Thursday, September 30, 2010

Around the web: sexuality

The "Around the Web" series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

ResearchBlogging.orgThis week I have been trying to finish up two large writing projects: a new IRB and a manuscript draft. So posting has been light. I also admit to having a little trouble figuring out whether to foreground this particular Around the Web post with some of my own thoughts about this topic. I've decided to risk it.

I have two main thoughts I want to offer, one on each half of the lecture I gave Tuesday; these comments will ground the links I'm sharing.

Honest signaling and mate preferences

Due to time constraints, I didn't feel I could go into much detail about my unease about this particular field of research. Much of the work done on human mate preferences is quite good, especially the work that either links the preferences to fecundity/fertility (i.e., Jasienska et al 2004), or to actual reproductive success (i.e., Apicella et al 2007). What worries me when I teach this material in a large, introductory setting is that, despite any caveats I may offer about the research, students often walk away from lecture thinking that all women like strong, masculine men who are good hunters, and all men like young, feminine women with big birthing hips. This is simply not true. You can look at the assortment of who marries who and find a lot more variation, and that's because there is so much variation in mating strategy. Perhaps if someone gives you a range of faces and asks you which you prefer you choose one in line with honest signals for immune health or fertility. But do you have sex with this person or enter into a long-term relationship with this person? Not necessarily, because honest signals of health are only ONE of many factors you consider when choosing a mate. Cultural conditioning, humor, kindness, proximity, religion, political leanings... these are all issues that confound choice purely for good genes. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, an interesting article just came out that shows how some traits in preferred versus actual mates are similar, and how some are different. Definitely worth a read!

Dr. Petra Boynton, sexpert, therapist, blogger, and all-around cool person, has a wonderful blog relevant to this week's topic. I'll send you over with one of my favorite posts, but check out the whole site: ten tips for successful dating.

I also have to pass on an article sent to me by a student (hooray, I love when students send me stuff!). I'm very glad Davis Shannon sent me this article about body versus face preferences in men looking for one night stands. Of course, the style of the story is pretty offensive. I was also pretty appalled at the quote from the lead author. But in addition to exposing you all to a new study on this topic, it exposes you to an example of very bad science reporting. I think this is very useful to students learning to filter good information from bad.

Finally, in an example of GOOD science journalism, I give you several selections from Not Exactly Rocket Science: one on male bowerbirds influencing mate choice in nestmaking, and one that is only barely related to this week's topic, on masturbating squirrels. You heard me right. Go read it, it's great.


I had a rather devastating interaction with a student after class this week. This student approached me and asked me why I thought there was such a thing as homophobia. The student explained that a group of male students behind him/her were making offensive jokes during my portion of the lecture on homosexuality and were dismissive of the idea that there is a spectrum of human sexual preference that is quite normal and reflected in behaviors we see in the animal kingdom. Both the student, and I, were very upset by this, and I didn't have a particularly good answer.

Oppressive behaviors of one group of people towards another are not new. But I find it especially disappointing when I hear of my own students behaving in this way, especially when I have invested so much in creating lectures with active learning components that give them space to think critically. Like I said, I have no good answers, except to have zero tolerance for such behavior if I am ever in earshot. Perhaps if more people understood that, for some people in our society, it is a huge personal risk to simply express who you love, and those of us who have a more socially-condoned sexual preference can never quite understand the toll this can take on a human being.

Of course, it may be an additional condolence to find out that those individuals who are most homophobic are most likely to have hidden gay urges. No, I didn't make that up. It's SCIENCE!

And for every story of teachers suspended for assigning articles on gay animals or assistant attorney generals using internet bullying tactics on gay students, there are stories of LGBT-inclusive immigration legislation or UN efforts to end laws that discriminate against homosexuals.


Apicella, C., Feinberg, D., & Marlowe, F. (2007). Voice pitch predicts reproductive success in male hunter-gatherers Biology Letters, 3 (6), 682-684 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0410

Jasienska, G., Ziomkiewicz, A., Ellison, P., Lipson, S., & Thune, I. (2004). Large breasts and narrow waists indicate high reproductive potential in women Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 271 (1545), 1213-1217 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2712


  1. Sounds like you should assign some reading from the Scientific American post to your students. You might also teach them about the Kinsey Scale designed to show that rarely are humans completely hetero or homosexual. Considering there were 2 reported suicides in the news yesterday of gay students suffering from bullying, this is a timely and serious topic!

  2. I agree Erica, both on the timeliness and the exceptional hurts inflicted with gay oppression. They were assigned Jonah Lehrer's article -- the one that got a teacher suspended a few years back (I link to the story about the teacher above). But I only discovered this other post a few days before my lecture (the one about the hidden gay urges in homophobic men), and forgot to include it during prep time. Next year!