Monday, October 15, 2007

Women's Studies

Yesterday I ran across this study about ovulation and strippers. (Excuse me, I believe the scientific term is lap dancers.) This study is actually really interesting: they compared the ovulation cycles and tip earnings of 18 lap dancers and found that ovulating women made about $70/hour, compared to $50 per hour for non-ovulating women and $35 for bloated cranky menstruating women. The study claims to be "the first direct economic evidence for the existence of estrus in contemporary human females." (Kinda lofty for a paper-clipped stack of 18 questionnaires turned in to an anonymous drop box).

I don't know exactly how well-researched this field of study is, but there is sort of an already established debate out there about why, in the process of human evolution, estrus was dumped in favor of menstruation. The main behavioral difference between the two is that estrus females are generally only interested in sex while they are fertile (you know, like cats in heat), whereas human females that ovulate are down to bang out whenever. There are all sorts of hypotheses about why this evolved, most of which annoy me. Regardless, there are a lot of implications in there for things like monogamous behavior, societal power distribution, etc.

What bothers me about this is that the paper claims that this economic evidence suggests that men can detect when a woman is ovulating and will thus be more attracted to her (or at least spend more money to see her in a sexual context). This may very well be true, but it feels pretty limited in its perspective. Stripping is a performance art, and while I've never been a stripper I think that any woman who is in touch with her body would agree that you feel a lot sexier--both actively and receptively--when you're ovulating. Some would say downright horny. So wouldn't that play a factor? I mean you've got all kinds of baby-making shit going on up in your uterus, you'd think you'd be a little bit more enthusiastic about waving your vajay around. I don't think it matters whether the women are actually attracted to their patrons--it's a state-of-mind thing. I bet if they did a study about how often single women masturbate they'd find that that increases with ovulation, too. This is of course not an official hypothesis, but I am a single woman, so I think you can count that as data.

The study's authors didn't not think of this, they just found it irrelevant. They say that because previous studies have never resulted in lap dancers' reporting that they noticed menstrual cycle effects on tip earnings, that it is more likely that it is their "attractiveness" to men rather than their own increase in sexual receptivity and proceptivity (i.e. horniness) that plays a role. I don't get this logic at all--just because you don't notice your influence on something doesn't mean that the influence doesn't exist. They also say that the female's increase in sexual receptivity might lead to a bias toward certain men with good genes, but that it was "unclear how this bias would lead to greater tip earnings." To me this also sounds like bullshit--stripping is not the same as choosing a mate. Just because something (ovulatory horniness) evolved in one context (the evolutionary context in which it would be advantageous choose a mate with good genes) doesn't mean that it will play out the same way (only being directed toward potential mates with good genes) in a completely different context (a strip club, where not to disappoint you or anything but the strippers are not there to find men to mate with).

I do agree with the study's general point that whether or not a woman is ovulating plays a role in the chemistry between two members of the opposite sex. The thing that bothers me--about this study and about previous studies that this data challenges--is when people try to form these discrete cause-and-effect hypotheses about complex phenomena by discarding those aspects of the phenomena that they could not find a way to measure. Obviously things like how horny a woman feels and how attractive a man finds her do not lend themselves to causal explanations as they are blurred by lines of feedback. To me, conclusions like that will always be pretty useless and easily challenged by different interpretations of what is essentially the same observation.

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