Pheromones for everyone!
May 10, 2005 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Different scent attraction for men, women, and homosexuals Interesting report about homosexual men responding differently to pheromones as heterosexual men but very similar to women. (NYT)
posted by dov3 (53 comments total)

One thing I wonder is why men respond to a pheromone-like compound produce in women's urine. Last time I checked I was not sniffing my wife's pee.
posted by dov3 at 8:56 AM on May 10, 2005

Serious question: is this study important because it shows for the first time ever proof that humans emit and respond to pheromones? Or is it because homosexual men are attracted to a different kind of scent than straight men? Because honestly, the latter doesn't really surprise me, what with gay men, you know, I don't know, being sexually attracted to men, you know, kind of by definition.
posted by billysumday at 8:59 AM on May 10, 2005

Yes, but what about pastels?
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 9:00 AM on May 10, 2005

But... but... how can we square this with our absolute knowledge that homosexuality is a WICKED CHOICE MADE BY CORRUPT, SATAN-INFECTED PERVERTS??? /raving religious bigot
posted by Decani at 9:00 AM on May 10, 2005

This isn't as big a deal as its being made out to be, i don't think. They're clear to state they don't know when smell becomes an attractant--genetically, in utero, or during life.
posted by amberglow at 9:09 AM on May 10, 2005

Basically what this proves is gay men are really gay, and not just having sex with other men to piss off fundies. That part is just a fringe benefit.
posted by Saydur at 9:14 AM on May 10, 2005

And someone will try to capitalize on pheromones I'm sure.
posted by peacay at 9:17 AM on May 10, 2005

Maybe not.
posted by peacay at 9:18 AM on May 10, 2005

So Daymon Wayans was is all about the sweaty mens.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:18 AM on May 10, 2005

billy... remember that this makes it more likely that homosexuality is caused by genetics or early brain development, rather than choice. This should take some of the hot air out of the "it's a sin!" crowd.

It also means that homosexuality isn't "catching"... it doesn't spread.... you are or you aren't, and you're not going to be changed by social pressure. Tolerance of the practice is "catching", however, which may be what the Bible-thumpers are really afraid of.

Of course, approaching it from this angle could also mean that homosexuality could end up classed as a 'disorder', like depression or anxiety or something.

Which leads to an interesting question... if they discover what causes homosexuality, how is it classed? What if they develop a drug that makes gay people straight? (or straight people gay, for that matter?) With all the research they've been doing lately, and their advances in understanding how the brain functions, it's suddenly not as farfetched, and could lead to intense battles.

I realize this is probably old thinking to a lot of you, but it's new to me just now. My gut instinct is that it's okay to go ahead and develop treatment drugs, because some people are intensely unhappy about being gay... it would help prevent suicides. But the long-term implications of it becoming 'treatable' might make life very hard on people who are happily gay. Personally, as long as you're happy with it, I don't see any reason to 'cure' it.... but if it suddenly becomes 'curable', the possible new avenues of hate just boggle my mind.

So as a researcher, do you or don't you (try to) develop a drug like that? What a decision.
posted by Malor at 9:20 AM on May 10, 2005

Saydur - I read within the past year that gay men's brains are different from straight men's brains... iirc the area between the lobes is thicker in women and gay men than in straight men. It's been known for a while now that homosexuality is nature not nurture or choice (fyi). Not that the frothing fundies will ever listen to reality.
posted by modernerd at 9:22 AM on May 10, 2005

*sniffs everyone's wife's pee*


the "frothing fundy," would be a great name for a cocktail.
posted by jonmc at 9:24 AM on May 10, 2005

Malor - there was a special on PBS sometime in the last 6 months about homosexuality in the US around the 60s; it was classed as a disorder or something like that until some very brave gay people (who were also psychologists) spoke out at a psychology convention. As for gay people comitting suicide, I would imagine that's because they're unhappy about how they're treated more than unhappy with who they are but I don't know what you read. If a bunch of gay people insulted me a lot for being straight, I think I'd be more upset with the treatment than with my heterosexuality. just my 2c
posted by modernerd at 9:28 AM on May 10, 2005

Well, no, it's not just nature, not really. As the article pointed out, we don't know if the brain differences are cause or effect. Did the gay men's brains develop sensitivity to men because of the attraction -- that is, they were using the "attracted to men" portion of their brains, and so those developped a certain way -- or were they born with the "attracted to men" portion of their brains developed and are therefore attracted to men?

