Lesbian and putative pheromone study, Part 5 – AP says they were wrong

On Friday afternoon, May 12, the AP issued a “clarification” of their report covering the study of the brains of lesbians. Here is the statement:

Clarification: Lesbian Brains Story
Fri May 12, 2:36 PM ET

WASHINGTON – In a story May 8, The Associated Press reported on the perceptions of lesbian women and heterosexual men and women when sniffing chemicals derived from human hormones. That report was based on a chart in a research study which indicated different perceptions of the chemicals, such as pleasantness, familiarity and irritability.

While there were differences in how the brains of homosexual and heterosexual participants reacted to the chemicals, the story should also have included the conclusion that indicated differences in individual perceptions were not statistically significant.

I made a request to the AP Thursday afternoon for the original AP story to be reviewed by the Science editor. Then, at the request of the AP, I supplied all of the correspondence between Dr. Ivanka Savic, Randolph Schmid and me. I have heard nothing directly from the AP as yet.

This is an important correction because many were misinterpreting the study thinking that lesbians responded differently in their feelings to the different smells. No such differences were reported, nor did any of the gay or straight participants experience sexual arousal in response to the substances inhaled. The study authors, lead by Ivanka Savic, have been clear all along that they do not know what the brain differences mean. No one knows how these differences would directly relate, if at all, to chosen sexual behavior.

So the correction did not go far enough. About the Savic study, the original story said: “It’s a finding that adds weight to the idea that homosexuality has a physical underpinning and is not learned behavior.” As Dr. Savic stated, “This is incorrect and not stated in the paper.” Since the study did not explore learning factors, one cannot state that the study adds weight to any ideas about learning and sexual feelings or behavior.

The website GayNZ came closer to an accurate correction, reporting:

AP says lesbian brains story was wrong

The Associated Press has clarified a story they released which inferred that lesbian brains are significantly different to those of heterosexuals.

The story was released on May 8 and carried by GayNZ.com on May 9 (“Lesbian brains react differently”). The story cited Swedish research that showed lesbians are more likely to find male pheromones, essentially the scent of men, more irritating, and furthermore that lesbians processed both male and female hormones in the ‘scent area’ of the brain, whereas heterosexuals processed the pheromone of the opposite sex in the hypothalamus, or ‘sexual stimulation’ area of the brain.

The report prompted a number of sexuality-researchers to claim that this revealed that sexuality is biologically formed, rather than solely through life experiences.

The Associated Press now claims this conclusion to be unsupported by the research, as no statistically significant differences were found. Most researchers continue to maintain that the formation of sexuality is a complex issue, stemming from both biological and cultural factors – or, simply put, both nature and nurture.

The state of the art is much closer to this statement from GayNZ than the article from the AP.

(Thanks to Colleen Keating for the tip.)

Lesbian and putative pheromone study, Part 4

Much correspondence has gone on regarding this study and the way it has been reported by the Associated Press. I can say this: the Associated Press writer, Randolph Schmid, has been made aware that the new study says nothing about whether sexual behavior is learned. Here is a quote from a recent email from Dr. Savic: “The easiest way to clarify the situation is to go to the original data. I do therefore refer to the manuscript in PNAS. The study does not give answer to the cause-effect issue. Sincerely, Ivanka Savic”

She also pointed out other flaws in the AP report. For instance, this section is misleading:

“Heterosexual women found the male and female pheromones about equally pleasant, while straight men and lesbians liked the female pheromone more than the male one. Men and lesbians also found the male hormone more irritating than the female one, while straight women were more likely to be irritated by the female hormone than the male one.All three groups rated the male hormone more familiar than the female one. Straight women found both hormones about equal in intensity, while lesbians and straight men found the male hormone more intense than the female one.”

To this, Dr. Savic said: “…the perception of these compounds was similar in ALL the subjects and all statements [in the AP article] about the pleasantness, irritability etc. are erroneous.”

In fairness to Mr. Schmid, the graph in the article gives the impression of differences but in statistical terms, the differences were small enough that they cannot be considered signficant. The AP report gives the impression that there were more sexual preference related differences than were actually found.

So we have this situation: the AP writer knows the study author has found significant errors in the story. She even asked if they could be corrected and to date there has been no correction. Perhaps one is in the works. Corrections are issued all the time, I wonder why this story is different.

I do not take interest in this just to be difficult. I think the media have a great responsibility in this climate to report accurately. And saying that “the findings add weight to the idea that homosexuality…is not learned behavior” is not accurate reporting. The other factual errors just add weight to the idea that a correction is in order.

Lesbians and pheromones, Part 2. Email from Ivanka Savic

Here is an email I sent to Dr. Ivanka Savic today about the study of lesbians’ response to putative pheromones. My note is in italics and Dr. Savic’s reply is in bold letters.

Dr. Savic:
The Associated Press story came out today about your study and I think they have reported it incorrectly.

First I am wondering if you can help me understand things more clearly. I am enclosing a link to the AP report: http://www.forbes.com/entrepreneurs/feeds/ap/2006/05/08/ap2729698.html

First, in the report the reporter writes: “It’s a finding that adds weight to the idea that homosexuality has a physical underpinning and is not learned behavior.”


As I understand your article in PNAS, you specifically offer learning as a hypothesis for your findings. Isn’t this true? I believe the reporter is misleading on that point.


Second, the AP report says: “In lesbians, both male and female hormones were processed the same, in the basic odor processing circuits, Savic and her team reported.” I understand that the study did show that AND (male condition) was processed akin to other odors by lesbians. But wasn’t there also some hypothalamic processing of EST (female condition) by lesbians?


It was weaker and apparently not in the anterior hypothalamus but didn’t you also find dorsomedial and paraventricular hypothalamic activation? So it would be inaccurate, would it not, to say “both male and female hormones were processed the same?”



Ivanka Savic

ADDENDUM: Someone posted and asked why I changed the AP wording when I wrote to Dr. Savic. I did not change it but it appears the AP did from saying homosexuality had a “physical underpinning” to a “physical basis.”

Lesbians and pheromones

News is starting to leak out about an article embargoed until 5PM today. The article reports a study by the same Swedish team that did the gay male and pheromone study about a year ago. This study shows that sexual orientation at the extreme (5-6 Kinsey scale) differentiates how the brain responds to a putative pheromone. The response from lesbians is not as clear cut as gay males. Lesbians process estrogen derived pheromones both in the normal olfactory fashion and via the hypothalamus (a link in the sexual response). The participants did not experience any sexual response so it is interesting that these lesbians’ brains registered the pheromones in a different way than did straight women. Lesbians were somewhat like straight men but not exactly like them. The reference is: Berglund, H., Lindstro”m, P., & Savic, I. (2006). Brain response to putative pheromones in lesbian women. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science, Early Edition (www.pnas.org).

As usual, Gay 365 has it wrong. Their article says: “It’s a finding that adds weight to the idea that homosexuality has a physical underpinning and is not learned behavior.” The study doesn’t say anything about how the brain responses occurred. In fact, the study suggests that the differing responses may indeed be learned.

I proposed to Dr. Savic that the team consider an additional study of bisexuals and ex-gays. Dr. Savic replied favorably that the team would consider it.

Addendum: My apologies to Gay 365, they took their info from the AP story. Here is what Dr. Savic said about learning in a New Scientist article on the subject: “But our study can’t answer questions of cause and effect,” cautions lead researcher Ivanka Savic at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. “We can’t say whether the differences are because of pre-existing differences in their brains, or if past sexual experiences have conditioned their brains to respond differently.”