How Losing My Sense of Smell Affects My Sex Life

“The best way I can say it is: It’s having sex in black-and-white.”
Cathryn Virginia
illustrated by Cathryn Virginia
How Losing My Sense of Smell Affects My Sex Life
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Photos by WIN-Initiative/Neleman, Jena Ardell, and Jongmook via Getty Images
A series about sex and stigma.

Long-term smell loss is more than just a notable hallmark of COVID. Even before the pandemic, experts estimated that at least one in eight people lived with some level of olfactory dysfunction, and about three percent had no sense of smell whatsoever. Some people lose this sense as a result of other severe respiratory infections, or of neurodegenerative disorders, head trauma, or any number of other health issues. Some are born with little to no sense of smell, and some lose the sense as a natural part of the aging process. But no matter the cause or extent, smell loss often has major effects on people’s lives—including their sex lives. 


We’ve long understood that smell has some bearing on sex. That broad awareness fuels claims about the sensual powers of specific fragrances, or pheromones. But hard research into smell’s effects on sex is actually still in its infancy, so most such claims are anecdotal at best—and almost all pheromone talk is pure bullshit. All we know for sure is that smells we find gross can be hard turnoffs, while any smell we personally like can get our blood pumping—and that after people lose their smell they often report a drop in their sex drive, as well as in their overall levels of sexual satisfaction. 

Thanks to our culture’s systemic neglect of smell and the anemic state of smell science, it’s often hard for people experiencing smell loss to find anyone who can help them understand what they are going through. The few smell loss specialists and support groups that do exist also focus on helping people tackle essential safety issues like the inability to sniff out gas leaks or food spoilage, and deal with the anxiety and depression that often follow the loss of a sense. There’s almost no information or support out there for people trying to grapple with smell loss’s sexual effects.    

I've been losing my sense of smell for at least six years. (My loss seems to be progressive, and likely started so subtly and advanced so gradually it took me a while to notice, so retrospectively nailing down the timeline is a tricky, imprecise task.) Over the last couple of years, I've literally made it my job to unpack how this sensory change affects every aspect of my life. Recently, I reached out to Paige,* an active and well-informed member of the smell loss community who completely lost her sense of smell over a decade ago, to talk about all the ways in which smell loss can affect sex—and how hard it can be to pin down or react to those effects. 


At her request, VICE has changed Paige’s name to protect her privacy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: Smell is such a complex sense, and everyone's relationship to it seems so distinct. How aware were you of smells in your general life, and in your sex life specifically, before you experienced smell loss? Was smell an important part of how you experienced the world? 

Like most people, I didn’t pay much attention to my sense of smell until it was gone. I definitely took it for granted. When it comes to sex, you can smell your partner’s body, their sweat, and whatever else is going on, so smell is a part of the experience. But it’s been so long since I was able to smell… I don’t have any visceral memories of smell affecting my experience of sex. 

Every experience of smell loss is distinct as well. What's been your experience of it?

I was really ill one winter, and then in the spring, as I was eating breakfast, I realized I couldn’t smell anything. I’m completely anosmic. So, I’ve never dealt with parosmia, phantosmia. Are you anosmic? 

[Editor’s Note: Anosmia refers to a complete loss of smell, while hyposmia refers to partial loss. People with hyposmia may fully lose the ability to detect one type of odor particle, only partially lose another, or become more sensitive to a third. The exact mix is idiosyncratic. As"smells" are our brain’s interpretation of the interplay between multiple odor particles, people with hyposmia often experience parosmia, smell distortions, or phantosmia, olfactory hallucinations.]


I’m hyposmic, and my smell loss seems to be progressive. At this point, I can't reliably pick up on many scents, and I occasionally deal with parosmia.


But my parosmia doesn’t extend to sex. I once spoke to someone whose parosmia made semen smell like burning organic matter. It was very noticeable and made sex difficult! 

Oh, that’s terrible.

Was there a point, after you realized you couldn’t smell anymore, when you first noticed that the smells you’d taken for granted during sex just aren’t there for you now? 

This wasn’t a conscious decision, but I ignored my anosmia for a long time. I knew I had lost something, but it was too difficult to investigate what that meant. And I know that doesn’t make sense to most people. Sometimes, people ask me, “How is it even possible to ignore that?” It’s denial. I’d get sad intermittently, whenever I realized there was something I’d never be able to smell again, or that I’d never get to smell something new I’d just encountered. It’s hard for me, looking back on the first years after I lost my sense of smell, to remember things like this. 

“People are horrible at describing smells, so they were just like, ‘Oh, he smells nice. Clean.’”

But the first thing that comes to mind is when my partner and I went to my mom’s house for the holidays for the first time. My partner and I got together just after I became anosmic, and this was maybe a year after we got together. The holidays in that house used to smell like Christmas trees and home cooking, and thinking about how I couldn’t smell that anymore made me think, Oh, I’m never going to smell my partner. Smells are so emotional and visceral, and I now think that they help to create a sense of intimacy with people. Their absence can have a real effect—although I don’t know how to explain that effect in words. So realizing that I’d never get to smell my partner made me think, This is just not fair. This is not OK. I was depressed and angry. That entire holiday season was difficult for me. I still get really sad about this sometimes.


Actually, I even asked my mom and sister at the time, “What does he smell like?” [Laughs.] People are horrible at describing smells, so they were just like, “Oh, he smells nice. Clean.”  

