The Scent of Sexual Attraction
The importance of smell in sexual attraction is undeniable. But just as fashions evolve, our notions of what smells sexy change too.
In Sanskrit, the word vyagra (look familiar?) is derived from the word “to smell” and means tiger, an animal known for highly scented, pre-coital urine spraying. Do Sanskrit scholars with a sense of humour abound in the pharmaceutical industry?
The importance of smell in sexual attraction is undeniable. But just as fashions evolve, our notions of what smells sexy change too. Those super-charged musk fragrances of the late ’70s that promised to turn women from hausfrau to sexpot seem charmingly retro today. (Go now and YouTube those Aviance and Enjoli commercials. We’ll wait.)
So what is sexy now?
“Our sense of smell is closely tied to memories and emotions,” says Mike Kinsey, who heads up fragrance development at Procter & Gamble. “In the brain, the limbic system, where we process the sense of smell, is the same area where memories are produced.”
Smell also helps women choose the “correct” biological mate. In The Scent of Desire, psychologist Rachel Herz explains that while “men rely more on their eyes than their noses when it comes to sexual attraction,” women are most attracted to men by their scent, which indicates that their immune system is different from ours, so together we’ll create healthier offspring. Ergo, no good smells, and yes it’s a subjective thing, mean no pairing up. (However, alluring colognes can trick us into finding biologically unsuitable men enchanting, so buyer beware.)
Elizabeth & James Nirvana White (solid perfume, $58) with white flowers and musk is redolent of rumpled bedlinens, while Martin Margiela Replica Lazy Sunday Morning (edt, 100 ml, $115) recalls sunshine on slept-on sheets, with its blend of lily of the valley and iris with musk. The Body Shop’s new Smoky Poppy (edt, 30 ml, $14) wraps flowers in a haze of aromatic clove, nutmeg, cedar and musk.
If there’s an aromatic opposite to skin scents, it’s what we might call the “unwashed genre” – fragrances that allude to something darker. Patchouli anyone?
Remembering those sticky vials of brown oil, some are quick to dismiss patchouli as “eau de hippie.” But resinous, aromatic patchouli can be sexy to someone who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s. “If you smell something that reminds you of your misspent youth, assuming said youth was pleasant, that might make you feel sexy then, wouldn’t it?” says Beaulieu.
Clinique’s classic 1971 scent Aromatics Elixir (100 ml, $85) taps into such happy memories with a dark undercurrent of patchouli. Complete with lashings of vetiver, it’s not for the faint of heart but is unmistakably sexy.
Patchouli also lends its earthy base to many elegant scents free of any hippie vibe. Givenchy Dahlia Divin (edp, 50 ml, $105) contains lactone-rich jasmine anchored with patchouli while Roads’ Graduate 1954 (edp, 50 ml, $175) is a lactone-laced mix of frangipani (a tropical flower) and tuberose with a patchouli and wood base.
Vanilla is known for stimulating sexual arousal in men. According to Dr. Alan Hirsch of Chicago’s Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, “The older the man, the greater a sexual response to vanilla,” as it creates an “anxiolytic [anxiety-reducing] state, removing inhibitions.” Hirsch muses that perhaps a positive association with vanilla exists more for earlier generations because vanilla-flavoured foods were treats then, not to be had every day.
According to Hirsch, “Citrus stimulates the part of the brain that makes you awake and alert by stimulating the trigeminal nerve in the same way that smelling salts under the nose wake you up.”
One caveat to such fragrant experimentation: if you are re-entering the dating pool after years out of the game, Beaulieu suggests selecting a recently launched fragrance when primping for first dates.
“Classics can be dangerous because you might remind the gentleman of someone,“ says Beaulieu. “What if it reminds him of his ex-wife? That’s not going to get you anywhere.”
How women want men to smell
They say that men are aroused by the scent of vanilla. But according to Dr. Alan Hirsch of Chicago’s Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, it’s baked goods like pumpkin pie and doughnuts that lead the pack in piquing their interest, while vanilla is 11th on the list. Use that information any way you wish.
Women, surprisingly, are not sexually aroused by overt food notes, according to Hirsch’s research. He believes that food smells “evoke feelings of work, as women are traditional food preparers.”
Masculine fragrances that can raise a woman’s temperature instead unite typically “masculine” notes like leather, woods, smoky tones with softer, feminine scents: florals, warm spices and musks that evoke skin. Often, it’s the unisex fragrances that women would choose for themselves that they also like on men.