Animal attraction is a thing, or is it? Scientists are divided about the link between human sexual activity and scent, although society doesn’t give us much option to explore it. We’re constantly being sold perfumes, deodorants, and body sprays designed to disguise our natural scent.
But what if you are supposed to stink a little, and what if your lover loves it when you do? While intimate hygiene is important, washing too often can disrupt the skin’s natural oils. These natural oils make up your unique body odor, which could be imperative to seducing your current squeeze.
Sex is all about the senses: the way someone looks, feels, sounds, tastes, and smells. Some of us, however, are more sensitive to the latter than others, which is why scientists are still debating the importance of smell—so don’t freak out if you’re nose-blind, says Therapist and Human Behavior Specialist Sally Baker.
“Think of it as a spectrum. There are a large number of people who just don’t recognize smell as something that influences their attraction to other people. Someone else may find body smell to be the clincher in a relationship. Equally, another person may remain completely neutral.”
The Truth About Animal Attraction
It’s all about the pheromones. Animals and insects secrete these odorless chemicals (similar to hormones) in order to influence other creatures of the same species. But it’s not the nose that picks up the scent. An organ inside the nasal cavity detects them and sends signals directly to the brain.
Yet it’s not always about sex. “Some animals produce a scent to attract and signal their readiness to mate. Others use scent to defend themselves by releasing smells designed to deter predators from attacking them.”
Humans also secrete pheromones through sweat, urine, and tears—which may or may not seem sexy, depending on your preferences. As for our ability to influence each other’s behavior with these odors, the jury is still out. “Scientists believed for decades that the human pheromone receptors located inside each nostril were too small to detect any smells. Even if they picked up a scent, the part of the brain that decodes this information is believed to be underdeveloped.”
That said, as science advances, so does research, with more studies delving deeper into the power of human pheromones. “Scientists are still questioning whether humans can actually react to these chemicals, but our real life experience of them will always be disrupted by cosmetic smells. We therefore have to rely mostly on anecdotal stories that tell us how couples are aroused by their partner’s scent.”
Can You Sniff Out Your Perfect Partner?
“It’s hard to know which really comes first,” says Sally. “Finding someone’s natural body odor unbelievably attractive; or falling in love with the person before you really notice their smell.” You may simply notice their perfume or aftershave, although some studies suggest people are able to “sniff out” the part of the DNA that makes up the immune system and is necessary to reproduction.
One study in particular revealed how women could be drawn to men whose immune composition was different to theirs, since this made them more biologically compatible for making healthy babies. The men with matching compositions repulsed them, signaling that they were not an appropriate mate. This could explain the sparks of chemistry that fly between some heterosexual couples, but intimate connection isn’t always binary.
The fact that sensory information guides your emotional reactions means that smell can become integral to the way you interact with someone and process your relationship with them—especially if you’re having sex. “This increases feelings of intimacy, which means that everything about a person can seem different afterwards.”
“You could be enamored with the way the sun catches the shine of their hair or the way they push their glasses back up the bridge of their nose. These subtle micro-behaviors may go completely unnoticed until you give someone your full attention—which means you’re paying attention with all your senses.”
It’s Not All About Sex
Consider the connection between a breastfeeding mom and her baby. Newborns have a strong sense of smell and know the unique scent of mom’s milk. So this may have nothing to do with pheromones, but demonstrates that you really can’t dismiss the importance of smell in the human experience.
It can even influence or trigger memories. If your brain registers a smell at the same time as you are having a strong emotional reaction to someone, both the odor and the emotion will be archived in your brain together. So the next time you get a whiff of the same scent, you may feel nostalgic about that person.
While all the senses can trigger an emotional response, smell is the most closely connected to the hippocampus, which influences memory. This also connects to the limbic system, or the emotional center of the brain, part of which is the hypothalamus that produces oxytocin—the magic love hormone released during sexual arousal and orgasm.
The link between sexual activity and scent—or all human connection and scent—therefore seems hard to dispute. It may have nothing to do with pheromones, but it seems to have everything to do with love, intimacy, and arousal (or the opposite if you think someone stinks). So if you’re single and sex hungry, maybe try sniffing some hot strangers.
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And if you're going to have sex, remember to use condoms!