The Celebrity Sex Lives of Rats

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


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.

The Zombie Media’s Hunger for Gay Brains

“Brains! Give me gay brains!”

So the global media has been moan­ing this week, arms out­stretched and flail­ing, sight­less eyes star­ing fix­edly ahead.

You can hardly have missed this story.

We’ve been here sev­eral times before, most recently with the story about ‘gay drivers being as bad as women’, but the press clearly can’t get enough of this kind of ‘gay sci­ence’. Especially when it appears to con­firm the pop­u­lar, con­sol­ing and time-honoured view of gay men as women’s souls trapped in men’s bodies.

The only intel­li­gent piece I’ve read on this story was by Mark Liberman, kindly for­war­ded to me by my friend David Halperin. It debunks the head­lines about ‘gay brains’ rather, er, brainily.

It’s also worth point­ing out that, as is usu­ally with this kind of brain research, these dif­fer­ences — if they exist rather than being an arte­fact of sampling — have not been shown to be innate. The brain is ‘plastic’ and the dif­fer­ences in size could have been in effect ‘learned’, or be the product of beha­viour and not t’other way around. That’s to say, shop­ping for shoes and salad with gal pals might increase the part of your brain that ‘pro­cesses emo­tion and lan­guage’. If this rather import­ant pro­viso was men­tioned in the news reports at all, it was right at the end.

And of course, you only have to think for less than a minute about the claim that gay men and straight women have the ‘same brains’, espe­cially when it comes to the area that ‘pro­cesses emo­tion’, to see a major flaw with this appar­ently ‘com­mon sense’ find­ing. I mean, how many hetero women — or les­bi­ans — have the same atti­tude towards emotion-free sex that gay men have?

Far more sig­ni­fic­ant than the find­ings of the research was the way it was repor­ted. As Liberman points out, none of the stor­ies head­lined with ‘Lesbian brains are the same as straight male brains’. Almost all of them were a vari­ant of ‘Gay male brains the same as het­ero­sexual women’s brains’

To be fair, most of the research in this area isn’t ter­ribly inter­ested in les­bi­ans either. That’s because the prob­lem that needs to be explained from a bio­lo­gical determ­in­ist point of view, is human males who don’t impreg­nate women — which is what ‘male’ means to such people — and instead, in their view, try to impreg­nate other men, or, worse, be impreg­nated by them. Women, on the other hand, only exist to be impreg­nated from a bio­lo­gical determ­in­ist point of view, so their ‘ori­ent­a­tion’ is largely irrelevant.

Which should tell you all you need to know about bio­lo­gical determinism.

Gays who hope that this kind of research will deliver them from the ‘it’s a choice’ reli­gious right and ‘it’s unnat­ural’ homo­phobes are pos­sibly jump­ing out of the mor­al­ist fry­ing pan into the eugenic fire. Of course, they wouldn’t be the first. Magnus Hirschfeld (and also Karl Ulrichs) the ‘father’ of the mod­ern gay rights move­ment believed that homo­sexual men were women’s souls trapped inside men’s bod­ies. Homosexuals should not be per­se­cuted and crim­in­al­ised, in Hirschfeld’s view, because they couldn’t help them­selves, and, more to the point, as women trapped inside men’s bod­ies, they weren’t really homo­sexual at all — they were con­gen­it­ally con­fused het­ero­sexu­als with a hor­monal imbal­ance. When they had sex with another male they were try­ing, in their own ‘crippled’ way, to be faith­ful to their het­ero­sexual impulses.

Then along came the Nazis, who largely agreed with Hirschfeld about crippled, con­gen­ital homo­sexu­als not being real men, but had a rather dif­fer­ent view about what this meant — i.e. degen­er­acy — and, of course, what to do about this. Which, in addi­tion to con­cen­tra­tion camps, included oper­at­ing on them to find the causes of their hered­it­ary weak­ness, and inject­ing them with massive quant­it­ies of male hor­mones (though the lat­ter of course is some­thing many gays pay good money for these days).

Back to the pos­sibly eugenic future: In the real world, as opposed to the one cre­ated by psy­cho­bi­o­logy, gay and straight men are more and more dif­fi­cult to tell apart, both in terms of appear­ance, beha­viour and even sexual prac­tises. So I look for­wards to the research into which part of the brain is respons­ible for straight men spend­ing most of their sexual lives mas­turb­at­ing to online porn, or why so many of them favour anal or oral sex when con­fron­ted with an actual female — pre­dilec­tions which, from a bio­lo­gical determ­in­ist point of view, aren’t really so dif­fer­ent from homosexuality.

Human sexu­al­ity is far more per­verse and cun­ning and kinky than poor square old bio­lo­gical determ­in­ists can ever accept, because for them het­ero­sexu­al­ity is neces­sar­ily the same thing as repro­duc­tion which is the same thing as sex. When much of human cul­ture has been very ener­get­ic­ally and ingeni­ously devoted to mak­ing sure that these things aren’t the same.

In a sense, homo­sexu­al­ity rep­res­ents one of the crown­ing (over-) achieve­ments of that energy. And per­haps that’s the very reason there remains such an intense, curi­ous, and some­times mur­der­ous, ambi­val­ence about it.  As shown by the count­less and con­tinu­ing attempts to explain it away.