are not.

Even so, this theory applied to humans doesn’t sound so controversial if you think about it — after all, sperm counts in men are associated with sexual excitement. Beauty can spark frisson. Even more exciting to ponder is how in practice an alpha male would make a larger reproductive investment in the most desirable mate. How does a Hugh Hefner decide? And wouldn’t it be ironic if this were true?

Blatant works best when picking up men

Posted in news by jenapincott on July 21, 2009

l35b631350000_1_9129 In BLONDES I wrote about the pick-up lines men use to strike up conversation with women. Direct compliments were bad, sexual come-ons worse. The most effective lines involved those that suggested social status (“This drink’s on me; I know the owner.”) and kindness (“Let me help you get to the front of the line”) or culture and wealth (“I like your Versace sunglasses. I’ve got a pair too.”)

But given that women also approach men, what pick-up lines should women use?

The answer is direct no-nonsense lines, according to a recent study led by Joel Wade at Bucknell University. Wade and his colleagues asked 40 female undergrads which lines they’d use to pick up a guy, and how likely they’d use those lines in a real-life situation. More than 30 men were than asked to evaluate the lines.

The results:

“Hey, want to meet up later tonight?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“I like your hair”
“Give me a call – here’s my number”

trumped the more subtle
“Hello, how’s it going?”
“Hey, what’s your name?”
“How was your weekend?”

and humorous/sexual comments (e.g. “Your shirt matches my bed spread, basically you belong in my bed”).

The more direct, the better. One interpretation of these findings is that men have a distaste for subtlety. Studies show that men have an overestimation bias — they’re more likely to think a woman is interested in them even when she’s not — so any blatant reinforcement is welcome. A direct pick-up line also suggests a more sexually motivated woman. She wants you, not just a chat.

I find it odd that men weren’t more responsive to direct sexual/humorous come-ons by women; I suspect it depends on the context and delivery. (The sample lines in the study were also real duds.) Or it supports the theory that many men don’t prefer sexually aggressive women. Even if a woman makes the first foray, men like a pursuit.

All this leads me to point to the limitations of studies such as this one. Men were asked to rate pick-up lines, but the effectiveness of the lines was not tested in an actual situation. See, guys are visual creatures; a direct pick-up line won’t work if they don’t find the woman attractive. And assuming the woman is comely enough, I suspect any come-on would work equally well.

Your right ovary rules

Posted in news by jenapincott on July 13, 2009

200028164-002cropIf you’re like most women you probably think ovulation is something of a meritocracy — that both ovaries do equal work, and that they alternate every cycle.

If by chance you were not taught that the ovaries soldier on left-right-left-right, then you probably think ovulation is random, like a coin toss.

The second scenario is closer to the truth, but it’s not the whole truth. At least not all the time or for most women.

Fact is, your right ovary is likelier to ovulate more often than the left. This means that in two consecutive months, the right side is probably the one doing more of the hard work of producing the dominant follicle that could become a baby.

At least this is what multiple studies have found, including here (57.7% of women have right-side ovulation), here (54.5 percent have right-side ovulation), and here (62% of total follicles are on the right), and here (larger, more numerous follicles).

Why is the right ovary often dominant?

Anatomical asymmetries between the left and right sides are thought to be the reason. The left ovarian vein drains to the left renal vein and the right ovarian vein to the inferior vena cava. The left renal vein is thought to be under higher pressure than the right and therefore drains slower. Because the left ovary drains slower, the collapsed follicle (called a corpus luteum) takes longer to clear and thereby diminishes the chance that ovulation will occur on that side the following month. No such condition exists on the right side, which is why successive right-side ovulation is more common. Estradiol and testosterone levels are also higher during a right-side cycle; this may also be related to the right ovary’s more efficient plumbing as it flushes lining-plumping hormones into the uterus.

All this leads to some fascinating statistics. For instance, right-sided ovulation favors pregnancy more often than left-sided ovulation (64 percent of pregnancies came from women’s right ovaries), according to a study in Japan that tracked nearly 2,700 natural cycles. Then again, according to another study, odds of pregnancy are best when the dominant follicle develops in the ovary opposite to where ovulation took place in the previous cycle (with pregnancy occurring more often in a right-side cycle that follows a left-side cycle) because the dominant follicles in such cycles are healthier. Even if the right ovary drains faster than the left, the corpus luteum left over from the previous cycle still negatively affects the hormonal health of the dominant follicle. Best to start with a clean slate.

