Laurie Toby Edison

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Sex, Work, and the Human Sense of Smell

Laurie and Debbie say:

What better way to resume blogging together after a long break than to take apart a particularly sexist piece of junk science?

The entire article, unfortunately, is only available to subscribers. The abstract, on the other hand, is so amazing that we can’t resist reprinting the entire text for your amusement:

To see whether estrus was really “lost”during human evolution (as researchers often claim), we examined ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by professional lap dancers working in gentlemen’s clubs. Eighteen dancers recorded their menstrual periods, work shifts, and tip earnings for 60 days on a study web site. A mixed-model analysis of 296 work shifts (representing about 5300 lap dances) showed an interaction between cycle phase and hormonal contraception use. Normally cycling participants earned about US$335 per 5-h shift during estrus, US$260 per shift during the luteal phase, and US$185 per shift during menstruation. By contrast, participants using contraceptive pills showed no estrous earnings peak. These results constitute the first direct economic evidence for the existence and importance of estrus in contemporary human females, in a real-world work setting. These results have clear implications for human evolution, sexuality, and economics.

We don’t have to make these things up; respectable scientists, published in respectable journals, do it for us.

To start with the obvious: 18 women. Some on the pill. So let’s say 12 women with natural cycles. Wow! Very convincing indeed.

But we’d like, for a moment, to look at these results as if they were a genuine scientific finding. The researchers say that they have found “the first direct economic evidence for the existence and importance of estrus in contemporary human females.”

We offer a series of follow-up questions. Serious researchers, take note. You too can be published in Evolution and Human Behavior. Of course, you’ll need a Ph.D. and a research university background. For the research to be taken seriously, we require minimum study size of 100 people, with demonstrated repeatability across venues.

“direct economic evidence”

Does this evidence transfer at all to women in jobs that are not direct-contact sex work? For example, do phone sex workloads and repeat calls follow an estrus cycle? What about women who do production and creative work desk work for online sex sites? And then, of course, what about women in professions that are not sexually oriented? Do waitresses get bigger tips during estrus? Is a geneticist more likely to get a raise if she asks for it at the right time? And does it matter if her manager is also female? Does it matter if she’s attracted to women? Do transwomen fall into the same group as women on the pill, or does their experience differ? If it differs, then how?

evidence about whom

You will notice that the abstract is written as if it were somehow about women. Yet it seems to us is that fruitful questions about male behavior are being raised without being noticed. What do male customers of lap dancers say about their tipping patterns? Do they notice a difference in the lapdancers? Do they feel more aroused with women in estrus than otherwise? Or is something different, but equally pleasurable, affecting their tipping behavior? This is an area where blind tests of sense of smell would be considered favorably: do men with more acute senses of smell show more variety in their tipping patterns? Can these men detect any difference if the smell of a woman’s body in various estrus-cycle stages is piped into an empty room? Do women (and transpeople) paying for lap dances show the same variations in behavior as the men do? Once these findings are well established, we can go on to study how the results of these experiments relate to the results of the experiments in the previous paragraph to see if male behavior is affected by women’s cycles outside of a direct sex work context.

the importance of anecdotal evidence

If the study’s contention about lap dancing and tips does generalize across lap dancers and sex workers, you can be sure that lap dancers and sex workers know about it! What is the anecdotal lore in the community. One hypothesis would be that the women know very well that their tips go down during their periods, and attribute that to cramps, general malaise, and less attention to doing a good job. Do they also know that their tips go up roughly two weeks after their periods? Do they make extra efforts to be around for all shifts in that phase (whether or not they’re aware that they are ovulating)? Do they advise newcomers to expect an upswing in income between their periods?

Researchers, this is your chance! Let’s find out what’s really behind this very preliminary effort!

Thanks to BetNoir for the pointer.

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4 Responses to “Sex, Work, and the Human Sense of Smell”

  1. Beth Says:

    I’m sputtering. I have read — and given middling grades to — undergraduate papers with more sophisticated analysis and more evidence than that. Are you sure this isn’t really the Onion?

    Although if there is a prize for ‘worst match between question and methodology’, this article would get it. ‘To determine the truth of this important biological claim about the past of our species, we asked less than 20 lapdancers to keep track of their tips and their cycles for 2 months.’

  2. Lynne Murray Says:

    Excuse me, but the scientific method was the religion I was raised in so I have to say that I have heard the word “sexy” applied to research. Usually projects that researchers might call “sexy” can be translated into “cutting edge, powerful, likely to get grant money.” Actual or simulated sex is too high voltage to be described as “sexy” in a research context.

    The Lap Dance experimental design just sounds like a researcher looking for a good excuse to sniff around strip clubs. It’s all for science, no ulterior motives whatsoever. Not at all. I image fellow researchers shaking their heads and saying, “Look-it Bozo’s latest project, he gets to talk to lap dancers.”

    The research concept itself might be worth examining with a more sensible design. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people do respond to subliminal perceptions such as hormone-related smells and chemically induced dilation of eyes–which simultaneously dilates the cervix.

    Not sure how taking belladonna would affect lap dancers’ tips.

  3. BetNoir Says:

    Astonishing what one finds when one is doing a search under one’s own name…

    First off — full study here: http://www.unm.edu/~gfmiller/cycle_effects_on_tips.pdf -

    Second — and perhaps more important — I was less angry/pissed off than I was simply amused. Nearly 20 years working in the medical publishing field (six of them actually in OB-GYN) and you too can be amused instead of disgusted, to misquote Elvis Costello.

    And if you don’t believe me, you can believe the guys at the supremely funny Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), which administers the annual IgNobel awards. Dr. Miller was graced with the 2008 Economics award for his efforts: http://improbable.com/ig/winners/#ig2008

    When your fellow researchers think you are a joke, little else can top that.

  4. Marcus Says:

    This sounds like a fun experiment. I saw a show on Fox Sports where they mentioned a website called pheromonefacts.com. They sel la product, but also discuss the <a href=”http://www.pheromonefacts.com” power of human scents and dating/human attraction. I went there and it seems like a lot of science does support your study. I’m going to experiment with scents and sweat, body washing and see what happens.Thanks for the info.

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