Image: Deer mouse, man
Mike Groll / AP; Getty Images st
Studies of rodents can teach people a thing or two about what their partners like.
By contributor
updated 11/13/2008 8:26:46 AM ET 2008-11-13T13:26:46

Ahh, science. The glorious search for truth. Sexploration stands second to none in its admiration for the lab-coated monks of the scientific community, their adherence to esoteric protocols, their exotic worship of PowerPoint, their reliance on “models” for sex.

Now when you or I think of “models” for sex we might think of Adriana Lima or that guy in the Calvin Klein underwear ads with the abs that no man possesses outside the pages of GQ. But that’s because we were liberal arts majors. When a scientist thinks of a model, he or she thinks of nematode worms, or rats, or zebra fish or monkeys.

Or, if we’re talking about sex, deer mice. Last week, a study titled “Coping and copulation may help calculate diabetes risk” was published, and Sexploration, ever on the watch for news that promises better health through sex, began reading the accompanying press release with the rising hope that more and better sex will be found to lower our risk of diabetes.

“Discussion of a man’s background, attitude and sexual history isn’t just the fodder of ‘Sex and the City’ episodes — in the future, it could also be a way of evaluating his risk of diabetes,” it began.

But then it said that “males of a calmer, more monogamous species [of deer mouse] had a higher level of stress hormones and a superior ability to regulate blood sugar in comparison to males of a less calm, less monogamous species.” This led researchers to conclude that “superior stress tolerance and blood sugar regulation is related to monogamy in these mice.”

The implication, of course, is that men ought to get themselves married because loyal mice regulate blood sugar better than their randy cousins. While I admired the way the writer of the press release labored to create a link between mice and men, I wondered what would happen if people based their sex and relationship lives on the results of animal studies.

So, in the interest of reader service, Sexploration reviewed recent scientific literature and culled the best advice we could find by directly extrapolating from animals to people. Here are the lessons to be learned.

1. Do not turn sex into warfare.
According to a pair of British scientists, “sexual conflict is ubiquitous across taxa” and nobody winds up happy. These biologists studied Trinidadian guppies and found that “male sexual harassment drives females into habitats that they otherwise do not prefer to occupy” — sort of like all-female gyms and the Lifetime channel.

2. Avoid weaponizing your penis.
“The spectacular evolution of male genitalia that impose physical injury on females during mating has often been suggested to be a product of sexually antagonistic co-evolution,” wrote Swedish scientists. As you might expect, females are reluctant to mate with males wielding pain-inducing penises. This creates a risk of extinction. So while women may like the looks of that “spectacular” thing he carts around, we might all be better off if they chose those of us who are meekly average, you know, for the sake of humanity’s future. Oh, and beware of “spiny male genitalia [which] causes more harm to females during copulation.”

3. Try woman-on-top.
Couldn’t all men take a lesson from the Mexican experiment showing that “when female rats are allowed to pace (control) the rate of sexual stimulation they receive … the aversive properties of mating are reduced”? After all, this column receives a lot of complaining letters from women in which the word “jackhammer” is used.

4. For a great afterglow, choose an orgy.
Members of this same team of biologists also reported that “under semi-natural conditions sexual behavior in rats is highly promiscuous; they mate in groups and repeatedly change partners in the middle of copulation. This behavioral sequence allows both male and female to control the rate of sexual interaction, assuring the induction of a reward state outlasting the actual performance of coital responses.”

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5. Gifts don’t always work.
According to a British team, “nuptial gifts fail to resolve a sexual conflict.” Admittedly, the nuptial gifts they are talking about are compounds found in the ejaculate of a bush cricket, but still, I think we can all learn something here. While it may have worked for Kobe Bryant, gifts won’t necessarily fix a screwup.

6. Bulk up, dudes.
In wild sheep living on an island off the coast of Scotland, “greater horn length, body size and good condition each independently influence a male’s ability to monopolize receptive females … we also find that larger testes are independently associated with both higher copulation rates and increased siring success.” Sigh.

7. Invest in lingerie and makeup.
Of course women have pressure to be attractive too because, said Mexican biologists, while males may be motivated to have sex by nature, we might skip acting on that motivation in favor of watching “Star Trek” reruns if we do not have “an appropriate stimulus, a sexual incentive.”

Male rats can make do with the mere presence of a “sexually receptive female,” but men over the age of 25 might need a little booster and, being more visual than rats, said the scientists, might prefer an image of a sexual partner. Thus primed, we might “activate approach behaviors.” Whether this behavior amounts to “How about it, babe?” or a night at the Ritz-Carlton “will be determined by motivation and by the quality of the incentive stimulus, its attractivity.”

8. Don’t let her take this measurement.
Animal biologists love prairie voles because unlike most rodents, they are often monogamous. The males are dutiful little critters right out of a Disney movie. So which guy gets the girl? And how does the girl choose? Well, she looks for the distance between his anus and his genitals, called ano-genital distance. “Not only did preferred males have significantly longer AGD and larger testes than nonpreferred males, but AGD was directly related to the testes’ size, seminal vesicle size and the number of sperm stored. We … discovered that males that were members of a pair bond had longer AGD than single males.”

The researchers did not say if a house on the beach compensates for short AGD.

9. It won’t help to pee on her house.
“Mate choice is likely based on a complex suite of characters, but at least in prairie voles, the frequency of scent marking by males does not appear to be one of them.” Whew!

10. When all else fails, genetically alter us.
Unlike their close cousins, meadow voles really get around. They are, in the words of one scientist, “socially promiscuous.” But by transferring just one gene into the brains of meadow voles, “we substantially increase partner preference formation. … We show that a change in the expression of a single gene in the larger context of pre-existing genetic and neural circuits can profoundly alter social behavior.”

On second thought, maybe we ought to keep this under wraps.

Brian Alexander is the author of the new book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction."

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