Interestingly, researchers in another study speculate that right-side ovulation is dominant for most of a women’s reproductive years. Toward perimenopause women are more likely to become left-dominant, presumably because the supply of follicles in the right ovary has diminished.

Apart from ultrasound, there’s no reliable way of telling which ovary you’re ovulating from. ( I devote a section of BLONDES to why ovulation is concealed, even to women themselves.) If you think about it, perhaps that’s a good thing.

What body region are you judged by most?

Posted in news by jenapincott on July 8, 2009

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Which do people fixate on most when assessing women’s physical attractiveness — the stomach or the hips?

As I discuss in BLONDES, weight, as estimated by body mass index (BMI), and curves, as measured by waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), are two major factors when assessing women’s bodily attractiveness. Which matters more is a point of contention between various experts.

A new study led by University of York psychologist Piers Cornelissen tries to settle the argument. Implementing a novel way of tracking eye movements, Cornelissen asked male and female volunteers to rate nearly 50 photos of women. The longer their gaze rested on a particular body region, the more that region counted.

There’s a strong argument that curves should matter more than weight when evaluating attractiveness. A low WHR — a relatively thin waist to hip ratio — suggests something about a woman’s hormonal status. Estrogen increases the deposition of body fat on the hips thighs, and bust. Higher estrogen is linked with higher fertility.

But those aren’t the body regions that people fixate on when they look at you, according to Cornellisen’s experiment. The stomach apparently has the most impact. When judging attractiveness, both sexes appear to settle their gaze on the central torso, an area that reveals much about a person’s overall body mass, and not the pelvic and hip areas. This outcome, according to the psychologists, suggests that body mass index is more important in assessing physical attractiveness than curviness.

The study is not conclusive. It’s possible that WHR is assessed more quickly than body mass, which could be why people fixate longer on the torso. Or perhaps the study participants, aware that their eye movements are tracked, are abashed to linger on the pelvic region of the models. The central torso is also quite close to the bust.

Still, it’s another study that falls definitively in the body mass-over-curves camp. And perhaps it helps explain the new rage in stomach-cinchers.

Nocturnal orgasms — women have them too

Posted in news, Polls and Surveys by jenapincott on June 25, 2009

For the 40 percent of women who’ve had one, an orgasm in a dream is often more intense that one in real life. And it’s not just a dream — a nocturnal orgasm is a real physiological phenomenon. The dreamer awakens to the same pulsing sensations she’d have during an orgasm from masturbation or sex. Her heart rate surges, her breathing deepens, her vaginal blood flow increases. Her orgasm might even be so fierce that she cramps up as she transitions from dream to reality.

Why?

A few studies shed some light:

1. During REM, the relative pulse pressure in the vagina increases. This also happens to a man’s penis, resulting in nocturnal emissions and morning erections. The content of the dream doesn’t appear to affect genital pulse — after all, it increases every time you sleep — but the physical sensation may influence your dreams (no one knows for sure). At the same time, the parts of the brain that inhibit orgasm, particularity the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, are offline when you’re asleep. (Readers of BLONDES might recall that the left amygdala, associated with anxiety, and the prefrontal correct are quiet during orgasm.)

2. Female orgasm can result from brain activity alone — “no hands.” Evidence of this comes from the research of Beverley Whipple, who studied women who reach orgasm via “self-induced imagery” (i.e. fantasy) alone. Volunteers’ blood pressure, heart rate, pupil size, pain threshold, and so on increase as they reach climax, their hands nowhere near their genitals.

As speculated by Whipple ( see also her research on paralyzed women), a “hands-off” orgasm may channel the vagus nerve, which is like a livewire that extends from the brain to the cervix via the heart, lungs, and other organs. Not every orgasm strums it — but, like hitting the right chord, a vagus nerve climax is said to be richer and more fulfilling. Some women think they can even feel it surge through their bodies from their brainstems. (See previous blog about asphyxiophiliacs.) It’s interesting: Vagus nerve activity might be one reason why so many women say their nocturnal orgasms are so much stronger than their diurnal ones.

Only in their dreams….

