Gonads in Love: The Recent History of Pheromones and Birth Control
When I was 12 years-old I fell in love with a girl called Amanda. It may be delusional to say a pre-pubescent accretion of feeling was “love.” 12 year-olds can’t know anything about love. You have to be at least, like, 23 or 24. And even then you’re probably fooling yourself in some regard. 30 may be a better benchmark, when one’s body and brain are finally weathered and leathered enough to withstand the tidal pull of feeling that happens when someone tickles your withers with their smile, or else seems to be using a private language you only just now realized you understood in their fidgets and subconscious gesticulations.
But even still I loved Amanda and I was 12 years old. Another friend had started “going around” (as our romantic rites of naming put it) with one of Amanda’s friends and all four of us snuck onto the campus of our school on Saturday to “do stuff.” My friend had wanted to set me and Amanda up and though I’d had class with her all year long, I’d never had a romantic thought about her. We spent a couple hours walking the empty halls, sitting on the jungle gym bars and lamenting the fact that none of us had cigarettes. Maybe Amanda was ovulating that day because I spent the next five years in love with her beyond all hope.
One of the irresistible terrors of popular science in the last several decades has sought evidence to show our sense for love is susceptible to the evolutionary arithmetic of our lower selves–the gonadal ornaments of our private desires. We have discovered our pheromones, those midi-chlorians that circumvent free will and turn us into helpless Romeo’s before the particular molecular balance inside another person’s bloodstream. This discovery gave millions of boner-eyed men hope that they could find a bed for the night using the hallucinatory vapors of Spanish Fly or Calvin Klein. A 2004 study showed that women could, likewise, use this chemistry method of coupling on men at by virtue of their menstrual cycle. A panel of men were given women’s t-shirts to smell and the men were most attracted to the shirts from those women who had been ovulating.
These stories are heretical in some ways, defiling the pillars of boy-girl romance with chemistry and determinism. It makes comedy of all the love songs and automated idioms we use to describe why we take one person to be a partner for life. “God only knows what I’d be without you,” isn’t quite so pretty when sung to the ovaries. Of course we should know that our instincts are susceptible to manipulation and that has little genuine bearing on the choices we make in love. Pheromones might lead your eye around a room but so can a tray of cocktail wieners. Love is not a body function, after all. Though even if it were it would be controllable, in the same way we manage to avoid wetting ourselves everytime the bladder sends word that there’s some business to be done.
Slightly more disturbing, however, is the news that birth control pills lower a woman’s pheromone levels. A recent Wall Street Journal article reports that women on hormonal birth control are less attractive to men than women who aren’t and, likewise, they’re less likely to be attracted to the stink of a man’s chemistry, which has been theorized to be a sign of immune system strength. If it’s creepy to think of ourselves as subliminally enslaved to chemicals, you might think it would be good news to learn our chemically-determined sexuality can be subverted by other forms of chemicals. But in both cases there is reason to sound the alarum bells. Can we stay in love even after a chemical interlocutors have vanished?
I asked Amanda to go around with me a week after being set up but she said no. Maybe she actually had been ovulating and realized that I’d never grow chest hair and couldn’t offer her a varied enough immune system to pass on to our children. The dice were loaded from the start. Of course I still pined after her for years, writing hairless essays about her in English class, staring at her yearbook picture, and substituting her name into all the hair metal ballads I would play on my Walkmen during long night drives in the back of a station wagon on family vacations.
At some point in high school one of our mutual friends reminded her of my imperishable crush. I imagined what my options for dropping out of school and running away to the desert might be on short notice. I had the stupid misapprehension that my crush was axiomatically gross. I was subsequently stunned to learn that news of my feelings hadn’t sent Amanda into a panicked state of retching. To the contrary, she had written her phone number on a scrap of paper and packed it along with my friend like some war-time contraband. She wanted me to call her. There might yet be a chance to merge our immune systems in the genetic kiln of love.
I called her a few days later, suddenly having no idea what to say. I had, in the years since our first real meeting, been having a conversation with myself, appropriating her figure as a prop to fire my vain and chatty imagination. We talked on the phone for twenty minutes, and they were horrible minutes. Everything she told me about herself was disappointing and humorless.
She was excited that her father was taking her to a James Taylor concert, she told me, and I didn’t understand if she was joking or not. I wondered if maybe I had misunderstood what “excited” meant. I couldn’t reconcile my sense of the word with an evening spent with one’s father listening to “Fire and Rain.” Everything I’d believed to have been true about this person very quickly evaporated in a haze of familiar words suddenly used in alien ways.
Studies thats search our blood vessels for romantic susceptibility stick in the brain not because they offer any great answers to anything, but because they remind us how little it takes to encourage a person to fall in love. We are spring-loaded for just that kind of jump. It begins to look stupid in adolescence and so all the tricks of mature adult relationships are learned: dishonesty, calculation, coercion, the artful withholding of one thing or another. In one way it can seem like a sophisticated prolongation of the terrible moment when you look at the person on the other side of the bed and realize you don’t understand anything they’re saying. A mutual need to avoid this strangering is, I suppose, how adults begin to learn to say “I love you,” an instinct so common you can almost smell it.
*Images via kedai-lelaki and author
**The Tricky Chemistry of Attraction (Wall Street Journal)
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 2 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 3 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 4 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 5 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 6 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 7 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 8 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 9 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Strartup
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook