The Impact of Scent on Attraction
For my whole life a man’s smell has been an … factor when analyzing potential sex partners, but only recently have I really thought about how huge the impact of smell can really be. I remember I once met someone who was cute, nice and had a cottage that he wanted to take me to, but for some reason I could never get sexually excited by him. I remember he slept over once and I noticed that there was a subtlety in his smell that felt like a turn off. It kind of reminded me of the smell of my dad or brother. I felt like an asshole saying this upright to him, but I was in a phase of brutal honesty and I told the fella that I didn’t think our smells synced up. Anyway, he certainly thought I was crazy, and I thought he might be right, until I explored some fascinating research on the impact of scent on sexual attraction.
It appears I am not the only one who has picked up on the importance of a good natural musk in a potential fuck. An online study titled 'The importance of Smell For Women' found that women stated that they would prioritize body odor above a man’s voice, looks, wealth or ambition.
Indeed it seems there is some research confirming the impact of smell on attraction. A Swiss zoologist, Claus Wedekind, gave gay and straight men anonymous samples of sweat and asked them to rate the smells. Interestingly, it was found that gay men preferred the smell of gay men, where heterosexual men preferred the scent of women. How crazy is that! Smell alone can help us assess who we would and wouldn't be attracted to.
It seems like evolution is at play when it comes to the impact of scent on attraction. In Claus Wedekind's other research, he found that straight women prefer men whose DNA is different from them, measured by something called their MHC levels. In a study about this men and women were asked to wear the same shirt for two days. After that, both parties were asked to smell the scent of the shirts of opposite sex and rate them in terms of intensity, pleasantness and sexiness. It was found that both men and women preferred the scent of partners with different genetics to them, i.e. more distinct MHC levels.
This makes sense, because if a man and a woman had a child, varying genes would lead to a stronger immune system. Therefore being attracted to difference leads to building a stronger offspring, from an evolutionary point of view. Interestingly, the shirt smellers said that the smells that they were into reminded them of former or current lovers, whereas the smells that they didn’t like were more likely to remind them of family members (i.e. those with similar genes). This suggests that perhaps scent may have played a role in who they are attracted to and/or dating.
There is also research showing that a woman’s time of the month impacts her smell preferences. A 2013 study published as 'Evolution and Human Behavior' found that when women are ovulating they are more attracted to men who have higher testosterone levels, higher body and facial symmetry and who have behavioral dominance. All traits which can be expressed through smell. However, when women are not ovulating or are on the pill, there is no significant effect for any of these factors. When we are thinking about evolution it makes sense that when we are fertile we would be attracted to traditionally dominant traits, so that we would make a powerful offspring that is most likely to survive. This is in line with the research that shows that when women are ovulating they are more likely to cheat with large, strong men (not skinny intellectuals).
It seems that this is a two way street, where men are also attracted to women who are ovulating. In a study from Frontiers in Endocrinology 115 men smelled the body and genital odor of 45 women, and they had increases in testosterone and cortisol in response to the odors of the women who were ovulating but not the women that were currently not ovulating.
In an Israeli laboratory, Shani Gelstein took this a step further, postulating that if smelling that someone who is ovulating makes you aroused, perhaps smelling tears would create empathy. Shani made women watch a really sad movie and collected their tears (I really wonder how they did this!). Men were told to smell them, and although they did not create empathy in the men, it was found that smelling tears reduced men’s arousal and testosterone levels. Almost as if men … knew that if a girl was crying, things probably weren’t about to get sexy.
It’s nuts how unseen variables can have such a great impact on attraction. From the research it seems that we should trust our nose, as perhaps it nose (sorry couldn’t help it) more than we do. Do I suggest asking for your date's two day old sweater to smell before agreeing to go on a date? No, but it does appear that there is something to be said for the impact of smell on attraction.