Height isn’t everything

Posted in news by jenapincott on June 21, 2009

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Two inflammatory points in BLONDES are:

1. Women tend to have a same-race bias in marriage. This is especially true of black women — at least in the US and UK. Asian women have the weakest same-race bias. Asian men, meanwhile, seldom marry women of other races.

2. Short men get short shift. Women prefer men who are taller and men prefer women who are shorter.

A new economic research paper, Anthropometry of Love: Height and Gender Asymmetries in Interethnic Marriages, led by an Oxford economist, combines these two findings. The latter (#2) explains the former (#1), they claim. Height is a major factor, which means the reason Asian men don’t fare as well in the interracial marriage market is they tend to be shorter than men of other races while Asian women have more options for the same reason. Black women, meanwhile, tend to be taller of women of other races, so they fewer options. (See discussion in the Times.)

We argue that a simple preference for a taller husband (or shorter wife) can explain part of the gender-specifi…c asymmetries across ethnic groups in the propensity to outmarry. Blacks are taller than Asians, and their height distribution is closer to whites. Because they are taller, black men have better prospects on the white marriage market than Asian men. For women, the reverse is true. Because Asians are relatively short on average, women fare substantially better on the white marriage market than black women.

There’s a certain (uncomfortable) logic to this, but height shouldn’t overshadow more important factors.

The economists ignore findings that many people tend to marry those from a similar background (religion, educational level, and ethnicity including race), because familiar trumps foreign in a long-term context. (Happily, certain behaviors such as talking about a favorite literary work reduced same-race preferences in one speed-dating study). While height may well be a deciding factor in selecting a long-term partner, a shared background is likely stronger. (Many non-Asian women believe Asian men are more traditional and would not marry them.)

Also overlooked by the economists are the other qualities that matter to women: status, paternal proclivity, and resources. Like background, these qualities may be more influential than height. Women are inclined to overcome their same-race and height biases when a man has an abundance of one of more of these qualities (according to studies I describe in the the book). This suggests that a short guy of any race will have more marriage options, including a tall choosy black woman, if he’s successful, kid-loving, and shares a lot in common with that woman.

Note to economists: height is important to sexual selection — but it isn’t the only measure.

What makes women less picky when dating?

Posted in news by jenapincott on June 16, 2009

78366393 On a speed date, men usually rotate around the room while women demurely receive them. Each guy gets to chat with a woman for a few minutes, a timer goes off, and he gets up and moves on to the next seated damsel. At the end of the night, every participant fills out a card that indicates who they’d like to see again. Study after study has found that women are pickier than men.

Women’s choosiness has been long attributed to evolutionary theory. The gist of it is that women are pickier than men because we’re limited in the number of children we can produce. Women invest more in each child than men do, and they take on the burden of pregnancy and (at least traditionally) child rearing. With so much at stake in each pregnancy, and with the possibility (at least before birth control) that each mate could impregnate her, it makes sense that women are choosier when dating.

So what makes women less picky?

A speed-dating study to be published this month offers some insight.

Psychologists Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick at Northwestern University decided to shake things up a bit by making women rotate for a few sessions while men remained stationary. And that, according to duo, made all the difference. He found that, regardless of gender, people who were required to approach a date were less picky than people who were seated. This was extraordinary. For the first time in a dating experiment, women appeared to be no choosier than men.

Some readers have suggested that the study topples evolutionary theory. Women are not actually choosier than men, they say; we just have a long-standing cultural tradition for men to hit on women and women to choose whether or not to be receptive. The way to make women less picky is to make them initiators. From a psychological perspective, whoever makes the first move has more invested in a positive outcome. If it were more culturally acceptable for women to make the first move, they say, women would be less selective.

I agree that investing effort in making a person like you will make you more receptive to that person. You’ve initiated the contact, so subconsciously you’re rooting for rapport. But I disagree that this speed-dating study poses any real threat to evolutionary theory. And I offer an additional interpretation on why women on speed-dates are so much less selective when they are the approachers rather than the receivers: female rivalry (and inflated mate value).

People are attracted to those who attract others. I describe in BLONDES a few studies that found that women find a man more attractive when he’s in the company of a good-looking woman, or when he makes other women smile. This increases his so-called mate value (another tenet of sexual selection). When shown alone or paired with a woman who appears uninterested in him, the man receives lower attractiveness ratings.

