The Celebrity Sex Lives of Rats

Posted by in commentary, science, sex

Men brought up with women are less sexy

announced the head­line in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, the UK’s last daily broad­sheet.  A head­line which has, unsur­pris­ingly, helped to make it the second most pop­u­lar story on their web­site.  A head­line which pro­vokes a num­ber of intriguing ques­tions.  Questions such as: Men brought up with women are less sexy than… what?  Men brought up with wolves?  Or, men who atten­ded Eton?

The Daily Telegraph’s Science Correspondent help­fully elaborates:

‘Having a large num­ber of female sib­lings makes men no less het­ero­sexual but their man­ner­isms and body lan­guage may be seen as less butch than those who have been brought up amid the rough and tumble of a male dom­in­ated household.’

‘Researchers dis­covered the ratio of male and females within a fam­ily grow­ing up together can influ­ence the sexual beha­viour, rather than the sexu­al­ity, of a boy who is outnumbered.’

Now, I’ll res­ist the tempta­tion to say some­thing about that image of a man being ‘out­numbered’ by women for the moment. Because the most import­ant thing to note here is that it isn’t until the fourth para­graph in this news item about ‘how men brought up with women are less sexy’ that we dis­cover the psy­cho­bi­o­lo­gists aren’t talk­ing about men and women.

They’re talk­ing about rats.  They did some exper­i­ments on rodents.  The ‘men and women’ and ‘boys and girls’ the Telegraph art­icle has told us about so cat­egor­ic­ally are male and female ver­min.  The ‘house­holds’ are rat lit­ters.  The ‘butch­ness’ and ‘rough and tumble’ dis­cussed is ratty.  The ‘het­ero­sexu­al­ity’ dis­cussed is rat rut­ting.

‘Male rats were taken from their moth­ers and redis­trib­uted in lit­ters in which there was either more female pups or more male pups, or equally mixed.’

‘When it came to mat­ing, the male rats brought up in a lit­ter of mainly sis­ters, spent less time mat­ing than those brought up among male rats or in an equally divided litter.’

In other words, even if we re-wrote the Telegraph head­line to, say ‘Male rats brought up with female rats are less sexy’ it would still be inac­cur­ate.  The head­line should prob­ably read: ‘Male rats brought up with more females than males get less sex.’ Though this would give the sub-editor a heart-attack.  Worse, it would mean that the piece had no chance of get­ting into the Telegraph’s ‘Most Read’ chart.

Apparently the num­ber of mount­ings were lower, in part because:

‘…they were not being invited to do so by the females who sig­nal their avail­ab­il­ity by wig­gling their ears or ‘dart hop­ping’ – an estab­lished rodent come on!’

Which is nice.  But it’s only right at the end of this news story about how men brought up with women are less sexy that you get this state­ment from one of the psy­cho­bi­o­lo­gists in ques­tion, actu­ally talk­ing about humans – rather than, you know, rats:

‘And what applies to rats may have implic­a­tions for humans too, he added.’

Hang on. What’s this wussy, pussy-footing MAY have IMPLICATIONS?  Was he brought up in a lit­ter where he was out­numbered by women or some­thing?  We already know exactly what it means for humans because the Daily Telegraph told us in the head­line and the first three para­graphs.  But the psy­cho­bi­o­lo­gist just can’t grow a pair.  Instead he offers us this woolly, hope­lessly girly state­ment:

“It tells you that fam­il­ies are import­ant – how many broth­ers and sis­ters you have, and the inter­ac­tion among those indi­vidu­als.”  Families are par­tic­u­larly import­ant in shap­ing per­son­al­it­ies, he says. The envir­on­ment where you were raised “doesn’t determ­ine per­son­al­ity, but it helps to shape it.”

Now this isn’t exactly earth-shattering.  But even this state­ment is based here on unsub­stan­ti­ated and some­what dubi­ous extra­pol­a­tion from rat beha­viour to humans.  Rats, for example, have lit­ters of about ten pups that take five weeks to reach sexual matur­ity, while humans tend to only drop one at a time which take four­teen years or more to develop.  And female humans are gen­er­ally less likely to wiggle their ears when they feel flirty.

But the gen­eral con­clu­sion here would prob­ably be that envir­on­ment, even in the case of rats, whose beha­viour was thought to be decided by genes and pre-natal endo­crino­logy, is more import­ant than was thought.

Mind you, The Daily Telegraph’s wildly anthro­po­morph­iz­ing report­ing is a model of objectiv­ity and accur­acy com­pared to Time Magazine, which seems to lose its mind over the same story, giv­ing it this bizarre title:

‘Why You’re Gay: A New Study Shows Why Boy Rats Like Other Boy Rats’

Er, no it doesn’t.  (And nor does it talk about ‘boy-rats’, whatever they are.)  But there’s no stop­ping Time:

‘Here’s the news: boy rats who have more sis­ters are less reli­able het­ero­sexu­als than boy rats who have fewer sis­ters. That’s not to say hav­ing a sis­ter makes you gay, but the boy rats with lots of sis­ters were sig­ni­fic­antly less inter­ested than other boy rats in mount­ing girl rats.’

‘…less reli­able het­ero­sexu­als’.  Whatever that phrase means, it isn’t in the abstract or the press release. Nor is there any dis­cus­sion of male rats mount­ing one another.  It seems that the reas­on­ing here is that if a male rat mounts female rats less often than other male rats then he must be, y’know, gay.  Which is an inter­est­ing insight into notions of com­puls­ory het­ero­sexu­al­ity at Time, but not so much into the sex lives of rats.

In fact, and this is per­haps the most inter­est­ing aspect of the study – which neither the Daily Telegraph nor Time repor­ted – the male rats raised in ‘female dom­in­ant’ lit­ters turned out to have just as many inser­tions and ejac­u­la­tions with females as the other males. As the abstract tells us:

…the num­ber of intro­mis­sions and ejac­u­la­tions did not dif­fer across groups, which sug­gests that males from female-biased lit­ters mate as effi­ciently as males raised in other sex ratios, but do not require as many mounts to do so.

In other words, if you really want to anthro­po­morph­ize, the head­line should read:

‘Men brought up with women bet­ter at get­ting it in’

But these wacky sci­entific fairy tales in Time and The Daily Telegraph are not com­pletely without merit.  Both are really excel­lent examples of why you should treat any ‘sexy’ report about the ‘dis­cov­er­ies’ of psy­cho­bi­o­logy in regard to human beha­viour very, very scep­tic­ally indeed, always bear­ing in mind that:

a) They’re prob­ably talk­ing about rats

And

b) You need to mul­tiply the dubi­ous­ness of extra­pol­at­ing rat research to human beha­viour by the increas­ing need of sci­entific research to get pub­li­city these days – and then again by the rampant pro­jec­tions of the media itself and its need to make an already souped-up story ‘inter­est­ing’ and ‘famil­iar’ to their readers.