You may have heard that I told a slightly rude story at the ScienceOnline2012 conference. If you missed it, here you go!
Everything I said is true; there are even photos. (Think carefully before you click this link. You’ve been warned.)
Ben Lillie’s story is right after mine, and is very different, and incredibly powerful. I got a little verklempt. Ben now runs The StoryCollider, which is an amazing project to collect science stories.
I had been mentally drafting something about storytelling and science, but then Emily at This View of Life wrote something so spot on in summary of ScienceOnline I defer to her:
“I think that this tendency to focus on the sexy or the gross, the morbid or the taboo, is not just a symptom of our four days of very little sleep, more than a little alcohol in some cases and a deep sense of intellectual and cultural overstimulation.
No, this is an integral part of who we are as a group. We focus on duck penises because we almost have to.
We are all story tellers, whether scientists, journalists or educators. We take data and create hypotheses. We take facts and construct narratives. We take a curriculum and transform it into inspiration.
What she said. Go read the rest.
I’ll try to put together a more meaningful summary of the Science Online conference later this week, but for the moment I’m enjoying the accomplishment of briefly trending on Twitter. Even if it is for telling a story about Seamonkeys in your Pants.
Admit it–haven’t you wondered about this? What IS the effect of all that hair removal down there on the local flora and fauna? Fortunately, scientists have answered that question. Sort of. For women in Leeds, England. (Maybe.)
Armstrong, N. (2006). Did the “Brazilian” kill the pubic louse? Sexually Transmitted Infections, 82 (3), 265-266 DOI: 10.1136/sti.2005.018671
I’ve seen this paper cited over and over, but what you don’t realize until you actually read it is that….it doesn’t actually have any significant conclusions. The authors looked at the occurrence of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and pubic lice between 1997 and 2003 in people showing up at a public GYN clinic. While clap and chlamydia increased significantly, the frequency of pubic lice declined significantly during the same period.
The graph itself is deceptive. The second Y axis actually shows the percentage decreasing from 0.5% of cases seen to 0.15% cases seen. So, a rare thing got…more rare. Additionally, all the numbers are reported as a percentage, so there is no information at all about just how many total cases we are looking at. The total group seen has to be at least 200 people/year, since otherwise the percentages indicate sexually active headless torsos. But we really have no idea if this is any sort of a representative sample of the general population.
There is a much larger issue with this study, however. They have no data on what the waxing rate is in either the population of women showing up in their clinic, or the population at large. None. All they have is anecdotal stories that waxing became more popular during that time period. So, they aren’t even able to show a correlation; they just speculated that there would be a correlation, if there was any data.
There is a certain logical beauty in linking the destruction of Ho-Ha forests by clear-cutting and the death of the native fauna. (A crab louse paper from 1983 describes them as “swinging from hair to hair” rather like monkeys, BTW.) However, there simply is no evidence for for a link between snatch waxing and pubic lice decline.
Honestly? I think the only reason this paper made it past the journal editors was because it was about pubic lice, and crotch crickets are inherently interesting because of the pastures they graze in. (Which, of course, is exactly why -I- am writing about them!)
I did some investigating (in the library, pervs!) and found that there is actually data available on happy trail hair removal for women in the US and Australia. The percentage of Australian college women who shaved their pudenda was around 48% during the same time period; but that means that the majority of women still had some or all of their original carpeting, whether or not it still matched the drapes.
We also know from a very detailed study of American women in 2010 that there is no dominant pattern to hair removal in the US. Women aged 18-24 were most likely of all age groups to have naked crotches, but even then only 38% of them were hair free down there. Having a hairless muffin was actually the least common pattern of body hair in the over 2,450 women studied. Additionally, removal of one’s No-No Fro was NOT related to having experienced an STD infection in that study–which strongly suggests that the sample used for the “Brazilian hypothesis” was not representative.
It is far too soon to say if pubic lice are an endangered species. I know that when I was teaching entomology regularly, at least one student a year would manage to collect a crab louse, so they are still out there.
As for me, I plan to keep my Map of Tasmania intact. Hope that wasn’t overly sharing.
EDITED TO ADD NOTE: a 2013 update, since there is another press release out about pubic lice. Still not time to list pubic lice as an endangered species, folks. The majority of the world still has intact shrubbery.
As much as that sounds like a euphemism, it isn’t.
Remember the crazy guy who claims he has specially bred giant Japanese crab lice that don’t bite? And that they make great pets? (“Like Sea Monkeys in Your Pants!”)
So, when I wrote about that–and how utterly full of shit that website is–I got an email from a reporter. The LoveBugz.net website offers to send you your very own “pets” if you send them your address and a buck. The reporter wanted to buy some lice and have me look at them.
I thought the site was just a creative ad-farm scheme, so said “Sure! Send ‘em to me!”
It had to be a a scam. Who is going to go to the Better Business Bureau and complain that they didn’t get the pubic lice they paid for?
And then: An envelope DID show up. (Sealed with duct tape, too!)
It appears to have a postal mark from Teterboro, NJ. And scrawled across the front: “Live Insects! Handle with Care!”
Inside was a folded letter, and inside the letter was this:
I think most of you are having the same reaction I did: EW.
The letter that came with it had instructions:
I think I can safely speak for the vast majority of the readers of this blog when I say “Oh, HELL no!”
I’ll wait while the mass collective shuddering dies down.
So–I put the “specimen” in a sealed tupperware container with a moist towel, set it on my plant warming pad (since lice are triggered to emerge by moisture and heat), and took them to work with me the next day. Where 2 graduate students were fascinated, and 1 was pretty much traumatized by the whole concept and probably tried to autoclave herself after I left the lab.
