Sex is a multisensory experience. Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch—each one makes a unique contribution to our sex lives. And while they’re certainly all important, new research suggests that our sense of smell in particular may play a much bigger role than previously thought.
We’ve known for some time that people who have an impaired sense of smell—whether acquired or congenital—seem to have a noticeable negative impact on their sex lives. For instance, a 2009 study found that after developing a smelling disorder, people reported less desire for sex. Likewise, a 2013 study found that men who were born without a sense of smell were less sexually experienced.
To date, all of the research on this topic has focused on patients with a clinically significant impairment in their sense of smell. So what about the rest of the population? Let’s say you just have a somewhat weaker sense of smell than average—would there be any implications for your sex life? A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that you might actually find sex to be a little less pleasurable.
In this study, 70 healthy adults aged 18-36 (most of whom were heterosexual) completed a survey about their sexual desire, sexual performance, and sexual experience, as well as an odor sensitivity test called the “Sniffin’ Sticks.” For this test, people were blindfolded and then given a series of smelling tasks, each of which consisted of sniffing three felt-tip pens, of which one had been dipped in a smelly chemical. Participants had to identify the pen that smelled in each set. This is harder than it sounds because sometimes the chemical is highly diluted, meaning that only people with really strong noses are able to detect it.
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It turned out that being sensitive to odors was unrelated to sexual desire and sexual performance. In other words, whether people had a stronger or weaker sense of smell had no bearing on how interested they were in sex and how often they’d had sex in the past month.
However, odor sensitivity did predict how participants—men and women alike—experienced sex. In particular, regardless of gender, the more sensitive someone’s sense of smell, the more likely they were to describe their sexual experiences as pleasant. Also, for women—but not men—having a more sensitive sense of smell was linked to orgasming more often during sexual intercourse.
So what’s going on here? Why is being more sensitive to smells linked to having more positive sexual experiences and (at least for women) more orgasms?
The authors of this study suggest that certain body odors, including vaginal secretions, semen, and sweat, may “enrich the sexual experience” by triggering greater sexual arousal. The researchers never came out and used the word “pheromones” in their paper (I suspect because the question of whether human pheromones truly exist continues to be a controversial subject among scientists); however, their reasoning suggests that a pheromone-like effect might be taking place.
This interpretation makes sense in light of some previous research. For example, in a 2013 study, researchers found that men who sniffed scents obtained from women’s armpits and vulvas demonstrated a subsequent rise in levels of the hormones testosterone and cortisol. If these body scents are modulating our levels of sex hormones, then it seems plausible that they might be impacting our psychological experience of sex, too.
In short, it seems as though people with a stronger sense of smell are getting an arousal boost from body odors, and the reason why may very well be because those odors are triggering hormonal changes in sensitive sniffers.
As with every scientific study, this one has limitations, not the least of which is that the correlational design prevents us from drawing definitive conclusions about cause and effect. Also, the researchers didn’t look at which phase of the menstrual cycle female participants were in, which would be important to know given that women’s sense of smell seems to vary across the cycle.
Although more research is needed to help us better understand what’s going on here and whether the effects for women might vary across the menstrual cycle, these results suggest that our sense of smell appears to play a crucial and underappreciated role in the way that we experience sex and women’s odds of reaching orgasm.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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