Not understanding this distinction is, I think, where a lot of the public misunderstands these studies. It's like the one that came out recently showing that girls, who generally don't have much spatial sense, could develop that part of their brains when taught sports at a young age. It's not that boys are born with better spatial reasoning, it's that they do things that exercise that part of their brains, and so that part of their brains is better developed than it is in most girls. It's... nurtured nature I guess.
posted by occhiblu at 9:29 AM on May 10, 2005


the problem in developing a drug is that it's most likely a structural change in the brain that occurs in the womb. I've read a couple articles discussing how different levels/timing of certain hormones in the womb could possibly lead to the child being gay. That would lead to the ethical question do you risk severely damaging your child by tinkering with the hormone levels in the womb if there was a 60% chance of your kid coming out gay?


understood, but it gives credence to the fact that those who are gay now are gay, and not simply waking up one moment and saying "Hey, you know what sounds great today? MANPILE! At some point in the development of their brain they became sensitive to a certain class of phermones. Seeing as how these types of reactions in the brain solidify by around age 16, the choice would have to either be made at puberty or much earlier. I think with further study we're going to find that it isn't a choice, but that has yet to be shown conclusively
posted by slapshot57 at 9:36 AM on May 10, 2005

meanwhile, across town, in a different newsroom, the same song is sung in a different key.
posted by paul_smatatoes at 9:40 AM on May 10, 2005

A high-end Chelsea gym ...ogling him in the locker room and leering at him as he changed clothes.

Gay people? At a high-end gym? in Chelsea?

Saints preserve us.
posted by jonmc at 9:43 AM on May 10, 2005

slapshot57: Are you asking us if we think a manpile sounds great today? Because it does.

Metafilter: MANPILE!
posted by billysumday at 9:43 AM on May 10, 2005

Gay people at a David Barton Gym?!? oh no! ; >

(David Barton has made his living off gay men--"Look Better Naked" and "No Pecs, No Sex" with a pic of a nude guy were his classic ads)
posted by amberglow at 9:53 AM on May 10, 2005

slapshot, well... I guess it was kind of a thought experiment. From what I have read, I agree with you that it's *probably* hormones in the womb and the brain structure. I was just thought-experimenting about them discovering a way to switch sexual orientation in an adult brain.

But as far as treating an embryo... absolutely not, I think that's way, way over the line. Treating an adult who chooses to be treated is perfectly fine. But imposing a hormonal change on a child during gestation, just to try to control their behavior in advance, strikes me as extraordinarily unethical... a crime against an innocent.

I guess both ideas are probably dumb to think about, neither appears to be that close. I should cut back on the stream-of-consciousness posting. :)
posted by Malor at 10:00 AM on May 10, 2005

What they'll do is abort the embryo more likely, Malor, once they id what it is exactly. : <
posted by amberglow at 10:07 AM on May 10, 2005


eh, stream of conciousness is the only way I post.


OT: should I start reading the post if I want to pick up things about manhattan so I don't look like a yokel from DC? I move in three weeks and I got nothing but time at the current job till then. I just always had the impression the post was a trash rag.
posted by slapshot57 at 10:08 AM on May 10, 2005

Stuck on the poor ogled gym member: I'm sorry, but as jonmc pointed out, if you don't know what it would be like to go to a high-end Chelsea gym, you deserve to have your naive peepers opened. The guy should get his membership fee back, but if he thinks he should get $25,000 for distress, he's bonkers.