[Also, a tip: if you walk into your new workplace brandishing a container of putative pubic lice and sand, you may want to provide a more detailed back story than "I bought them on the internet." Just some advice.]
Anyway, we looked carefully under the scope, and aside from documenting that Mr. LoveBugz is (a) brunette; and (b) has pubic hair that is very smooth and well conditioned; we found no nits or lice.
There was sand; and there was some stuff that looked like seed capsules; but unless lice have developed egg capsules that look remarkably like they have cell walls, there were no nits, dead or alive.
While plant cells have cell walls, no animal cells do. Ergo: This ain’t an animal.
Everything I picked out of that sample turned out to look very similar–plant material, not animal.
There are regrettably few photos of crab lice nits available online, although plenty exist for head lice. You can see some sculpturing of the outer egg case in this photo, but nothing like…well, cell walls. You don’t see it in this electron micrograph, either.
There was a hole in the envelope, so it is entirely possible that the nits that were promised fell out of the envelope in transit. However, why in the world would you not send them in a sealed container of some kind? Even a paper towel in an unsealed Baggie™ would have worked.
And why mail them in sand? Sand is abrasive, and likely to crush anything else during transit in surface mail. Sending the lice packed in sand, and telling the recipient to put sand in their undies and not wash for a week?
Yeah, that’ll happen.
Conclusion: The Site is Still Bullshit.
But they are willing to go a long way to keep up their hoax and/or delusion.
EDITED TO ADD: Some folks are arguing that I haven’t “proven” that the site is BS. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. They claim to have lice that don’t drink blood and aren’t irritating–which contradicts what we know about all 3 types of human body lice for recorded history, as well as physical evidence for an even long period of time.
They have provided no additional evidence for me to evaluate that claim, and in fact set things up so it would fail. I stick with my conclusion.
Additional things to read about pubic lice:
There actually is a really interesting bit of history to be found in the three lice that live on humans (head lice, body lice, and pubic lice). An excerpt from a story covering the genetic relationships between human lice and other primate lice:
“Lice are intimately adapted to their hosts and cannot long survive away from the body’s blood and warmth. If their host evolves into two species, the lice will do likewise. So biologists have long been puzzled over the fact that the human head louse is a sister species to the chimpanzee louse, but the pubic louse is closely related to the gorilla louse.”
A fascinating article about nakedness, clothes, evolution, and possible interspecies sex.
One of the great joys (and curses) of blogging is the random email. I think after this, I have now officially heard it all:
“I have a question for the entimoligist. [sic] I’m hoping you could give me some advice. My boyfriend is all excited about the love lice, pubic hair animal things and wants us to get them. I’m not sure this is such a good idea. He says these are specially bred and they’re not the same kind as homeless people’s lice. He says these are bigger and tame. I’d never heard of this before, but he and his buddies are all into it. “
And she then referred me to this website: LoveBugz.net: “The FanSite of the Lousing Lifestyle.” From their FAQ page:
The dealio is special bred pubic crab louses from Japan (not the same as homeless people’s variety of lice exactly). First, they DON’T BITE, they just live off dead skin cells and such in your bush. Really, you’re cleaner with them there than without them.
Second, these babies are HUGE!!! Well, huge compared to regular lice. And they just live happily in your underwear. It’s so COOL! They grow, and have families.
You can feel em living and crawling around. It’s like having personal Sea monkeys in your pants.
Egad. I immediately thought that this was a spoof site, but it is a spoof someone is investing a lot of time and energy into. (I especially like the username “Lice Lice Baby!”).
Given the infinite ability of humans to get off on just about anything, I’ll grant that someone could fetishize having pubic lice (Phthirus pubis for those who want the taxonomic details). And it does have it’s own fetish name: pthirophilia. Certainly someone believes this fad is real enough to ask for an interview on Craig’s list.
However, whether it is real or not, the site is spreading a great deal of misinformation.
First, the likelihood that “pet” crab lice could be bred to not bite and live off dead skin cells is nill.
To put it more bluntly, It’s. Total. Bull. Shit.
These animals have spent millions of years feeding on blood through your skin–they have no way to suddenly start munching skin cells.
A crab louse infestation is also not pleasant–from Medline:
“The presence of pubic lice is heralded by moderate to severe itching in the area covered by pubic hair….Because the crab louse requires human blood to survive, it buries its head inside a pubic hair follicle. It excretes a substance into the skin that causes the itching.
Sometimes the bite can cause an inflammatory skin reaction that is bluish gray in color. Although the lice do not cause a rash, the constant scratching and digging can cause the skin to become raw, and secondary infections may develop.”
Second, the idea that these are your crabs, and that having them is low risk to anyone else, is also not correct. A scientific study from 1983 suggests that crab lice are quite active, and move about between subjects more than previously believed. While it is rare for transmission to occur, trying on bathing suits and underwear is a known risk for transmission of crab lice, as is sharing bedding or clothing with an infected person. Crabs can survive for up to 2 days off their host.
Lastly, the idea promoted on LoveBugz that you can “easily” get rid of crabs is not correct. Additionally, the LoveBugz site suggests using Kerosene, which is about the worst thing you can possibly do (especially if you have open sores from the bites!).
As anyone who’s tried to get rid of head lice can tell you, just one treatment isn’t always enough. Detailed instructions on how to safely get rid of pubic lice are here. Note that crab lice can also occur in the eyebrows and armpits; make sure you wash everything.
So, if the goal of the email was to get me to link to the LoveBugz site, I guess they succeeded–but that site is total BS.
But Wait! There’s more!