“I don’t want to talk about what he smells like.”
“I bet it’s like a combination of nutmeg and rawhide.”
“…He’s not a gingerbread cowboy.” ~From The Guild
When it comes to attraction, scent plays a much bigger factor than we give it credit for. While we might say, “Oh, I need a mate who smells nice,” there’s so much more to the science of the smell of attraction.
Let’s start with the basics (because that is kind of what we do here on this blog, as you loyal galleons are probably aware). What is smell? How does it work?
Well, like taste, olfaction is a form of chemoreception. Basically, odor molecules bind to particular receptor proteins in the olfactory organ. When this happens, we experience the “smell” of something. While most mammals have about a thousand genes expressing for odor reception, only a portion are functional odor receptors. And in humans, this number is even lower.
I’m going to assume you all know about the link between smell and flavor, as well as the incredible ability of scent to recall memories, so we’re not going to dwell on those aspects of olfaction. Instead, let’s look at something a little less well-known.
Most vertabrates actually have two olfactory systems. The main olfactory system is what we use when we smell ordinary scents. But there’s also the accessory olfactory system, which operates a little differently. The accessory olfactory system is in place to “smell” other things, like pheromones and (get this) genes.
That’s right- we can “smell” genes.
The human leukocyte antigen (HLA) system is a gene family associated with the immune system. The specific combination of HLA genes differ among humans, and when parents with differing HLA genes get together, their offspring tend to have stronger immune systems (genetic diversity, yo). As such, ladies are apparently able to “smell” some aspect of these HLA genes and prefer partners with differing HLA genes from their own.
As weird as this may seem, there have been a variety of studies performed to test this ability of women to “sniff out” the genes of their potential partners. The first of these occurred over a decade ago, when Claud Wedekind had 44 men wear the same t-shirt for three days straight. They refrained from deodorants and scented soaps so they wouldn’t interfere with their natural smell. Women then sniffed the shirts and indicated which ones smelled the best to them. By comparing the DNA of the women and men, the researchers found that women didn’t just choose their favorite scent randomly. They preferred the scent of man whose HLA genes were most different from their own.
The women in this study also reported liking the scents that reminded them of their current or previous boyfriends, showing that HLA attraction is consistent. And because HLA profiles differ greatly from one person to the next, there is no universal good smell. One woman’s sex god was another woman’s sweaty hobo.
Now, this HLA preference (unconscious though it may be) isn’t just about making robust, healthy kidlings with your man. It also has an impact on your orgasms.
Which, let’s face it, is way more important that procreation. I’d never consider aborting an orgasm, after all.
A genetically compatible mate (i.e. one with different HLA genes) leads to more female orgasms and an overall better sex life.
What’s more, this attraction by aroma isn’t reserved for straight folks. The gays are also attracted to their mates by scent.
See? Totally about orgasms. Screw kids.
While it seems strange that we can “smell” genetic factors, most people have no problem believing that we excrete pheromones (chemical cocktails) that help attract or repel people. And while communication by pheromones is very common in the animal kingdom, among humans it’s more of a marketing ploy by the snake oil salesmen of the perfume companies (and aliens in Torchwood):
Then again… are human pheromones imaginary? Or, like the elusive graviton, have they just not been properly observed yet?
Initially, it seemed humans just weren’t equipped for pheromone detection. See, pheromone “smelling” is the business of the vomeronasal organ (VNO), two little pits in the nasal passage (one in each nostril). Scientists of the time couldn’t detect VNOs in the majority of humans, so they began to believe that any instance of human VNOs were simply vestigial throwbacks. And in the 1930s, physiologists declared that the human brain lacked the hardware (the olfactory bulb) to process VNO signals.
It seemed that the book was closed on the role of chemical “odors” in sexual attraction.
Of course, that would be a pretty shitty story if it actually ended there. And while I’m often “all build up and no release,” I try to avoid blue balling you, dear galleons.
In the mid-80s, high-tech microscope probes were used by a team led by Luis Monti-Bloch of the University of Utah to look for VNOs. And they found them- a tiny pair of pits, one in each nostril, snuggled up against the septum an inch inside the nose.
And that olfactory bulb? It’s not MIA, either. It’s nestled in the brain, so enveloped by the massive frontal cortex that it’s very difficult to find.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that there’s something happening in regards to scent and attraction, but the fact remains that we just don’t know enough about it to really nail it down.