Here in Portland we have Steam.
posted by Specklet at 10:09 AM on May 10, 2005

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

Dr. Slavic indicated that the complications involved plaid, flannel, and pick up trucks.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:12 AM on May 10, 2005

Malor, like modernerd said, homosexuality WAS classified as a disorder in medical books until the early 1970s (1973, I think).

occhiblu, in this article, they mention Simon LeVay's study of the hypothalamus. I've read that study and, while you're right, they haven't experimented enough on humans to know if the hypothalamus size caused the person to be gay or vice versa, they have done similar experiments on rats. Those studies have shown that the size of the hypothalamus is nearly invariable after birth and nothing after birth has a significant effect upon the size, even castration.
posted by Spencerinc at 10:18 AM on May 10, 2005

I know the NY Post thing was a weeee bit OT (and, yes, slapshot, it is a rag...DC: Post good, Times bad vs. NY: Post bad, Times good) but the bit about gay men reacting to male sweat the way women do (in the NYT article) might partially explain why the guys at the Chelsea NYSC seem to put their undies on last.
posted by paul_smatatoes at 10:19 AM on May 10, 2005

What kind of scents do mules emit?
posted by sharksandwich at 10:25 AM on May 10, 2005

I just always had the impression the post was a trash rag.

The post is a trash rag, but the headlines are a hoot. I was just riffing on the doofus in the article.
posted by jonmc at 10:38 AM on May 10, 2005

..and contrary to the post title, there aren't "pheremones for everyone!" I'm over 30, I don't emit pheremones, just flatulence and beer belches.
posted by jonmc at 10:40 AM on May 10, 2005

I found the statement by Dr. Savic that the data for gay women was "somewhat complicated" slightly amusing. The underpinnings of relationships between two women are more complicated than those between two men? Whoda thunk it?
posted by hellx at 10:44 AM on May 10, 2005

jonmc : I'm over 30, I don't emit pheromones, just flatulence and beer belches.

Apparently. one man's flatulence and belching is another man's pheromones
posted by ElvisJesus at 10:58 AM on May 10, 2005

Of course, approaching it from this angle could also mean that homosexuality could end up classed as a 'disorder', like depression or anxiety or something.

The remedy? HOMOAROMATHERAPY, of course.
posted by WolfDaddy at 11:03 AM on May 10, 2005

occhiblu: Bingo. The complexities of developmental psychology are much too complex to distill down to "nature vs. nurture." Even if there is a strong genetic component, there is a heck of a lot about "being gay/bi/lesbian" that is entirely cultural in origin.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:14 AM on May 10, 2005

It also means that homosexuality isn't "catching"... it doesn't spread.... -- malor

Does this mean I can start watching Sponge Bob again?

Oh, and you said "spread".
posted by Rawhide at 11:58 AM on May 10, 2005

My gut instinct is that it's okay to go ahead and develop treatment drugs, because some people are intensely unhappy about being gay... it would help prevent suicides.

My gut instinct is that, like any other drugs, these drugs would have side-effects that would probably be more serious than their intended effect. It would be a lot easier for everyone involved if we as a society focused on just not making people feel unhappy about themselves based on intrinsic characteristics. I think we'll be well on our way to that in a few hundred years more.
posted by me & my monkey at 12:37 PM on May 10, 2005

Ooops. I should have said that there is a heck of alot about sexuality that is entirely cultural in origin. There is no particular genetic reason that heterosexuality should ideally involve two people "falling in love" during late-adolescence or adulthood, leading to maintaining the appearance of long-term and/or serial monogamy based on romantic sentiment.

Which is why I don't the evidence having much impact in the debate regarding the status of gay relationships. As far as I can tell, covenant marriage is a partial rejection of the romantic view of sexual relationships that puts the emphasis on "following your heart" (or your hypothalmus if that should be the case) over "obeying God's will." Success for "ex-gay ministries" is viewed in much the same way as success for AA.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:30 PM on May 10, 2005

Spencerinc, you may be right about rats' innate tendencies, but, as I mentioned above, things that the general human population considers innate and gender-based, like spatial reasoning, have been found to be learned. If little girls can develop that "innately male" brain difference simply by playing sports, which are taught overwhelmingly to little boys, then something that we thought was "innately male" (that is, men are born with that type of brain) turns out to be, instead, a physical brain difference caused by (sexist) conditioning.

What I'm saying is that the same could be true for the brain differences found in this study. Homosexuality *could* be completely learned behavior, and yet once the gay guy starts thinking about men in "that way," his brain flexes the "I like the way guys smell" muscle and it develops.

