Sex is a sensory experience. Some say men are turned on by what they see, women by what they hear. And without touch, we’d be left with two people in a room, not doing much at all.
Our sense of smell, however, is often overlooked, and not just because the nose sits below the eyes (sensory puns, people! Geddit? “Overlooked”! Ha!). Even people with clinical anosmia — a diagnosed deficiency in the ability to smell — are unconvinced that there’s a link between odor and sex. According to Johanna Bendas, Thomas Hummel, and Ilona Croy, a crack squad of otorhinolaryngologists from Dresden, fewer that 1% of people with an impaired sense of smell are worried about the effects of the condition on their sex life.
So, is a sense of smell superfluous to a satisfying sex life, or do people with a subpar schnoz had no idea what they’re missing?
Sniff my stick
Bendas and her colleagues invited 70 male and female volunteers to her lab. All of these volunteers had a normal, healthy sense of smell. Why no clinical patients? Well, a severe loss of smell can be associated with depression, or sinus problems that make breathing difficult. These psychological and physical conditions could have negative effects on a person’s love life. By only recruiting unaffected volunteers, Bendas hoped to rule out the influence of these extraneous variables. Besides, healthy people can have relatively good or bad senses of smell, just as we can differ in the quality of our eyesight or the sensitivity of our palates.
Bendas tested all of her volunteers using Sniffin’ Sticks. This is the standard test of “nasal chemosensory performance” (that’s sense of smell, for monosyllable fans). The task involves sniffing a series of sticks that look a bit like marker pens. Once uncapped, some of these pens release the smell of alcohol; others are odorless. It’s the volunteer’s task to pick out the smelly sticks. Of course, as the task proceeds it gets more difficult as the concentration of the alcohol becomes lower and lower.
There’s also a ‘fun’ variant of the test where the volunteer has to identify which food each pen smells like: carrot, garlic, onion, or sauerkraut (because, yes, the Sniffin’ Sticks test was developed in Germany).
After the smell test, Bendas had her volunteers report on their sex lives. They answered questions about their sexual desire, sexual performance, and sexual experience. How strong was their desire for masturbation or sex with a partner? How frequently did they have sex, and for how long? How enjoyable were their sexual experiences?
Bendas and her colleagues found no link between the sensitivity of her volunteers’ sense of smell and their sexual desire or sexual performance. However, those with more sensitive noses did report enjoying their sex lives more.
Women with a better sense of smell also reported experiencing more frequent orgasms: women with the least sensitive noses reported reaching climax around 17% of the time, while women with a nose like a bloodhound (I mean powerful, not wet) reported achieving orgasm about 60% of the time. For perhaps obvious reasons, men weren’t asked about orgasm frequency…
Many animals — such as elephants, red-bellied newts, and even goldfish — emit pheromones to attract a mate. Humans don’t, but Bendas’ findings show that odor is central to our sexual experiences. In fact, a satisfying sex life may simply be a case of following your nose.