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Sex & Relationships

What John Boehner’s Tears Might Teach Us About Desire

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 01/13/2011
Last Updated: 08/13/2012

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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 ed John Boehner yet.


I think that the explanation for this is that when a woman cries she needs a man who is understanding, sympathetic, and nurturing, not one stomping around threatening to kill someone or desperate for sex.

Makes sense. Thankfully, the hormones are cooperating in the men. Fascinating.

One of the things that struck me about my second husband when we met was his ability to cry. He's from Sweden, and I thought maybe Swedish men did shed tears more easily, but no, he says. He's simply unique and became that way because of life experience. Generally men are taught not to cry, it is true. And, so when they do, we pay attention. I remember the one time my son cried, in front of me anyway, after break-up with a first girlfirend. We need to teach little boys that it is alright to cry. I tried to do that with him and I guess it worked. Thanks for posting on this subject, one that we can all benefit from thinking more about ...

Sounds like you married a very sensitive man, Alexandra. Yes, a man's tears does get a bit more attention than a woman's, because they're so much rarer, aren't they?

Fascinating discussion. I'd never thought about the point that humans cry, but animals don't. And the idea that crying relieves stress--you're right. I'll be looking forward to the results of future studies too.

Animals might not cry the way humans do, but they do grieve. They may not weep like us, but the sounds that come out of them, when they are upset, are pretty unique, I'd say.

So interesting. I saw this article. In a way, it's a reminder of all that we cannot see that is occurring on a molecular level (as you said, the stress hormones vs something else) and, of course, pheremones. So much to ponder.

Yes, so many actions taking place way below the surface...our bodies are busy working even when we don't know it. Scary and fascinating at the same time.

It's all fascinating stuff. Who knew there was so much wrapped up into tears, other than all those emotions. And it kind of makes you wonder if that's why (most) guys never want women to cry - it messes with their manliness.

Funny, Jane. But can't they be manly by putting their arm around us and comforting us?? That'll do.

Fascinating. I'd love to see a post about ways to get yourself to cry when you can't. I know so many people who want to, NEED to cry, but it just won't happen. They need the catharsis, but it never comes.

Fascinating. I'd love to see a post about ways to get yourself to cry when you can't. I know so many people who want to, NEED to cry, but it just won't happen. They need the catharsis, but it never comes.

I wonder if anyone can answer that question...I, too know so many people who cannot cry. I wonder if they're afraid that if they do, they won't be able to stop, or if they are just so blocked that the tears don't come? I'd love to find someone to examine that.

I'm a bit of a crybaby myself. Although my boyfriend may not get sexually aroused when I cry, there's definitely a protective instinct that kicks in. In that situation, I'd rather just be held than feel pressure to perform.

Well, I'd say you're lucky that you get what you need when you cry - a big hug!

Very interesting, Sheryl. My optometrist told me that we actually need testosterone (as well as estrogen) to produce tears, which is why many women develop dry eye as they age (and as the hormone levels plummet).

THAT is interesting, Nancy. I never knew that's why women had dry eyes (from lack of testosterone). But now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense!

Intriguing stuff. I've always thought a good cry, when necessary, is therapeutic. I agree with Alexandra (above) that men and boys should know it's okay to shed tears sometimes too.

Yes, me too, Sarah. Men and boys need to know that crying is ok...I've always tried to teach that to my own sons. If you don't cry, I think, it stays all pent up inside...not a healthy condition!

"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."

I totally admire a Republican who is not afraid to cry. Interesting that tears are linked to testosterone and desire, I never would have thought of that.

Such unexpected things come up sometimes. I would never have thought of testosterone's link to tears, either!

I was a crybaby in my childhood and everybody made fun of me. I was a hard core in my youth and I felt terrible with myself; now, in my old years, I went back to my easy and sweet tears and I feel wonderful!

Aw, that's sweet, Rosalba. I'm so happy you found a middle ground and went back to your easy and sweet self.

It's nice to see a post on health benefits and functions of tear. It's a topic that's not often discussed. And it's certainly timely, given the John Boehner incidents.


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