The Science of Sex
The Alchemy of Love and Lust (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1996, $24.95) Theresa L. Crenshaw, '64
By Mark Robinson
No publisher will ever go broke overestimating the appetite for books about the battle between the sexes. In the past few years, science popularizers have told us why men and women can't talk to each other, how evolution programs our behavior and why we are, in the end, from different planets.
In The Alchemy of Love and Lust (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1996, $24.95) Theresa L. Crenshaw, '64, adds a new voice to the scientific babel, arguing that gender differences arise from a "sex soup" of hormones, raging and otherwise. Crenshaw, an MD, researcher and sex therapist, has written a fascinating, accessible book on the biochemical differences that separate the sexes. She sprinkles her prose with titillating vignettes and pulls together bits of research that suggest tantalizing theories of a deeper understanding of sexual development.
In one sense, the book is an extended exploration -- and chemical justification of -- the conventional wisdom about sexual behavior. Men pursue, women respond. Men love and leave. Women cherish closeness and relationships. Mars and Venus, cats and dogs.
These old models came under serious fire, Crenshaw writes, while she was in med school in the 1960s. The feminism of the time held that men and women were basically the same. The apparent differences could be chalked up to the upbringing of boys and girls. Blame it on nurture, not nature, and get over it.
Crenshaw's years of research and experience have convinced her of the opposite. Men's and women's hormones, she has concluded, "are dictators; their job is to tell other substances, including each other, what to do and how to behave. Some of them can be bullies, wreaking havoc with our moods and behavior. But these molecular rascals can operate with abandon only to the extent that they are not recognized, respected and understood."
Crenshaw pursues this line of thinking with iconoclastic curiosity. She is by no means reactionary, but her method leads her to some bracing political incorrectness.
Examining a typical first date, she teases out a complex web of hormone-driven signs and signals. These early mating maneuvers are part of what biologists call a "courtship feeding ritual," which, Crenshaw writes, probably predates dinosaurs.To secure sexual favors, the male provides food, thus displaying his talent as a hunter and provider. So, Crenshaw concludes, at the end of a meal, a woman planning to give the green light to romance is smart to leave her AmEx card in her purse. "When a modern woman reaches for the check, she doesn't realize that she is interfering with an ancient biological imperative."
Many of the book's conclusions are based on evolving (read: thin) science. That gives Crenshaw the breathing space to speculate creatively -- sometimes wantonly -- and drop in dozens of fascinating tidbits: over-the-counter nasal decongestant sprays can trigger orgasms; career women have higher testosterone levels than women who work at home; bed partners "mark" one another with a scent and eventually begin to smell the same; Jovan cologne contains boar pheromones intended to subconsciously lure women; exercise decreases libido; men often ejaculate just before they are executed; men's testosterone levels spike every 20 minutes; high heels are sexy because they simulate a sexually receptive posture.
Under this barrage of trivia, speculation and science, it's hard to decide whether the book is silly or insightful. Or both. Many of Crenshaw's confident assertions ring true. But the explanations often seem to rest on shaky logic. Is it accurate to say as the author does that reading romance novels has the same effect on women that going to prostitutes has on men? Both increase levels of the hormone PEA, which acts as a stimulant and antidepressant. As she writes throughout the book: "Clearly, more study is necessary."
Like many pop science books, The Alchemy of Love and Lust ends up relying too heavily on its own narrow thesis that sexual behavior is mostly driven by hormones while ignoring other powerful explanations for human behavior. Maybe that's why some of the arguments never quite get off the ground. For example, when Crenshaw considers what makes a man become monogamous, she leans heavily on the supposed effects of vasopressin, a mostly from behavioral studies of voles, hamsters and rats, and the leap to humans seems a stretch.
Deeper questions, such as what are the underlying advantages of monogamy for men and women and what's going on in the lower reaches of the brain to cause this hormonal programming, go unanswered -- even unasked. Evolutionary psychology, for example, has much to say about the roots of human behavior springing from millions of years of genetic coding. Crenshaw hints at some of these ideas, but it would have been better if she had used this coherent set of doctrines to buttress her insights into promiscuity, monogamy, child-rearing and marital conflict.
As a how-to manual, the book has much to offer. It arms you against the unexpected tyranny of daily, monthly, yearly and lifelong sexual cycles. It suggests ways -- mostly through drug therapy -- to safely manipulate the terrorizing hormones that contribute to PMS, impotence, promiscuity and frigidity. And in the final third of the book, Crenshaw makes an impassioned argument for hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women. This is an endocrine disorder, not the natural process of aging, she says. "If appropriate treatment is delivered in a timely fashion, our generation can simply skip most of the mid-life miseries our parents and grandparents had to endure."
That promise, like many in this book, may be a tad premature. The miseries of aging seem as if they will endure a little longer. And the mysteries of love and lust will remain beyond explanation -- which only makes the appetite for such explanations more insatiable.
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