Sex & Relationships

Smelling Your Way to Good Sex: How Our Noses Can Lead Us to the Most Desirable Mate

Experts say smell is one of the most important elements of attraction.

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In 1995, a Swiss researcher by the name of Claus Wedekind brought 44 sweaty T-shirts into his lab. The shirts had spent the previous two days on a group of men who had been instructed to stay away from soaps, smoking, sex and other activities generally associated with smell. Later, he solicited 49 female students from the university where he worked, and asked them to give the soiled shirts a whiff.

Wedekind’s experiment centers on something called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), one of the immune system’s chief markers of identity. Given how important genetic variation is to survival, it makes sense that we would find those with dissimilar MHC genes more attractive than those whose resemble our own. Wedekind believes this difference can be detected through smell. If that’s true, then we, particularly women, can actually use our noses to identify people with whom we will produce the healthiest offspring. Those in scientific circles might call that the ideal mate.

The theory seemed to hold up among the women who participated in Wedekind’s experiment. In fact, the scent of those with dissimilar MHC was more likely to remind them of their boyfriends, both past and present.

But not everyone is buying it. Soon after Wedekind’s study was released, Philip W. Hedrick, a biologist at Arizona State University, said, ''I think mate choice is probably a lot more complicated, particularly in humans.'' In response to the skeptics, Wedekind says, ‘‘some people really fight this kind of research.''

But not everyone has been hit with that same level of doubt. Twenty years after Wedekind’s sweaty T-shirt experiment, the smell trend is still going strong.

Just look at Smell Dating, the world’s first mail-order dating site. For $25, the company will send you a T-shirt to wear for three days and three nights without deodorant. After that stretch, you’ll return the shirt in a prepaid envelope and wait for the team to send you back a swatch of smelly T-shirts worn by other people. If you and another member happen to like one another’s smells, you’ll be given the opportunity to exchange contact information.

In 2009, Judith Prays thought of a similar idea. Though her vision is slightly more involved. Prays asks single men and women to capture their “odor print” by sleeping in the same shirt for three consecutive nights. When the three nights are up, they’re instructed to throw the shirt in a ziplock bag and head to a set location where something called a Pheromone Party is taking place.

The bags are labeled pink for girls and blue for boys, and a number is assigned to each. Throughout the party, guests are encouraged to take frequent smell breaks. If any one smell seems particularly appealing, guests can head to the photographer station to take a picture with the bag, which will later be projected as a slideshow on the wall during the party. If you see someone holding your number and you think they’re kinda sexy, you’re free to walk over and see if they sound half as good as they smell. Prays has hosted parties in cities like New York, Los Angeles and the UK.

To help us better understand the world of sex and smell, AlterNet reached out to Ian Kerner, author of the bestselling sex manual She Comes First. When reminiscing about the sex trivia nights he used to host, Kerner explained he used to ask the crowd, “What really turns women on?” He would list things like looks, personality and wealth. “Undoubtedly, when I came to smell, that’s when the most hands in the room went up,” he told us.

According to Rachel Herz, one of the world’s leading experts in smell, “Smell is the single most important physical characteristic for a woman choosing a romantic partner.” She notes, “Men are also drawn to the scent of a woman but choose physical beauty first.” In her research, Herz has found that women often rank how a man smells as the most important feature for determining whether she will be sexually attracted to him.

Kerner tells us, “I’ve worked with women who say, ‘I don’t feel desire for my partner,' or, ‘I’ve never really felt that desire.’” From there, one of the first questions he asks is, “What do you think about their smell?”

“There always seems to be a very high correlation between lack of sexual interest and either disinterest in a guy’s smell, or an aversion to a guy's smell,” says Kerner. “I think for women, a guy's natural scent can be very highly correlated with sexual attraction, or a lack of it.That’s not true of my work with men.”

Like Wedekind, Kerner finds the link between smell and attraction tends to affect women in a very different way than it does men.

“Some guys will say they find scent a turn-on during sex, but that’s more just in the heat of the moment.”

Of course, that doesn’t minimize the effect smell can have on men. If you spend just a few minutes perusing the “scent and smell fetish” section on FetLife, you’ll find there’s no shortage of smell-based kinks out there. But according to experts like Kerner, smell tends to impact men most on the basis of association.

“When I ask men, so how important is a woman’s scent in terms of how you’re attracted to it, they almost don’t understand the question.” The question, he explains, often inspires a vaginally focused response. But maybe that shouldn’t seem so surprising. Many are already familiar with the story of Napoleon Bonaparte writing to Josephine days before his return to Paris with the explicit instructions, “Don't wash.”

The emphasis placed on sex, smell and attraction might also help explain why the global fragrance market is estimated to be worth about $40 million. According to the New York Times, most "fragrances considered sexy are based on musk, an odor taken from a sac beneath the abdominal skin of the male musk deer or, more often, created synthetically." Leslie Vosshall, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in New York, told theTimes, “Musk ends up being a really good proxy for sex because everyone agrees it has an animal undertone.”

Researchers at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago decided to conduct their own experiment with a fragrance called Eau Flirt in mind. The Times points out that "while Eau Flirt doesn’t contain synthetics," it does draw on ingredients shown to increase penile blood flow, like pumpkin, lavender and licorice. They recruited a group of men and hooked them up to a device called a plethysmograph, which measures change in volume in various parts of the body. The researchers found that of the 30 odors tested, all inspired levels of arousal. The combination of lavender and pumpkin pie seemed to have the greatest effect, increasing blood flow by up to 40 percent. Donuts and black licorice came next, with a 31.5 percent blood flow increase.

But those who run with this information to the closest department store might do well to be reminded of the old adage, buyer beware. While certain creatures like the moth can detect pheromones in their female counterparts, fragrances aren't very likely to bring out that same skillset in humans. 

“All we can say is there might be chemicals that somehow modulate behavior,” says Catherine Dulac, chairwoman of the department of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Most products marketed as pheromone-based aphrodisiacs typically include androstenone and androstadienone, "sex steroid-derived odors produced in sweat and urine." According to the Times report, only around half the human population finds this smell attractive. The other half is more likely to compare it to mold or cat urine.

So while you may feel compelled to douse yourself with these supposed sex magnets, remember, they may not actually deliver on the promises made. Depending on who you’re with, you might fare better working with your own odor. You know, au natural

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture.