Crying, Sex, and John Boehner: Not So Fast

Why the claim that women's tears signal, 'not tonight dear,' is probably wrong.

It’s probably not going out on a limb to say that John Boehner’s waterworks—the man cries when his party wins control of the House, when he thinks about kids, when he walks down the House aisle to take the Speaker’s gavel—are not meant to reduce sexual arousal in women. But the fact that the idea is even in play underlines how mysterious adult crying is.

The bawling of babies and the wailing of older children cry is what scientists call distress crying, says psychologist Ad J. J. Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in the Netherlands: its function is to bring help (it even triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and caring behavior) and inhibits aggression (in, say, a stranger who comes upon an abandoned, crying child: the wails say, “don’t hurt me!”).

The function of adult crying is much less obvious, which is why the new tears-and-(no)-sex study is so fascinating. Scientists led by Noam Sobel of Israel’s Weizmann Institute had men sniff unidentified liquids (either women’s tears, collected when they watched a sad movie, or a saline solution) and then go through a bunch of psychological and neurological tests to gauge whether the tears had any effect. After first ascertaining that the men couldn’t tell tears from saline by smell, the scientists turned to sex. They had 24 other men view pictures of women’s faces on a computer screen, and rate how sad or sexually attractive they seemed. Result: 17 of the 24 men rated the faces as less sexually attractive after they sniffed tears than after they sniffed saline, the scientists report in a paper in Science Express.

To explore this further, the scientists had another 50 men sniff tears or saline—they weren’t told which was which, and couldn’t tell—and then rate how sexually aroused they felt. (The scientists did not report how the men felt about this out-of-left-field question, but we are probably safe in assuming that participants in psychology experiments expect the bizarre.) After the men watched scenes from a sad movie (The Champ), their self-rated sexual arousal was hardly different after sniffing tears vs. saline.

But objective measures of sexual arousal were different with tears and saline. After the men watched the sad movie, testosterone levels in saliva fell about 13 percent, after sniffing tears but not after sniffing saline. And after they watched an erotic movie (9½ Weeks), activity in regions of the brain associated with sexual arousal (the hypothalamus and left fusiform gyrus) also decreased after sniffing tears but not after sniffing saline.

The scientists’ conclusion: “Women’s emotional tears contain a chemosignal that reduces sexual arousal in men” even though the men “did not see the women cry” or know that they were sniffing tears. Added Sobel, “This study reinforces the idea that human chemical signals—even ones we’re not conscious of—affect the behavior of others.”

The study is, predictably, getting a lot of media attention (WOMEN’S TEARS SAY, ‘NOT TONIGHT, DEAR’), but experts on tears and crying aren’t so sure the findings mean what the Weizmann scientists say they do. “I like their study very much, and I think their results are fascinating, but I have my doubts about their interpretation,” says Vingerhoets. “I suspect the sexual effect is just a side effect: testosterone, which was reduced when men sniffed the women’s tears, isn’t only about sex: it’s also about aggression. And that fits better with our current thinking about tears.”

According to that thinking, tears evolved to inhibit aggression and facilitate social bonding (as we’ll come back to vis-à-vis Boehner). One way to inhibit aggression is to reduce levels of testosterone, which is what the Weizmann researchers found tears do. That much, other scientists have no problem with. It’s the sex part that makes alarm bells go off. For one thing, the men who sniffed the women’s tears reported only a modest decrease in sexual arousal (compared with men who sniffed saline). For another, the supposed clincher—the fMRI showing less activity in areas of the brain associated with sexual arousal—is dicey: the brain circuitry behind sex is seriously muddled, with some fMRI experiments identifying one group of regions and other fMRIs identifying others.

There’s an even more serious reason not to conclude that tears kill a man’s sex drive: men typically don’t sniff tears without also seeing them. In other words, there are tears, and there is crying: which one predominates?

Here’s where the social-bonding effect of tears comes into play. Vingerhoets told me he wishes the Weizmann scientists had also measured their male volunteers’ levels of oxytocin, which tend to rise when we see someone cry. Even if tears contain a “not tonight, dear” chemical (and I should note that none has ever been found, and that at least two attempts to confirm a 1981 claim that tears contain higher levels of certain proteins have failed to do so), it is not at all clear that it outweighs the bonding effect of crying. Some men find a blubbering woman a sexual turn-off, but to others it’s an invitation to comfort and soothe her, and what with one thing leading to another ... In other words, the effect of seeing a woman cry might be stronger than any possible testosterone-lowering effects of sniffing tears.

Which brings us to John Boehner. He is far from the only politician to shed tears: Winston Churchill did so on numerous public occasions, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf cried during an interview with Barbara Walters. Maybe they’re just cagier than we realize: crying makes men seem less aggressive, and evokes more emotional support, empathy, and attention from others, Vingerhoets has found. When people see a public figure crying, he says, “they ask themselves if they would cry in that situation, too. If the answer is yes, and if the tears seem real and not manipulated, it can elicit a very positive reaction.” With men, however, how they cry is crucial: sobbing is not OK (it suggests an inability to control emotions), but silent tears are. The latter, in fact, have been shown to be attractive, and even a sexual turn-on, to women, signaling that the man is capable of deep and real emotion.

So if men’s tears can turn women on, but women’s tears turn men off (assuming the new finding is right), the take-home message is clear: don’t go to a sad movie together, or you might find yourselves sending very conflicting messages.