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06 August 2021

What’s the connection between scent and sexual attraction?

Ksenia Krushinskaya

Ksenia Krushinskaya, a journalist, writer, and perfume connoisseur tells us how a scent may make a date a once-in-a-lifetime experience and what is really hiding behind the allure of any aphrodisiac perfume.

There is this French brand S.T. Dupont that you may have heard of before. Say, you've seen their name written on a lighter that belonged to a coworker, a friend, or a loved one. The brand is engaged in the sale of luxury goods, selling lighters, pens, cufflinks, belts, among many other accessories. They also have a fragrance line.  One of the scents, Pour Homme, released in the late 90s, is particularly close to my heart. It was a signature scent of the first man I ever truly fell in love with; the one I had a first sexual experience with - and the man I fought for the entirety of our one and a half year-long relationship. 

I remember the bottle: transparent, rectangular, with a metal lid shining in all its glory on his bathroom shelf. The scent was incredibly exciting: tart, sweet, fresh, intoxicating even. Breaking the scent down into notes would be impossible. But just a single hint of the fragrance was enough to send shivers down my spine (goosebumps all over my body) - the smell promised that I was about to hear a familiar voice, feel a touch, see someone I missed so much. We were living apart at the time, so I did what any reasonable girlfriend would do and stole his t-shirt, making sure it had his scent all over. 

That way I could smell him when I went to bed at night, and in some strange way the perfume became more than just perfume: it was a lingering memory, an unspoken promise that I’d get to see him again.

This man, much like his S.T. Dupont, has been long gone from my life. And yet there's something I got to keep. The perfume of a potential partner is of paramount importance to me. A man must wear cologne. It’s my own special indicator of whether someone is right for me. Here's a little story: I once dated a really cool guy: intelligent, working as an editor at an A-list newspaper. Everything was going great until he admitted that he hated perfume. The realization hit me instantly: he didn’t smell like anything! When I hugged him, I did not feel the lemon, nor the lavender or the tingling scent of bergamot; What could’ve been a memory was just a cold and uncomfortable emptiness. It never worked out, and frankly, one thing I’m certain of is that his lack of scent played a part in our parting ways.

Is that strange? Trivial? Perhaps. But I know I’m not alone. My friend A., an IT guy, loves when his lady smells of sandalwood and curry. He says sugary vanilla fragrance on a woman is far from a good sign when you’re pursuing a serious relationship.

A friend of T's, a stylist, admitted to giving all her boyfriends the same very particular fragrance - Black Pepper by Comme des Garcons. She can not imagine her man wearing any other perfume.

Another friend, D., a PR manager, told me about a perfume lover ex she will never forget. "We had our first date at his place. He takes out this mysterious leather box with an array of bottles and starts gently dabbing each on his and then my skin. Our relationship didn’t last for multiple reasons, but I will always cherish the bittersweet memory of that day. As much as I loved the scents, I purposely did not ask for the name. Because even now I am sure that if I ever smell that scent again, there’s a very high chance I’ll be ready to cheat on my current boyfriend. Better safe than sorry, right? 

Another favorite of hers - the perfume of her first boyfriend - Terre d'Hermes. She always sprays it on her wrist at duty-free airport shops, and it makes her feel safe and calm.

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But what about our natural body scent? Thanks to the boom in the beauty industry, we have the ability to outsmart mother nature and disguise anything, from hiding traces of a sleepless night to covering up our skin odor to appear more attractive. For better or for worse, things are way more complicated in reality. Contrary to a popular misconception, you can't hide your "natural" smell behind a perfume. Not to mention, it plays a crucial role in sex and can be both good and bad.

"Body odor is ultra-important to me. That's one of the reasons why I don't use dating apps" - says a friend of N. She told me that sometimes she will pass on a potential partner solely because she doesn't like the way a person smells. My friend P agrees with her: "It's happened a few times: Things get hot and heavy, we’re undressing and getting it on, but hold up! What's that strange smell? And that's it. I can't help it. It gets stuck in my head!".

Oddly enough, there are hardly any studies that would explain why we are attracted to the body’s natural scent. Are pheromones involved? Apparently not at all! This article proves that people don't have sexual pheromones, despite what we’ve been told to believe. Some companies claim that their products contain sexual pheromones acting as an aphrodisiac. Don’t fall for it and run from that marketing trick as fast as you can. There is something fascinating when it comes to our immune system, though. Here's what Lindsey Bordone, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, says at GQ. "A person's immune system influences what he or she finds attractive. It also affects what their own unadulterated scent would be." There's another hypothesis that has more to do with psychology: "You’re more likely to enjoy one’s scent once you develop a crush on them. And as soon as you're hooked, you'll be ready to "accept" whatever their odor is", - says Bordone.

If there was a universal, arousing, good-for-everyone scent, then the book “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”(1985) would have a different title. In real life, everyone has a certain smell they associate with their own little moments of pleasure. Here's what Pure community shared about their favourite scents.

The "psychological" theory seems the most realistic to me. Every time I was attracted to a man, I liked the scent of his skin, sweat, perfume - you name it. I have never been repelled by the scent of someone I truly found attractive. Now that we’ve exposed the sex pheromones theory, and the facts about the immune system seem too complex, my conclusion would be it’s actually all in our heads. As simple as that. A loving brain "falls in love" with the smell of your SO's body. And if that smell repels you, maybe you are not that in love. Maybe it’s for the best, after all?

I asked one of my close friends to share his opinion on this, to which he said "Tough question. But one thing is for sure: the woman you want always smells amazing."

I have to agree with him. We must accept the fact there is no magic involved: perfume doesn’t automatically turn you into a sex bomb. Still, scents are important. Maybe one day your perfume will become so ingrained in someone's mind that they'll look for it in the duty-free shop. Because the scent of your fragrance on their wrist is enough to tame the unpredictable waves of anxiety and get on the plane (off the ground).

*This article was originally published in Russian.