The Strange And Elusive Science Of Smell And Sex

Katie Tandy
Aug 1 · 16 min read

II ‘ll just blurt it out before I lose my nerve. I smell.

You likely know what that means, although in my case, just so we’re clear, I smell like onion soup. I can step from the shower, skin gleaming and taut and pink and shining, the hot gusts of steam still fogging the mirror — and smell.

It started of course — like so many bodily wrestlings that prove to be lifelong — around puberty, around 12. My hyperhidrosis is also hereditary — both my mother and my aunt suffer at the hands of being “overly sweaty” women.

Beginning in high school, my armpits became the center of my very universe.

I attended boarding school, which allowed me to indulge the compulsive management of my sweat and smell; I changed clothes three to four times a day, slathering on Secret and Teen Spirit and when I was feeling particularly fearful, Mitchum or Speed Stick for men. They all came in scents like Pink Crush and Spring Breeze and Mountain Air and Active Fresh and they all smelled like a chemical bath.

Rivulets of sweat would stream down my sides as I typed madly typed my papers in the computer lounge. After field hockey or lacrosse practice, I would duck into the dining hall bathroom before dinner and clandestinely scrub my armpits with hand soap while hiding in the stall. Or I’d line my shirt with paper towels — pinning the damp rags between my arms and body. Or if I thought no one was coming for a few minutes, I would crouch beneath the hand drier and let the hot air work its magic. And then apply more deodorant. Oh, and then for extra-special events — like prom of course! — where my “situation” would escalate due to close (and exciting) proximity to other humans and/or was capable of ruining whatever I was wearing, I had an over-the-counter antiperspirant from my doctor made of almost pure aluminum chloride.

It left my armpits raw and swollen and itching and red. It felt more than worth it. That burning sensation let me know my humiliation was at bay. My body was under control.

My poor Mother. She was trying to shrug off the crushing misogyny and shame of her Catholic upbringing, but she couldn’t help but grimace sadly when I got into the car. She’d wait for the appropriate three-sentence check-in, asking me how school was or if I bombed my Spanish test, and then she’d wrinkle her nose in pity and distaste. Your body odor is very strong right now, she’d sigh, slipping the car into traffic. My response tended to be a vague, Yeah, I know — accompanied by a hard stare out the window — or an aggressive snarl that can only come from being defeated. You think I don’t know that?! I’d bellow, eyes burning with tears. Neither interaction was satisfactory. She still had a daughter who stank.

Your skin boasts two main types of sweat glands — eccrine and apocrine. Eccrine glands occur just about everywhere in your body; they pour their damp hearts right out on the surface of your skin, whereas apocrine glands gather like vampiric gnomes in the shadowy places where hair abounds. Like your armpits and groin.

When your body temperature rises, your autonomic nervous system — a system that is utterly out of your control, like your heart-rate or breathing — tells these glands to start sweating. The sweat on your skin cools your body as it evaporates; the fluid that emerges from your apocrine glands is more milky and viscous than that of the eccrine, but both are odorless. That is…until it combines with the bacteria on your skin.

The bacteria break down the lipids in your sweat into (among other things) butyric and propionic acid, which — dare your inquiring mind to know — smells like vinegar and onions and all things noxious and unpleasant. Oh. And they only become functional after puberty, when we start searching for mates. Just in time to cause some psychological damage!

Why I sweat more is the 100 million dollar question — garlic consumption? My penchant for chocolate? Spicy foods? A good dousing from the shallow end of the gene pool? My anxiety?

The answer is likely yes. All these things. Or it could be none of these things. But I’m here to tell you I don’t smell because I don’t shower. I smell because I’m Katie Tandy and I live on this earth in this body.

Despite my sometimes chest-crushing fear of being The Smelly Girl in high school, I had lots of wonderful roll-arounds and loving, awkward, full-of-orgasms fledgling sex — so much sex in the woods, in the back of cars, on frayed blankets in frigid fields, anywhere but a bed! — and no one ever said much about my smell. That was likely because I was vigilant about my hygiene — treating my armpits like enemy soldiers that had to be beaten into submission thrice-daily — but my larger point is that my smell had yet to occupy a focal point of my politics and sexuality. My sense of self. Of being a woman. Of being a smelly woman.

And then college rolled around. Suddenly, something snapped inside of me. I felt exhausted at managing my body to make it more palatable; I didn’t want to douse myself in weird chemicals.

I refused to wear anything. No more antiperspirant, perfume, deodorant, salt sticks, rubbing alcohol, “bird baths” in the sink or wet strands of toilet tissue clinging to my armpits. There in the suburban bowels of Allentown, Pennsylvania, I decided to wear my smell like a protest.

You stink! my friends would holler and laugh. Yup, I’d smirk. People don’t smell like a Fiji Breeze! I smell like a human!

