Me Jane, you Tarzan

Sexual attraction is a strange phenomenon, and we are often unaware of the factors which play a part. Men, faced by photographs of ostensibly identical twins, tend to choose the one whose eyes have the larger pupils, without knowing why. The women who used belladonna to enlarge their pupils knew what they were doing.

More sophisticated scientific methods enable us to delve deeper, and in particular we have begun to understand the effects of the monthly cycle both on the woman herself and on the men she meets.

Many married women, particularly Catholics and those investigating sub-fertility, are likely to be aware of the stages of their cycle, as measured through the tracing of symptoms as commonly used in natural family planning. But there are other signs of ovulation which are less well-known but nevertheless significant in their effects. The examples which I give are all from reputable and recent scientific studies. They are not old (or young) wives’ tales. They will not occur with every woman, but they are likely to occur to many more than those who recognise them.

Women are more likely to fantasise about men other than their husbands as they approach ovulation. In a complementary fashion husbands are more likely to be attentive to their wives, watching their behaviour and telephoning them more frequently. The more a woman secretly fantasises, the more watchful their husbands tend to be.

There may be an evolutionary advantage in women grabbing genes for their children from attractive, if unreliable, casual partners. For short-term relationships they prefer “rugged” faces – preferably enhanced by facial scars. These characteristics are seen as associated with high testosterone. For long-term relationships gentler faces may be preferred. Meanwhile steady old hubby will provide the security they need. Up to 30 per cent of children are not the offspring of their purported father, although this varies in different societies. So hubby’s careful oversight may be prudent. Women are more likely to be unfaithful in their early 30s; typically they are at their peak of sexual response, but on the eve of declining fertility.

Much has been made of smell in choosing a mate. The theory behind this is that it is genetically desirable to bear children with someone who has a different immune system, thus giving the child a potentially broader spread of resistance to disease. But the evidence here is not one way because, on a visual basis, women prefer the faces of men with similar immune systems. It seems that a balancing of both factors is needed. However, women on the Pill become less likely to choose the right mate through their sense of smell. And this fits the finding that the discriminatory activity in the female brain, particularly the part associated with risk and reward, is measurably more active when, at the time of ovulation, she is reviewing a mate.

Women raise the pitch and femininity of their voices, at least in their initial remarks, around ovulation. The effect is stronger as they approach ovulation, and more marked in younger women – especially if they are highly fertile. These last are also important factors in the way that women dress and groom. The care which they take in their appearance and clothes is typically raised as they approach ovulation.

Beware a woman wearing red, I say to my brothers. Unconsciously you will find her more attractive than in, say, blue – and, if you take her out, you will spend more money on her. Then reflect that this corresponds with males among the higher apes who respond to the reddening of females as they approach ovulation.

While this evidence all seems to point one way, we must remember that it only addresses average phenomena, so it does not apply to any particular woman. Nor, of course, does it say anything about the ability of a woman to exercise control over instinct, particularly when she recognises how her instincts may work. So I conducted a rather small survey among the women of my sufficiently close acquaintance to pose the question: are you aware of any difference in your behaviour and feelings at the time of ovulation?

Predictably, many were aware of discomfort, and one friend who was having infertility scans had been able to confirm that she could accurately identify which fallopian tube was involved. But the evidence for mood change was mainly of a negative nature. That is, they might be aware of feeling low immediately after the menses, and all reported pre-menstrual tension at different levels. So their awareness of mood change at ovulation lay in their comparative brightness between these two events. I had not given them any clues about the research, and they did not volunteer any such phenomena. This at least suggests that they are unaware of their changes in mood or behaviour, unless they chose not to tell me. Tiresias (the seer of Greek myth) who had spent seven years as a woman, was struck blind by Hera because he revealed to Zeus that women enjoyed sexual activity more than men. It is dangerous knowledge

Women have evolved over the generations to be both physically and psychologically inclined to sexual partnership at the time of maximum fertility. It is a trait developed when infant mortality was very high and it was necessary to bear several children in order to sustain and gently increase the population. Because evolution is essentially mindless, the trait remains even when, in the developed world at least, it no longer synchronises with current conditions. And it is a trait for which in many countries, including our own, we have over-compensated, and will pay the price.

Plenty of opportunity for comment here. Are women really as devious as my column suggests? And how about men’s sexual strategies? And there is always the difficult question raised by a rate of fertility which developed under much more primitive conditions. If you have problems logging to make a comment, email me at quentin@greenyonder.co.uk. But remember to change “green” to “blue”. (anti-spamming device)

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Me Jane, you Tarzan

  1. kouin says:

    Women like scientists who follow their noses to a field of organic crops side by side with a GM crop field.
    Eventually becoming cross fertilised they produce Super crops and Super weeds that require Super chemicals for the Super market.

    GM Humans through indoctrination never mind the test tube.

