What John Boehner’s Tears Might Teach Us About Desire

When it comes to crying, there are two kinds of people. The people who don’t need much to get the tears flowing. Like me. A sad movie, a sappy card, a beautiful melody, a cute puppy. Anything.


And then there are those who just don’t – or can’t – cry. I don’t want to say they are necessarily unemotional types, but they’re…different. Maybe they find other or different ways to respond to sadness (like kicking a chair)…or maybe things just don’t touch them in quite the same ways.  

You can probably understand, then, that as a child I was teased unmercifully for being a “crybaby” by my siblings, who’d use my tender emotional nature to their advantage; handy ammunition for them, especially worthwhile for things like blackmail and intimidation. I felt somewhat ashamed, in a way, since the tears flowed so spontaneously and openly. But I simply couldn’t help myself.

And now, crying has become almost mainstream lately, enjoying a revival of sorts, with the new Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s unabashed tears displayed publically for all to see. I’m not taking any political stances here, but it does seem a bit out of place in the public arena. I mean, c’mon, hold it together! On the other hand, I can’t help but feel a bit of admiration for someone (especially a man) who is not ashamed of being – and expressing – his emotions.

And interestingly enough, although some scientists will deny it, many think that humans are the only animals to produce emotional tears, although baby elephants, when separated from their mothers, emit ear-piercing sounds of utter distress.

I know some people hate it when other people cry. What is it about tears that bother some people? Maybe it’s that they are uncomfortable and don’t know what to do; should they put their arm around the other person? Say something helpful? Maybe cry, too? 

But I never stopped to think about tears in terms of testosterone levels. A new study out of Israel studied the chemical effects of tears. After all, scientists thought, we already know that insects, plants and animals respond to chemical signals (odorless molecules called pheromones) to attract mates and defend themselves against predators. So why not humans?

This study found that not just seeing tears – but a mere whiff (even though there is not a discernable odor) of women’s tears of sadness - had an effect on men. Emotional tears, it was found, can dramatically alter men’s testosterone levels and their level of sexual arousal, sending both plummeting. The test was done by having some women volunteers watch a sad movie in a lab and collect their tears in a vial. The comparison tears were collected by trickling saline down the women’s cheeks. Afterwards the men looked at women’s photographs to rate; when they sniffed the actual tears, they found the women in the photographs less sexually attractive than when they sniffed the saline tears.

My husband may not look at me with desire in his eyes when I weep, but all I know is that I feel a whole lot better after a good cry. And science bears that out, too.

The health benefits: tears help reduce stress, since they release pent-up emotions. (Did you ever cry so much you felt like you had nothing left? And then felt absolutely relieved?) When biochemist and “tear expert” Dr. William Frey studied emotional tears, he found that unlike reflex tears (like the kind that come from peeling onions – and which, by the way, are 98% water), emotional tears contained stress hormones. Apparently all tears are NOT created equal.

It goes without saying that it’s good to get rid of things like cortisol, since it is implicated in so many ills like impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, decreased bone density, lowered immunity and even increased abdominal fat!.  Perhaps it stands to reason that other studies suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, that natural pain killer and “feel good” hormone.

And on a more physical than emotional level, tears contain a powerful antibacterial and antiviral agent called lysozyme. They also give your eyes a pretty good bath, cleaning them while removing irritants.

When you think about all this, it’s pretty fascinating stuff. I wonder if it all comes down to this trajectory: woman cries. Man feels helpless, unsure, afraid. Sex drive suffers.

It would be interesting to see if this bears out the other way around (with men’s tears), don’t you think?  Stay tuned as Noam Sobel (one of the study’s authors), who says that it was hard to find males who cried, begins to figure it out when he sets out to study the effect of men’s emotional tears on women.  

I wonder if he has contacted John Boehner yet.

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