“‘Don’t ask Holly for a raise today; she’ll eat you alive.” Why’s that?“She’s happy with everything one minute, but then she gets so upset the next. She’s hormonal.”
As the world’s leading researcher on how ovulatory cycles influence women’s sexuality, Martie Haselton, professor of psychology at UCLA, wants females to reclaim the word “hormonal.” She no longer wants to hear men claim that women are unfit for leadership positions because of their “raging hormonal imbalances.” Nor does she want to hear our president dodge difficult questions by claiming a female reporter has “blood coming out of her wherever.”
In her newest book, Hormonal: The Hidden Intelligence of Hormones—How They Drive Desire, Shape Relationships, Influence Our Choices, and Make Us Wiser, Haselton presents the hormonal cycle as an adaptive solution to biological challenges that every woman faces. In an interview about eating chocolate cake for breakfast, “mate shopping,” and hamsters doing the dirty, we discuss how hormones often double as a woman’s built-in secret weapon.
What made you want to take on the task of erasing the negative stigma around the word “hormonal?”
There’s a sexual double standard in how the term “hormonal” has been applied to men and women. It’s generally been derogatory for women, but I think that’s backwards. Our hormones enable us to conquer various kinds of life changes that we experience, not only through an individual cycle, but also through puberty, reproductive maturity, pregnancy, the postpartum period and even in menopause.
Is this what you refer to as “hormonal intelligence?”
Our hormones have evolved over millennia to do things that are useful to help us with life’s challenges. The more we know about our hormonal nudges, the better decisions we can make. If we understand where those come from, then I think we make better decisions about whether to embrace them and exploit them for the purposes of potential pleasure or ignore them and say, “Oh, I know what that is. That’s something that served ancestral females but doesn’t necessarily serve my current interests.”
I think that our attractions across the hormone cycle can be understood as attractions that helped ancestral females produce more fit offspring, but that’s not necessarily what applies in the current environment. We have modern medicine and our own prerogatives, and if we know this, I think that we can weigh our options a little bit more intelligently.
You’ve called this type of hormone exploitation “hormone hacking.” How exactly can we hack our hormones?
I think that we just ask ourselves: What are our goals? What’s nudging me around? We aren’t automatons driven by our hormones like robots, but we definitely feel these changes in what seems especially appealing. If we know where it comes from, then we make better decisions about it. I have this metaphor in the book about eating chocolate cake for breakfast. It sounds good, and maybe sometimes we let ourselves have that slice, but other times we realize, “that’s because our ancestors evolved to crave these high density caloric items.” Since we have them in abundance in the current environment, that doesn’t mean we need to consume them. I think we make better choices if we understand where these desires come from.
So, our sexuality can be strategic too? At one point in the book you talk about how our cycle affects the risk of sexual assault.
What appears to be the case is at the same time women are keeping their eyes open and doing some “mate shopping” as I describe it in the book, they are also even more leery of walking down “the dark alley.” It’s never a good idea to walk down the dark alley, but women seem especially leery of that on high fertility days in the cycle. They are taking selective risks.
Ultimately, all socialization is risky. If your main priority was to live to the ripe age of 100, you would never leave your apartment! But we do…we take risks and put ourselves out there, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because without reproduction, we find ourselves at an evolutionary dead end.
Your Darwinian Feminism theory of evolution led you to discover a special phase of sexuality that we share with our animal ancestors.
A lot of species have classic estrus, which means they will only have sex on the few fertile days of the cycle. An example is the female hamster. If you are a male hamster, do NOT approach a female hamster if she’s not in estrus!! They can be totally vicious, but when they’re in estrus, they’re not as much. Hamster females are physically incapable of having sex outside of the fertile window, whereas humans have sex throughout their cycle.
We have an extreme version of what’s called “extended sexuality” which means we have sex before we become fully fertile, when pregnant, in the postpartum years, when breastfeeding, and after menopause. As a consequence of that, scientists thought that human females had been “emancipated” from hormonal control.
Then are we really in control of our hormones, or are they in control of us?
I think certainly hormonal control is too strong a phrase to use for humans, but does that mean that there are no hormone effects on female desires and even attractiveness. The costs and benefits of mating decisions are highest when you are most fertile. If we think of the cost and benefits of mating resulting in offspring, it seemed extremely implausible that there would be no hormone effect on women’s behaviors. Our desires do change across the cycle, and our attractiveness does change too. It’s not as dramatic as baboon’s sexual swellings, but there is something that is changing.
How exactly does our attractiveness change? Is it detectable?
Yes. In a few studies, we collected scent samples from women. We have them shower with unscented body products, and then we affix gauze pads underneath their arms to wear for a day or two. Next, we have people smell them. They rate the high fertility samples as more attractive. But women also rate themselves as more attractive on high fertility days of their cycle, thus they’re more interested in going to clubs and parties where they might meet people.
I talk about the lap dance study in the book, which is a tiny study, but it’s consistent with some other findings. Women who were not on the pill on high fertility days of the cycle earned about $100 more per shift. We don’t know exactly why that is, but I love that study because it’s a concrete economic indicator in the modern world that something interesting is going on here.
I know you’ve gotten some backlash from feminists worrying that by acknowledging these hormone differences, we will somehow undermine gender equality.
I think it’s pretty naïve to say that a sex difference means that women or men are confined to certain roles, but we have flexibility and choice in the modern day. I think it’s a wrong-headed stereotype. I think it’s time to educate the public because we make decisions all the time. If that’s really what people think, then we are not doing our job as psychological scientists. We need to make sure people understand that people still exercise their will and more information is always better.