A while back I read an article about how sperm may be an antidepressant for people who ingest it in one way or another. But that’s not my question. What interests me is that a few months later, I read an article about the scientist who proposed that theory. He said what started him down that line of thinking was that he read a study about how cohabiting lesbians’ menstrual cycles don’t sync up. He theorized it was because of their lack of sperm ingestion. Last I heard (but I have been out of Catholic school for over 17 years), nuns in a convent don’t ingest sperm, yet their menstrual cycles sync up. So what’s the deal with cohabiting lesbians? –Gordon, Brooklyn, NY
Whoa. So many opportunities here for…well, I was going to say “tasteless remarks,” but in discussions like this even the most innocuous comment can get you into trouble. So never mind that–and while you’re at it, forget about cohabiting lesbians, sperm ingestion, and nuns. The real news is that menstrual synchrony, first proposed in the world of science more than 30 years ago and now widely accepted as fact, may be nothing but a misperception.
The whole thing began in 1971 when Martha McClintock, then a graduate student in psychology at Harvard (now a professor at the University of Chicago), published a paper in the scientific journal Nature suggesting that the menstrual cycles of women who spend a lot of time together tend to synchronize after a while. She studied 135 students in an all-female dorm and found a “significant increase in synchronization” in the onset of menses among close friends and roommates. She speculated that the cause might be pheromones, hormonal cues acting through the sense of smell.
As scientific reports go, McClintock’s was a bombshell, catching the attention of both specialists and ordinary folk. Several other investigators claimed to have replicated her findings, and soon heavy thinkers were constructing impressive theoretical edifices about primate mating patterns and such, all based on menstrual synchrony. In 1998, McClintock coauthored another Nature article reporting on experiments in which cotton pads soaked in donors’ armpit sweat were wiped on the upper lips of recipients. She alleged that this process changed the length of the recipients’ cycles, calling the effect “definitive evidence of human pheromones.”
Did that settle matters? Nope. Other researchers suggested there was less going on than met the eye. Among the objections:
Currently the opposing camps are duking it out in the journals. (See the September 2002 Journal of Comparative Psychology for the latest irruption.) I won’t say the prosynchrony crowd is out of the game, but right now it’s third and long.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.