But then came *Louis and *Arnold — two recent boyfriends — back to back. Louis loved me hard and strong, we had excellent (if occasionally fraught sex) but he hated the way I smelled. We dated for two years and all the while he wrung his hands about my stench. (I will say that at this point, I was 30 years old and have had many office jobs had managed to foster a relationship with my smell that was societally more appropriate. I dug my oniony crevices, but I just had to curb them. Like a naughty dog. I wasn’t still roaming the streets utterly rogue like my collegiate days, causing an olfactory blowout. I wore a natural deodorant most days. I smelled like something akin to bread most of the time.)

Arnold however? Who I’m dating now? Loves. my. smell. (So did my old cat, Bernard. When I’d get home from work Bernard would grind his face and body against the straps of my backpack where they met my armpits. Freak! I’d holler, scooping him into my arms. You’re a real little freak you know that!?)

Arnold will bury his face in my armpit, resting his head on my shoulder and just lie there, breathing slowly. C’mon, he insists in the morning. Give me a huff. After yoga or biking or a long night of dancing, I’ll rip off my shirt and swing it around like a stripper before tossing it at him. Get a load of that I’ll say. Woooooooah! he grins and pretends to pass out upon smelling it.

It’s really fun. And gross. And nice. And as it turns out? Extremely important to me.

But I couldn’t shake the gnawing question of why? Why did my smell seem wonderful to Arnold, but noxious to Louis? Just what is the relationship between attraction and smell — what is inherent and what is learned? What transpires psychologically to make someone attracted to something they once had an aversion to or vice versa? In terms of romantic : physical attraction can we learn to “overcome” things that are unattractive to us? Are pheromones real?

Armed with this barrage of questions, I reached out to Dr. Michelle Marzullo, a professor and chair of the Human Sexuality Ph.D. Program at the California Institute for Integral Studies.

Marzullo began by quickly digging into Affect Theory — it can get heady and overly cerebral but in essence, as New Yorker writer Hua Hsu deftly explains, Affect Theory argues that “our world [is] shaped not simply by narratives and arguments but also by nonlinguistic effects — by mood, by atmosphere, by feelings.”

Marzullo is wont to agree. “I’m talking about the things that are driving us that are below our perception,” she says to me. “How do these things rise to our consciousness or emotional reaction and what are those things and how do they work on sexual desire and general behavior?”

She says these questions and concepts are in short, huge and unwieldy and complicated as they sit at the crux of biology, society and one’s personal experiences; it’s hard to parse out the “why’s” when there are so many variables.

But, she laughed, “I often put sex and food in similar categories — they’re both so influenced by culture.”

Marzullo explains that our taste in foods and sex — as individuals and as a society — change all the time. ‘Delicious’ is a moving target subject to the same flurry of conditioning and converging winds as any trend or societal norm. (One need look no further than 1950s cuisine — tuna casseroles! ambrosia! jello molds galore! bologna everything! — to glimpse the dramatic shift in ‘delicious American cuisine’ that she’s talking about.)

She also points to some of the arguments around paraphilias — kinks — and how and why people develop them. “Let’s take the idea of Bukakke,” she said to me. (The act of many men ejaculating on the face of one woman.) “This idea started because of pornography regulations in Japan — you can’t show penis/vagina close-ups of actual penetration, etc. etc. etc. — so porn producers went, ‘OK so I’ll show this.’ It was an elevation of a practice that was created because of censorship. Now this practice in prevalent in porn and people’s fantasies — but how did it come about, how did it get to this mass scale? Culture.”

The Social Issues Research Center published a Smell Report that traces the complicated Anglo-Euro western narrative — i.e. primarily England and America — around body odor, disease, the dawn of perfume as an aesthetic choice (as opposed to a medical curative) and the vast cultural shifts that accompanied our collective relationship to smell.

They point out that in the 17th and 18th century doctors promoted the use of perfumes to combat infection citing the work of celebrated physicians of the Ancient world like, “Hippocrates (who burned scented stakes to combat the plague of Athens), Galen and Crito (whose healing methods were based almost entirely on the use of aromatics).” They were correct in perceiving that body odor can be an indication of illness but were sadly misguided in their attempts to combat disease and mental illness with a variety of sachets and fragrances. Everything from the plague to “hysteria, amenorrhea, melancholia, hypochondria, headaches, and the common cold — despite growing skepticism about their efficacy among some scientists” were treated with smelly tinctures.

What’s most interesting to me however — as fledgling science is largely a harrowing blur of misogyny and dangerous misinformation — is the popularity of dank heavy animal smells designed to accentuate the natural animal-y stench of women. I was born in the wrong goddamn decade my darlings.

