Sniffing Out Sex


By Starre Vartan

Among my girlfriends, who are as a rule strong-minded and opinionated, and range from long-time wives and moms to freedom-loving creative types to serial monogamists, when the conversation turns to sex, we can all agree on one thing: We love the way our men smell, whether he is a two-time dalliance or a going-on-two-decades partner.

So much so that when our boyfriend/husband/long-term hookup is away from us, we like to keep a bit of something they wore around (or wear it ourselves); T-shirts are an almost-universal favorite. And this is not just silly pining — though surely the guys are missed — it has to do with the fact that smell conjures up more than just pleasant memories of the beloved.

For years, it wasn’t clear whether or not human beings produced (and responded to) pheromones, as we knew unequivocally that animals did. Pheromones are how most animals communicate their readiness to mate, as well as other information, and aren’t just ‘smells’ but specific chemical signals that are picked up by specialized receptors. Numerous studies over the last 15 years have proved that humans also exude and pick up on these signals (but we don’t ‘smell’ them in our nose, we process them in one of the oldest parts of our brain, the hypothalamus).

Not only do pheromones exist, but they are actually incredibly complex. Turns out that we can smell all kinds of details about someone, especially someone of the opposite sex (but only if we’re heterosexual; homosexuals generally respond to sex signals and information from members of their own sex).

According to ABC News: “Women’s hypothalami are activated when they smell the chemical similar to testosterone but not to the estrogen-like substance, whereas men’s hypothalami have the opposite response: They are turned on only by the estrogen-like chemical and not the testosterone-like one. There is also sexual disparity between the specific sub-regions of hypothalamus that are activated.”

One of the things we can smell on our partners — or even randoms that we get close enough to — is whether they have had sex recently. (Irresistibly attracted to that hottie next to you in yoga class? He may have just had a roll in the hay and neglected to shower). A Journal of Neuroscience study backs up what cuckolded spouses have long known: Humans emit specific pheromones when they have sex, and they can be detected. Take note, cheating partners:

Here, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that the right orbitofrontal cortex, right fusiform cortex, and right hypothalamus respond to airborne natural human sexual sweat, indicating that this particular chemosensory compound is encoded holistically in the brain. Our findings provide neural evidence that socioemotional meanings, including the sexual ones, are conveyed in the human sweat.

Because human beings emit scents most strongly through sweat and urine, it makes sense that lonely ladies would like their men’s tees to keep them company, and maybe even remind them of the last time they got it on, depending on if it was worn while in flagrante dilecto or just prior.

Naturally, as soon as there’s scientific data pointing to the fact that smells can turn us on — or off — there’s a company ready to hock a product based on that idea. Synthetic hormones abound, and promise all sorts of ludicrous things, including making someone irresistible to the opposite sex. While there might be “an old shoe for every old sock” as my friend Christina’s grandma says, no perfume in the world is going to get me to find the jerk at the bar with the spiky hair attractive.

Whether the synthetic ‘sexy’ pheromones work or not is the big question. And if they do, what are they missing? And also, is the fact that European men and women don’t practically disinfect their bodies once a day, as Americans do, the secret to the sexiness of Europeans (whenever I visit France and Italy, I feel like the place is practically vibrating with sexual energy).

While most of us humans wander around thinking we are choosing mates based on a magical combination of shared fave rainy days songs and a mutual predilection for adrenaline sports, actually our bodies are doing a great deal of communicating without our conscious knowledge, about all sorts of things. It turns out that “The nose knows,” as the old aphorism goes.

Image via Flickr. 

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