In the same way, for example, that if I think, "Huh, I'd like bigger arms" and I go to the gym and work my biceps, they get bigger. You could even correlate big biceps with gym memberships among the general population. But it's pretty obvious that the big bicep (the physical change) didn't CAUSE my gym membership (the behavior).
posted by occhiblu at 2:30 PM on May 10, 2005

(I should add -- I'm not sure that it *does* work that way. I just want to point out that many people leap on the "Their brains are different!" explanation as if it proved people were born a certain way, or powerless against the hormones that run through their bodies, when in reality, it doesn't prove it at all.)
posted by occhiblu at 3:31 PM on May 10, 2005

IMO, the best case scenario for finding out that homosexuality is genetic or otherwise definitely not a choice would be conservatives/evangelicals saying, "Well, it's wrong, but if it's unchangeable it's a danged hard thing to have to be celibate your whole life," and maybe being a little less hard on gay people. Because it's not like you have to have sex or die. It's still a choice. I would just hope that, with that evidence, conservatives would be a little more sympathetic towards people who have to make the choice, rather than acting like all you have to do is put your faith in God and go through a ungaying program. (I'm rabidly pro-gay-rights, but it opened up a more nuanced view for me to read David Morrison's blog--he's a self-identified "same-sex-attracted" celibate Catholic). At best conservatives might think of it as something like kleptomania--it still doesn't make it okay to steal, but it makes it more understandable than if you just feel like not paying for something.

The worst case is that you have genetic or prenatal ungaying treatments.

So I don't buy the arguments that all we have to do is prove it's genetic, and everything will be okay.
posted by Jeanne at 4:17 PM on May 10, 2005

so, if i read this correctly, homos smell funny?
posted by quonsar at 4:19 PM on May 10, 2005

No, q, it's that gay men like the sweaty mens, whereas straight men like the sweaty menses.
posted by WolfDaddy at 4:25 PM on May 10, 2005

I'd just like to put in another vote in female urine here. Because I'm that straight. Grrr. How 'bout them knicks? The urine-stained ones, I mean.
posted by Decani at 5:51 PM on May 10, 2005

Ummm... that'd be for female urine. Not in. In female urine is another thing altogether.
posted by Decani at 5:52 PM on May 10, 2005

So how does it work with bisexuals? I mean brain-wise.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 5:55 PM on May 10, 2005

But what if science proves that homosexuality isn't biological? Does that mean it's OK to discriminate?

I don't think we can hang all the reasons for not discriminating on nature-not-nurture. It should be irrelevent. Human beings are engaging in private behavior that doesn't hurt any other human beings, so that behavior should not be stigmatised or used to discriminate against them. Period.

There are precendents. The analogy is to religion -- people choose to participate in a certain religion, and we as a people believe that that choice should not be stigmatised. You can't fire someone for choosing to be Christian, and you don't have to prove that their brain patterns pre-dispose them to believing in the divinity of Christ before you declare that discrimination unethical.

All these brain studies are fascinating, of course, but I don't think they should be used politically to prove societal points.
posted by occhiblu at 6:11 PM on May 10, 2005


WolfDaddy - you could make millions with a line of mens' fragrances and long-burning candles.
posted by ericb at 6:23 PM on May 10, 2005

Oh, and don't forget the lube and massage oils!
posted by ericb at 6:27 PM on May 10, 2005

So how does it work with bisexuals? I mean brain-wise.

Oh, uh...well, it's *complicated*, you see. We'll release the data some other time.

Five quick points on the day this ridiculously overhyped study hit the media.

1. Some folks are being overly credulous here, to say the least. The rather dismissive quote about lesbians complicating the oh-so-clear results should be a huge hint that there's some seriously weak theory going on. How is this different from pharmaceutical companies releasing only the data from studies that supports their products? Is it fair to assume the lesbians were tested at the same time as the other groups? Looks like it. My suspicion is the lesbian results muddy the waters and don't fit the triumphalist story the researchers wanted to feed the media. I'll be happy to be proven wrong on that.

Partial release of only the data that supports your hypothesis? I call bullshit on that.