When it comes to our pheromone friends, scientists have isolated a few compounds that are possible human pheromones.
One of these possible pheromones is a testosterone derivative found in male sweat (AND). Another is an estrogen-like compound in female urine (EST).
In a study a few years ago, Swedish researchers found that the brain’s hypothalamus region, which is involved in sexual behavior, becomes activated when men smell EST and women smell AND, but not vice versa.
Recently, scientists decided to attempt a similar experiment, this time adding in the element of sexual orientation. As you might expect, they found that AND activated the hypothalamus in women and homosexual men, but that EST activated the hypothalamus in heterosexual men only.
Interestingly, a similar study found that gay men seemed to be able to “smell” their own, as they largely preferred the scent of other gay men, while the scent of those same gay men were least preferred by women and heterosexual men.
The study boosts the hypothesis that homosexuality has a genetic basis and is not simply the result of learned behavior (which I really feel is a “no shit” comment at this point, but whatever). It also shows the interesting interaction between the chemical secretions of our bodies and our attraction based on smell.
While we might not have identified them exactly yet, it does seem that there is something happening in the realm of aromatic attraction that points to there being human pheromones. I think it’s only a matter of time before we find the specific chemical cocktails that are human pheromones. Like the Higgs boson, those pheromones are out there.
At this point, I think it’s necessary to state that some boys just smell good. Real smell, not that accessory olfaction/pheromone business.
Sexy, sexy man smell. *shivers appreciatively*
Anyway, there was a point to all of this.
As of late (namely, the last three weeks or so), I seem to have become boy nip. I wish I was joking. Really. But it seems that I have become irresistible to the men I work with. I have been asked out four fucking times in this period of time, and have picked up a slew of other admirers. From the 19-year-old nerdling who follows me around like a lost puppy to the amusing boy who has taken to referring to me as his future ex-wife, I can get no peace.
You’re probably shaking your head in disgust, thinking I should be flattered by the attention.
I’m not the kind of person who needs the validation of a man’s attention. And I really don’t enjoy turning men down- particularly men I have to see every fucking day. It always gets awkward, to say the least.
I tried the “I have a boyfriend” line, seeing as I wasn’t interested in dating any of my coworkers. I figured it would solve the problem- they’d leave me alone, thinking I was already taken.
Yeah… no. Apparently, they are all so full of themselves that they think they can seduce me away from my (imaginary) man. Christ on a whole wheat cracker.
But the insane amounts of stress this is putting on me is not what I want to get into. Instead, I have to ask:
What has changed about me in the last month that has made me, dare I say, desirable to the opposite sex? I have, with my vaguely scientific brain, attempted to determine this. I’ve ruled out my clothing (since they only ever see me in my unflattering work clothes). My hair and makeup haven’t changed (still blond, still wearing a negligible amount of face paint). I did the whole “get naked and stare in the mirror” thing, but I look the same as I always have.
[As an aside there, I hear that the average woman can’t stare at herself naked for more than 10 seconds without feeling serious self-loathing for various parts of her anatomy… that saddens me.]
So, I decided it had to be something else. I was nice to these people (not because I necessarily want to be, but because I’m being paid to be pleasant… I’m such a whore), so I tried being a bit more surly and upping the sarcasm further. Nothing really changed.
I already didn’t make eye contact with them, so I figured I wasn’t accidentally “seducing” them with my eyes…
Was it my smell?
Those of you who know me know I’m rather obsessed with smelling pleasant. Lotions, shampoos, perfumes. I always want to smell good (without it being overpowering). Weirdly enough, about a month ago, I was on a kick where I was using a particular brand of men’s bodywash, because the scent reminded me of someone and I found it comforting. Which is in and of itself rather pathetic, but we’re not discussing how sad I am.
Then again, maybe we are.
Anyway, I was using male bodywash. This was something I’d never done before, so I wondered if that could be it. If, somehow, these men were drawn to me because I smelled familiar. Immediately, I switched back to the citrusy lady smells I normally prefer.
Despite my half-assed experimentation, I haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact reason I’ve become so damn attractive to these bastards.
That’s why I felt the need to look at the possibility of pheromones. Since I can’t identify an outward reason for this phenomenon, perhaps there was a hidden, subconscious something that was making me a man magnet.
And what have I found?
I still have no goddamn idea why these fuckers are hounding me.
Out of curiosity, is cock punching an acceptable way of dealing with unwanted male attention?