    As an agricultural university modifying anti-socialists!
    When its all over you won’t care anyway.
    Bring back Blair …Eric not Tony. I was enamoured with them both .
    Alright alright, its 1997, now what did I believe

    I visited two mosques this year.
    One run by men and the other by women…
    more holy terror than a convent!

    Modifying and moderating
    supposedly,
    publically accessible organs
    where insane
    though pure speech
    is technique-cally branded
    the monopoly of terror/the hoodieofauthoritivetruth* has a ring of funk.

    If Uncle BOB lives up to ‘his ideals’ he’ll hire the Alaskan woman as Sec. of State. Let’s all pray that he’ll at least use his p.c./p.c. , which is totally but totally 2008 thank God, and check in to Insight to avoid using air miles to visit that german man in the Vatican.

    *Benevenuto Cellini

  2. Daisy says:

    I notice that Quentin has little to say about the inner workings of men. Perhaps that’s because he could scarcely fill a column describing such a simple mechanism. We are much more subtle.
    Perhaps the difference comes from women having only a limited number of eggs (some 400 I believe), while men have limitless, renewable, sperm. So they spread it about on the offchance.

    I hope some of them watched the BBC 4 programme last Thursday “War in the womb”. If they did they will understand better what women have to go through in achieving a successful pregnancy. They might even understand why we are biologically developed to make sure we get the best result from the effort. It’s still on the BBC iplayer, and it’s well worth watching.

  3. I can’t resist the temptation of putting a cash value on all of this. The University of Mexico reported, only a month or so ago, on a study which showed that on average a female strip dancer earned approximately £130 in tips when ovulating compared to £100 when she wasn’t. Over 5000 dances were logged; it must have been real ordeal for the scientists. Is it possible to argue from this that women are 30% more sexually attractive at the very time in the month when natural family planning prohibits sexual congress?

    I notice that we have had few comments so far on a matter which affects, or has affected us all. Are the men (with the exception of Kouin) too nervous, and the women (with the exception of Daisy) too coy? Incidentally, coyness in women is a behaviour which can be virtuous, or a useful sexual strategy, or a particularly malicious anti-male game. Challenge me to defend this, if you dare.

  4. Fariam says:

    I am not going to argue this, but I doubt the accuracy of some of the information, surveys and testing being what they are.

    I will say that I hate the sometimes dubious nature of women as they “play” with men. I remember once deliberately using my charm to get someone to take me out – nice decent guy – because I couldn´t afford the ticket to a concert …

    Mostly, when I was young, I saw many of my dates as trophies – much like males do… I realize today that a lot of it was to do with my need for notice and affection and lack of self-respect and respect for the other. Knowing what I now know, I would not fall into that sort of trap today.

    I have heard women talk about how they pretended to cry in order to get their way, and fabricate stories for a decent, well-meaning guy in a chat up line because they thought it was funny. It disgusts me, and I find it dishonest and manipulative.

    Regarding ovualtion and PMT, I have always been very aware of the physical and psychological processes of my body. I have experienced severe mood swings when I was either aggressive or super sensitive. I have also experienced indescribable fatigue. And I have also felt lonely and empty, and super vulnerable to making bad decisions with regard to dates and behaviour around ovulation which ties in with the results of your survery. I am glad that part of my life is well over!

    I should also say Ovulation had a great bearing on my artistic creativity! I often had huge resources of energy, and could write or paint with great inspiration at that time. So it was not all bad news. I think women are privleged to be so aware of and to experience the cycle of nature within our bodies. I wish young women were helped to see it in a more positive way. I also wish men and women were helped to understand this part of their sexuality better as it might help us all to avoid a lot of unnecessary pitfalls and make for better communication.

    Without wishing to offend the males here, I think men tend to be ready to play the game along with women. They can also make all kinds of promises and then leave women high and dry, which is maybe why women think they need to be manipulative.

  5. Horace says:

    For what it is worth:-
    There are changes in the EEG (electrical brain activity) of women related to ovulation; the frequency of the alpha rhythm [the commonest normal brain rhythm – which has a frequency of about 10 cycles per second and an amplitude of about 50 millionths of a volt] is slightly increased in the preovulatory phase, while after ovulation the frequency decreases by about half a cycle per second and there is a slight increase in amplitude.
    These phenomena presumably reflect increased alertness and attention in the preovulatory phase with a little relaxation afterward, as described by Quentin.

    The studies were all made in the 60’s and 70’s. To my knowledge there has been no significant interest since and the subject is not mentioned at all in John Shaw’s scholarly survey “The Brain’s Alpha Rhythm and the Mind” (2003)

  6. Fariam, as usual, has some invaluable points, and we’ve come to rely on Horace for his professional information. Just for the record, I should say that I used no less than 18 studies as a background to the column, of which the great majority came from 2007 and 2008. Five of them were reported in November and December this year. Since I am not a polymath but need to cover a wide range, I spend a great deal more time researching than writing! But I can still make mistakes, or get the emphasis wrong – which is why I rely on you all to comment.

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