Do Tears Really Kill Sexual Desire?

Giving context and fantasy their due
Published on February 9, 2011 by The Psychoanalysis 3.0 Writing, Group in Psychoanalysis 3.0

A front-page article of the January 7th New York Times announced that scientists have discovered evolutionary significance for human tears: It’s a way for women to signal to their men: “Not tonight dear.” What the scientists actually found is that exposing men to a chemical in women’s tears attenuated sexual arousal.  While this study adds to the growing body of research—from endocrinology, neurobiology and evolutionary biology—demonstrating that hormones influence interpersonal relationships, it is not at all clear from the study HOW female tears affect male sexual response, why it does so, and what any individual should do about it.

The researchers, from the Department of Neurobiology of the Weizmann Institute, hoped to discover the evolutionary significance of human tears and hypothesized that human tears serve a chemo-signaling function. The investigators used human tears, no more than 2 hours old, from female “criers.”  The criers (female college students who cried easily) watched scenes from Hollywood tear-jerkers.  As a control, researchers trickled saline down the women’s faces and collected it in vials.  Tears and saline were dribbled onto pads that were affixed below men’s nostrils in a way to approximate a hug with a teary woman.  The men sniffed tears one day and saline the next without knowing which was which. Tear-sniffing made the men more likely to rate women in photographs as less sexually attractive, showed reduced sexual arousal and lower levels of testosterone.

This is a fascinating finding, but one that raises more questions than it answers.

For example, think of “make up” sex.  Many couples report that love-making is most passionate and enjoyable after a knock-down drag-out fight that frequently involves tears on the part of the female.  Or ask a rape victim who cried and pleaded with her assailant whether her tears lowered the rapist’s sexual arousal.  A sharp kick to the genitals is infinitely more effective.  Tears, in fact, have been shown to encourage rapists. Furthermore, tears can be evoked by a variety of emotions: sadness, fear, anger, joy, relief.  It is also not unusual for a woman to cry after the release of orgasm.

These examples illustrate the impossibility of determining the personal significance of this research without understanding both the specific interpersonal context for the tears and how sexual arousal works.

And the situation is even more complex than context because one part of sexual arousal is being able to produce erotic fantasies that can lead to orgasm. Robert Stoller (1924-1991), a psychoanalyst who studied the dynamics of sexual arousal, noted that exciting sexual fantasies which lead to orgasm frequently include aggression, danger and harm. He even said in his 1979 book Sexual Excitement: Dynamics of Erotic Life, “(t)he absence of hostility leads to sexual indifference and boredom.”

From a purely physiological standpoint, we know testosterone increases not only sexual arousal but also aggression and risk-taking in both males and females. If Stoller is correct, aggression is a key component in the production of sexual fantasy.  Tears, in some situations, may temper aggression, which could interfere with the production of sexual fantasy necessary for sexual arousal in both men and women.  Perhaps the tears diminish aggression which in turn lowers testosterone, or it could be the other way around—that the tears could affect testosterone directly which lowers the twinge of hostility that can fuel sexual excitement. So, the question becomes whether tears interfere with the production of sexually-stimulating fantasies.

A topic for further research might be the effect of female tears on male aggression.  It would also be very interesting to compare the effects of male versus female tears on male subjects—or tears from babies.  The effect of tears, either male or female on female subjects has not yet been studied.  And finally, it would be fascinating to see whether the sexual orientation of the subjects affects the results.

Results of this study could provide valuable insight into human sexuality.  But for that insight to be forthcoming, researchers need to consider both how human tears stimulate or attenuate exciting sexual fantasies and the influence of the interpersonal context in which the crying takes place.