2. This is a study involving 36 people - 12 straight men, 12 straight women and 12 gay men. (Funny how the lesbians don't even get mentioned in some reports.) To give this small sample's preliminary result - which hasn't been replicated anywhere else - serious power to affect the debate over sexuality (lord knows what cable news is doing with it right now) is ridiculous. It is suggestive at best of a new avenue of research.

3. Any thoughtful scientist would be very careful to look at the neurological data before accepting without question that Savic's team actually found significant differences between groups of living brains. Talk to a grad student in a neuroscience lab sometime to get a feel for just how tenuous this stuff can be. It's not that easy to distinguish differences in signal amidst all the noise that is a normal part of this kind of neurological testing, and so it's very fair to wait for other scientists to examine those alleged different "patterns of activity" before coming to any conclusion. It's absurdly bad science reporting for the WaPo, for one example, to run an AP story called "Gay Men Respond Differently to Pheromones" based on this first announcement.

4. The usual, deeply complex sampling issues encountered by those attempting to put together "gay" and "straight" samples apply. How did the study decide what constituted a "straight" person, for instance? No feelings of same-sex attraction ever? If so, how can they be sure the self-reports of that kind of thing are accurate, given the stigma attached to same-sex feelings? Is a couple of fleeting feelings ok? What about experimenting as a kid? Are you excluded only if you got excited? That's just the tip of the iceberg on sampling issues; there are very few good scientific ways to get through this stuff, folks.

Finally, I think it's disgusting for the PNAS to release this preliminary study to worldwide attention and then hide the details of the study behind a fee for online users. The report is or will be available in libraries; there's absolutely no reason not to release this information online, instead of forcing the lay scientist to pay money in order to judge the merits of a study that's clearly receiving a massive media push. I call *total* bullshit on that one.
posted by mediareport at 7:34 PM on May 10, 2005

The "Frothing Fundy":

Steamed milk, with a triple shot of Grenadine.

Sickly sweet, nonalcoholic, leaves a funny aftertaste.

(Also, boys smell yummy.)

(Also, Decami, like this line?)
posted by Tomatillo at 11:14 PM on May 10, 2005

But what if science proves that homosexuality isn't biological? Does that mean it's OK to discriminate?

Occhiblu: absolutely not. But the reason it's nice when indications are found that homosexuality is biologically-determined (see also the "gay gene" issue) is it blows a big fat hole in one of the main discriminatory "arguments" used by a particularly vociferous and vile sector of the discriminators. That's all.
posted by Decani at 4:24 AM on May 11, 2005

The version of this story I read said gay men specifically liked best the smell of gay men. That fascinates me, and causes me to wonder if there could be anything in this to relate to the phenomenon known as "gaydar", where gay men spot eachother.

When I was 17, my gaydar was majorly spooky. Once I recognized a potential Mr. Rightnow when we walked BEHIND me, out of sight. Yet, against the scent notion was the fact I could typically walk into a crowded club and scan the guys, and easily pick out who I wanted/needed to talk to. (Crowded club of sailors in Naples). Of course, mostly I ascribe this all to eye contact, except for the very spooky time the guy was behind me.

As far as the scent thing goes, I have no trouble believing it could be learned. I would like to conduct the study only find (how possible?!) some gay virgins and see if they react the same way. And straight virgins, too. I suspect virgin males couldn't care less what gender the pheromones come from.

Lesbian complications: Last time I heard any discussion about lesbians, it was noted that, unlike men, they tend to frequently switch teams. I've no idea how valid a statement that is.
posted by Goofyy at 7:37 AM on May 11, 2005

I would like to conduct the study only find (how possible?!) some gay virgins and see if they react the same way. And straight virgins, too. I suspect virgin males couldn't care less what gender the pheromones come from.

That would be an awesome study.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:54 AM on May 11, 2005

Gooffy - Switch teams? Us? Are you wiping off the entire lesbian nation as fickle, man jumping opportunists?

I for one am more than happy to stick with splitting the fig.

Off bat a little... apparently scent is more important to women as far as attraction is concerned. Men: vision and touch. Women: scent and hearing. Vast generalisation of course, but I'd agree from personal experience.
posted by mnemosyne at 10:41 AM on May 12, 2005

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