I propose that women are more receptive when they are the “approachers” because they’re more actively competing with the other women in the room. By circulating around the room they could see other women approaching the men they recently met. The guys seemed more attractive because so many other women appeared interested in them. While men who approach a new women every four minutes may well appear desperate, men who are approached by other women appear desired.

But how well do the men do on a second date all alone with a woman — no other fawning females? That, I think, is the real test.

When masturbation is deadly

Posted in news by jenapincott on June 8, 2009

AskNinja_DavidCarradineThe scene: A hotel room in Bangkok. Inside the closet, a dead man. He’s leaning back in a cat’s cradle of cords looped around his neck, his legs, his exposed genitals.

Such was the ignominious death this week of Kung Fu star David Carradine. At first mistaken for a suicide, a second look suggests a more prurient event. One end of a length of shoelace was wound around the 72-year-old’s neck and the other encircled his penis. Both of his hands were bound with a cord which was also tied around his neck. As he relaxed into position he was likely masturbating, head thrown back, his grip tightening along with the noose.

Why?

The strongest orgasms are experienced at the threshold of consciousness. Or at least that’s what asphyxiophiliacs, devotees of autoerotic asphyxiation (AEA), believe. Orgasm requires the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reason and behavioral control, to go “offline.” And the prefrontal cortext happens to be the first region of the brain affected by oxygen deprivation. The strangled masturbator feels woozy and giddy; dreamlike. Pressure on the vagus nerve in the neck accentuates the sensation. (Readers of BLONDES might recall that stimulation of the vagus nerve is one reason why sex with a partner trumps normal masturbation.) Uninhibited by the prefrontal cortex, pleasure regions of the brain preside. The result is orgasmic euphoria.

What’s supposed to happen next is the erection slackens and so do the cords. The blood rushes back to the brain. The prefrontal cortex goes back online. And the asphyxiophiliac, now compos mentis, releases himself from the bind.

But every year at least 1,000 men in the U.S. never come down from their autoerotic high. The cords get caught, the blood never again rises about the neckline (especially if the noose is attached to a fixed object above). Or too much pressure on the vagus nerve causes the heart to slow down or stop, resulting in cardiac arrest. And the oblivious onanist leaves behind a body in a most compromised state.

The problem with autoerotic asphyxiation is the auto part. Although strangulation is never safe, solitary strangulation is obviously the riskiest. Why do it without a partner present? Why don’t enthusiasts invent a lifesaving device to revive themselves when oxygen levels are too low or when the heart slows down? There are safer forms of “breath play”.

But the danger itself is obviously what gets people off.

When the perfect woman is genetically male

Posted in news by jenapincott on June 1, 2009

42-20487063Years ago, in college, I met the perfect woman. Or perhaps a man’s idea of the perfect woman. She had flawless and dewy skin, angular cheekbones, a cinched waist, milkmaid breasts, long legs, dove-like hands, lush long hair. Wherever she went, people swiveled their necks and stared. She was a fantasy, a vision. A goddess.

And she was miserable.

It emerged that the source of her pain was a secret that she kept until she enrolled in a radical gender studies class. Inspired, she came to terms with her identity, and in the telling she liberated herself. Her secret was that she wasn’t technically female. She had a condition known as androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS). She was the perfect woman on the outside, and inside she felt perfectly female. But she was genetically male (XY).

Her story was typical for women with complete AIS. At birth her doctors didn’t notice any difference in her genitalia. In high school she went from being a normal girl to an Amazonian queen. She was not only taller than her peers but curvier, too (some androgens are converted to estrogen which act on breast tissue). Unlike other girls, she never got acne or grew pubic or armpit hair (androgens regulate hair growth). She had no body odor. She got recruited as a runway model, was attracted to men and had many boyfriends (including a celebrity), and had sex, albeit painfully. But by age sixteen she didn’t get her period, so her mother brought her to the doctor and an astonishing discovery was made. She had undescended testes. Inside, she appeared male: no fallopian tubes, no uterus, no ovaries.

