The Metro stinks

Women’s contraceptives ‘reduce animal attraction factor’ for men” says Metro today, in an article that is in NO WAY just an excuse to show a naked woman wearing a contraceptive patch. Ah yes, the well-known scientific measure, the ‘animal attraction factor’. Incidentally, I’m not sure why ‘reduce animal attraction factor’ is in quotes, since no-one said it, but it does indicate one important thing – this study has only been done on animals.

Yes, ring tailed lemurs to be exact. The Metro does its best to hide this fact in the lede, though:

Contraceptives can alter scent in a way that puts off potential sexual partners, a new US study shows.

British experts last night called for more research but urged women to take care when considering hormonal contraception, especially injections.

While animal testing is of course often an important step in scientific research, an effect in ring tailed lemurs will not necessarily mean the same effect will occur in humans. First of all, lemurs have an extremely complicated system of smell-based communication – female lemurs can communicate their fertility, age, family and genetic diversity (something called homozygosity) with just their scent. By contrast, about all humans can do is compare their immunity to disease via something called the major histocompatibility complex – and even that has only has a weak, hard-to-study effect.

Secondly, the study only studied the lemurs’ “genital secretions” – all the studies they cite claiming scent affects human behaviour discusses sweat however.* In fact, the bulk of the paper isn’t about sex at all, it’s about how contraceptives affects the concentrations of various chemicals in these secretions.

Finally, they never actually showed that lemurs who were injected with contraceptives had less sex or found it harder to attract a mate at all. All they found was that, on average, male lemurs spent 10 seconds fewer investigating a dowel coated with hormones from a contracepted lemur than from a non-contracepted lemur when the two were put next to each other. The reasons this wouldn’t necessarily apply to the formation of human relationships should be obvious.

Nothing at all backs up Metro‘s claim that “Despite how sexy a woman is, this new study reveals men could really be put off by her using contraceptives” (except for the memoirs of Ross Douthat). In fact, this is a rather irresponsible article. The scientific paper suggests that research be done to see whether there may be a similar effect in humans, but nowhere does it say that women should be worried about this effect right now.** For the Metro to pick up this story, and run it specifically with the “Women who take contraceptives will never get laid” angle is just scaremongering.

They also quote a spokesperson for Wellbeing of Women, and by quote, I mean use three of her words to glue a sentence together:

British health campaign group Wellbeing Of Women said the impact of pheromones on humans ‘cannot be underestimated’, as shown by sales of perfumes and aftershaves.

Did she actually say that? Because no peer-reviewed scientific study has ever found human pheromones exist, and perfumes and aftershaves are not examples of pheromones or hormones, just things that smell nice.***

The rest of her quote is simply good advice:

‘This animal study is interesting but research is required in human subjects to test the hypothesis.

‘In the meantime, women considering using hormonal contraception need to discuss the risks, benefits and range of options with their GPs,’ added the spokeswoman.

So naturally, it gets pushed to the bottom where no-one will read it. I know Metro is a free paper, and you get what you pay for, but this kind of exaggerated, irresponsible coverage of science isn’t just misleading, it’s downright dangerous. Assuming that is that anyone even takes Metro seriously enough to make a choice like contraception based on its articles.

* Man, biology’s gross.

** Other studies suggest that the sweat of ovulating women may be more attractive to men than that of women in the infertile parts of their cycle, but given that women don’t suddenly become ugly the rest of the month, the effect is probably not especially significant.

*** Or are supposed to, at least.

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  1. #1 by wickedday on Wednesday, 28th July 2010 - 17:26 UTC

    I had a much longer comment, but it got so long it turned into its own post, so look out for it elsewhere.

    I think you said it all with the mention of Douthat. This seems too much like another reiteration of the “contraception is not sexy” and “women who take their own lives in hand will NEVER GET A MAN!!1!” than any attempt to report a mildly interesting bit of science. Pretty typical for the Metro, but still pretty shit.

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