Have you ever told your partner about this? 

Not early on, because I just didn’t talk about smell loss. But I’ve mentioned it over the years. He just says, “Well, remember that your mom said I smell nice. So that’s good! Right?” 

[Laughs.] Actually, have you ever asked him if he’s attuned or attracted to smells in sex? 

I haven’t—but I’ll have to ask him now!

You talked about realizing smell has the power to create or enhance visceral experiences and intimacy. How do you think your anosmia has affected your experience of sex itself? 

It’s like sex is more sanitized, because I don’t get that visceral element of it. I don’t smell the sweat. I don’t smell the … other bodily odors. I’m not sure how to describe it… You’ve heard other people with smell loss use the analogy of experiencing life from behind glass, right? 


You’re still experiencing the world, but there’s a barrier. Or, someone online used the analogy of color versus black-and-white TV. The best way I can say it is: It’s having sex in black-and-white. 


I think about this all the time. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re constantly getting feedback from all of our senses during sex, which help to amplify sensations or immerse us into the experience. Subtracting one sense—one source of feedback—from that equation has to affect us. But the effects of smell are often so subtle or unconscious, so hard to untangle in our heads, and so difficult to verbalize. How do you explain that loss or lack to someone? 

I’m not sure. But I think we can say it makes sex less enjoyable overall, right? If you’re missing one aspect of your senses… Well, I don’t think many people enjoy sex that’s very stinky, so maybe there are some pros. But I keep coming back to the word “visceral.” Sex becomes less visceral in some ways, and if it’s less visceral then it’s less intense. But I can’t say for sure. 

Beyond the ability to smell others, do you ever get anxious about the fact that you can’t smell yourself? I can really get into my head about that, especially when I’m intimate with someone. I have no way of knowing for sure if I stink on my own. So I start thinking, Oh no, is this person I’m really physically close to right now experiencing terrible smells? 

Yeah, you’d think that I’d worry a bit about body odor, breath, and things like that before having sex, but for some reason I never do. Maybe that’s just because my partner is kind, and never mentions anything when I do smell. [Laughs.] Maybe he’s just used to how I smell. But in 12 years, he’s never once said anything like, “Hey, maybe you should take a shower.” 


Maybe he has hyposmia? I don’t know. 

I’m sure it’s possible! Minor hyposmia is probably a lot more common than people think. 

Honestly, I think he does. We have a very young son, and sometimes my partner can smell it if he’s pooped his pants, but often he can’t smell it and has to visually check. The issue is that we don’t do baseline testing for smell like we do for vision and hearing. We should, if only because you can learn so much about a person’s overall health based on their sense of smell! But if we don’t have baseline data for an individual’s sense of smell, how can we tell if they’re losing a little bit of that sense and they just haven’t noticed it or not. It’s hard to say for sure. 

But I’m grateful that I don’t have that anxiety, which a lot of people with smell loss do deal with. 

Some of it probably comes down to how attuned we were to smell in general, and to our own odors specifically, before smell loss, right? I’m a very sweaty person, and I know that’s been an issue for a couple of my partners. So not being able to tell if my sweat stinks when I was already aware of, and a bit sensitive about, that issue—it’s all just amplified now. 

Yeah, I never had any concerns about whether or not I smelled before I became anosmic. I don’t think I have much of an odor. I only remember a couple of times, when I played sports in high school and had multiple games in a day, sweating to the point that I realized I stank. 


“Maybe it sounds defeatist, but for my own mental health I don’t engage with recovery these days. Instead, I just think, What’s the point in trying to get it back?”

How has your total experience of smell loss affected the nuts-and-bolts of the sex you have? Are you more or less interested in certain activities because of the lack of that sense input?  I’ve spoken to people who, for example, become more sensitive to the smells associated with oral sex due to parosmia and start to avoid that. I've also spoken to people who, conversely, were sensitive to those smells, then lost the ability to detect them and got way more into oral. 

It’s less that smell loss has affected what I do during sex and more that I think I might have more sex if I could smell. Maybe my partner would come in smelling really nice and it’d trigger a positive mood or arousal for me. But it’s like how smelling food can trigger hunger, and not being able to smell that means that maybe I don’t get hungry as often as I used to or would otherwise. It’s probably common that people with smell loss have sex less often, right? 

You’re not the only person with smell loss I’ve spoken to who thinks that might be the case, although like almost everything to do with smell loss, I don't think it's universal. Does it bother you, though, the thought that you might feel more sexual if you could smell?

It’s a good question. I wasn’t the most sexual person even when I had a sense of smell, though. And I don’t think about what could be the case if I could smell all that often anymore. 

Many people with smell loss try hard to get some of their smell back. Have you? 

There’s this idea in the smell loss community that if you try smell training hard enough it’ll work for you—that you can get at least some smells back. And I’ve tried, but I’ve never been able to get any smell back. Every time I try something and it doesn’t work, it’s like a reminder of this loss and I feel more grief. So maybe it sounds defeatist, but for my own mental health I don’t engage with recovery these days. Instead, I just think, What’s the point in trying to get it back?

I’m at a point in my life where I hover around acceptance of smell loss. Or at least a point where I’m just like, Meh, this is what it is. I’m more interested in living with what I do have—and, after this conversation, in learning more about how my partner experiences smell during sex.