This gorgeous college student had complete androgen insensitivity syndrome. Women with this condition — approximately 1 in 20,000 — tend to be exceptionally tall and striking in appearance. AIS is caused by a recessive variant of the gene that codes for Androgen Receptor. Because the body is insensitive to the androgen testosterone, the usual male features — penis, testes, scrotum, etc. — are unable to develop. The default phenotype is female, so people with AIS have a vagina or “vaginal pouch” (although most AIS women require surgical expansion). If a woman with AIS were to get a blood test, her testosterone levels would be as high as any man’s, but her body can’t process the hormone. That’s why women with complete AIS are so feminine — arguably more so than other women. (Some people with AIS have only partial androgen insensitivity. Considered intersex, or hermaphrodites, they fall all along the spectrum between typically male and female and have a micropenis. Naturally, there’s much controversy about gender assignment at birth and estrogen or testosterone injections at puberty.)

Several women have revealed they have complete or partial AIS, including singer Eden Atwood and tennis player Sarah Gronert. Although impossible to confirm, several famous celebrities of the past are purported to have had AIS: Wallis Simpson (Edward may have given up the crown for her, but it is said they could never have sexual relations), Queen Elizabeth I, and Joan of Arc. Rumors of AIS abound, perhaps out of jealousy, whenever a celebrity is statuesque, beautiful, and lacking a biological child — Jamie Lee Curtis, Ann Coulter,and even Gisele Bunchen,among many other model types.

In a sense, complete AIS flies in the face of the evolutionary theory I write about in BLONDES. If straight men are drawn to slim waists, shapely breasts, lush scalp hair, sparse body hair, long legs, and flawless skin because those qualities represent high fertility, then AIS is the ultimate deception. As gorgeous as an AIS woman is, there’s no chance of conception. But this ultimately doesn’t matter. It’s the 21st century, and an important lesson must be learned: Femininity is about more than reproduction.

Lose your sense of smell, lose your sex drive?

Posted in news by jenapincott on May 25, 2009

22445 When it comes to human pheromones, there are naysayers. And although there are fewer naysayers now than ever before, they’ve long used one tricky argument to deny the existence of human pheromones. There’s no vomeronasal organ (VNO) in homo sapiens, they say. What good are pheromones without a VNO?

The VNO, a bulb buried deep in the nasal cavity, is rich with neuronal receptors that detect chemical signals from others of the same species. It processes those signals which, in turn, stimulate the hypothalamus which triggers the production of sex hormones. Other animals use their VNOs all the time. When a female pig or dog assumes the butt-up bow-backed mating stance, it’s because her VNO had responded to pheromones from a male. People have vestiges of a VNO, but there’s no evidence that it still works. Many studies suggest our VNOs start to form during fetal development but regress and become non-functional by the time we’re born.

The naysayers say we lost our VNOs when we lost our need for pheromones. We’re not animals, they say. We don’t need to sniff out our mates.

But how do you explain the abundant evidence that we still use pheromones when dating and mating (as I detail in BLONDES)?

It turns out that we may have lost our VNOS, but not our noses. That is, we don’t need a VNO anymore because we process pheromones through our regular olfactory channels. We inhale them just as we inhale any other smell. They hit the brain in the same way they would if we still had a VNO.

There’s fresh proof of this in a new study. Neuroscientist Ivanka Savic and her team at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden recruited volunteers to smell known pheromones ( estrogen-related compounds). The volunteers were unusual in the one thing they had in common: they were all straight men who had lost their sense of smell (amnosia) due to nasal polyps. Their olfactory channels were dysfunctional.

Savic and her colleagues knew from their previous experiments that the areas of the brain involved in mating are activated when people smell pheromones. (Their studies are fascinating; they help answer questions in the book such as “Can you tell people’s sexual orientation by their smell?”) When straight guys smell estrogen-related compounds, researchers normally see the hypothalamus normally light up on a fMRI scan. The hypothalamus triggers the release of sex hormones. But does the hypothalamus get stimulated when people lose their ability to smell?

The answer is no. None of the amnosiac men in Savic’s study could process the estrogenic pheromones the way other straight men do. Their brains showed none of the usual activity. The hypothalamus was silent.

This is important. It suggests that, yes, we do appear to process pheromones through the main olfactory system. It’s good news because it implies that we don’t need a VNO to get a pheromonal punch. But we do need to smell. (An interesting study would compare the sex lives of amnosiacs with others.)

The bad news is that it’s possible that if you lose your sense of smell…lust may lose its luster.

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