The NYT article title reads The threatening scent of fertile women. I’ve felt it for years, and I still haven’t quite figured out why I react this way to this kind of article. Certainly it echos the age-old misogynistic discomfort of learned men for their own sexual urges, projected onto women. I’m trained in evolutionary biology, I believe that humans, like other animals, are subject to natural selection, and I believe that there are things that affect our behaviour that are not processed by our consciousness. But, for some reason, I feel a visceral reaction when I read discussions about the sex-related behaviours of women and men around ovulation.
Some of it is that I’m still annoyed that Nancy Burley’s American Naturalist article has been pretty much ignored. Yes, it’s well cited, but the fundamental conclusions seem to have been lost. In 1979, Burley proposed that so-called “concealed ovulation” is a mystery not just because it is concealed from men, but because it is also concealed from the ovulating woman. And she argued that the leading male-centred hypotheses did not account for this. Burley proposed that ovulation is unmarked because humans are smart and can count, and if they had a choice, many women would choose not to go through childbirth, or do so less often. She argued that natural selection acted to make it harder for women to know when to abstain from sex to avoid pregnancy. In other words, maybe concealed ovulation is not all about men, maybe it’s all about smart women.