“Until the late 18th century, the most popular fragrances for aesthetic rather than medical purposes were the powerful, heavy perfumes derived from animals — musk, civet, and ambergris.” Psychologist Havelock Ellis says women used perfume as a means of emphasizing, rather than masking, their natural body odor; these heady earthy smells were designed to have the same effect as corsets — accentuating and exaggerating the female form.

And in typical Industrial Revolution-cum capitalist fashion, perfumers nearly drove the gentle musk deer extinct in “their haste to mass-market sexual attraction.”

But as the 18th century wore on, advances in hygiene encouraged a fashion for more “subtle and delicate fragrances” that didn’t “cast doubt upon the wearer’s cleanliness and their associations with animal reproductive instincts became distasteful to the newly modest and fastidious trend-setters.”

It’s 2017 and Louis and I are about to move in together when my smell rears its gnarled and shameful head, a slender, shadowed asp flaring its teeth in fear and exhaustion. This night marks the beginning of our end.

It’s Saturday and a bunch of us are headed out to go dancing. I’m in a pink crop top I bought at a fire sale at Charlotte Russe and it makes me feel like a 1995 teenager; my tiny breasts are almost entirely visible, but I’m close to androgynous. Taut, slathered in sparkly eyeliner, high tops.

I was excited for him to bear witness, to take in what I felt was surely a kind of radiation. Instead he’s withdrawn and distant. I’m drinking whiskey and swinging my hips back and forth, back and forth — my body gleans with delight. He won’t touch me. I start to behave even bigger.

I follow my mother’s advice and don’t start a fight while I’ve been drinking. I wait for the sun to break through the bay window of my bedroom and ask him what’s wrong.

We end up at Albany Bulb, a once landfill, now dog park — a graffitied, forested, wonderland.

I throw sticks to his beautiful bluetick hound, admiring his flashing black body, lithe as an eel. We fight along the way. Louis says that he does things for me that he knows I find attractive — grew his hair long, wears tight jeans — so why is he such a monster for asking me to do the same?

It’s not the same! I bellow, spitting each word out like a cherry pit. It’s not something I can just take on and off like a pair of shoes! It’s the smell of my body! You’re embarrassed by me and it’s exhausting.

I’m not embarrassed by you, I adore you! he says. I just want you to wear deodorant! His voice grows incredulous and higher-pitched.

Making myself small and soft and sweet-smelling makes me feel shitty, like I’m being controlled! I cry. Like I’m an object to be consumed on someone else’s terms. I’m not a dessert I’m a human being!

He lifts his eyebrows and I know he hears me. But that only means we’re at an impasse. We’re supposed to go to a wedding together the next day, but we decide it’s better I don’t come. I spend the afternoon making a special deodorant from arrowroot and coconut oil like some kind of twisted penance. I tell myself that relationships require compromise. I tell myself it’s a bodily version of code-switching. But my heart doesn’t believe it — it feels like a stone in my gut.

He calls me from the wedding. I hate being here without you, he chokes out. Will you please come? I drag purple eyeshadow across my lids; they look like dragonfly wings. I put on a huge necklace and bright green high-heels and slather my little armpit concoction on my body.

I show up feeling beautiful and swollen from crying. I worry all night that my dancing and my subsequent smell have made me shameful to him again. That he’s regretted having begged me to come.

The photos of us at the wedding reveal nothing — we’re laughing hard and our limbs are swinging in time — and I’m reminded of all the lies we all tell every day.

The Smell Report says that “scent-preferences are often a highly personal matter,” coupled tightly with specific memories and associations. “Experiments have shown that we tend to ‘like what we know’: people give higher pleasantness ratings to smells which they are able to identify correctly.” (Am I unidentifiable? Is a woman smelling like an onion so strange a combination so as it to render it a threat?)

“There are also some fragrances which appear to be universally perceived as ‘pleasant’ — such as vanilla, an increasingly popular ingredient in perfumes which has long been a standard ‘pleasant odor’ in psychological experiments,” bringing about warmly vague feelings of well-being.

If vanilla is the hot heart of all things pleasant — warm milk, hot chocolate, cake, rewards, childhood — what did my smell conjure for him?

Michelle Marzullo tries to quell some of my rage and sadness. She tells me without telling me that his aversion to my smell was not a denouncement of my being or my feminism or even my body, but an ineffable and convoluted convergence of society and biology — in short? It wasn’t his fault. Were my pheromones all wrong? I asked. Are pheromones an observable thing?

“The basis is that there are some hormones that we may be sensing at the affective level — it’s not in our conscious minds,” she tells me. “We’re responding well before we have the ability to put language on our feelings, so we know there are things working on us and driving us towards certain desires. Sometimes those things are hormones that we can sense or smell. Some of the receptors are in the lining of our mouth and nose — like the way you react to an allergen for example.”

But, she continued, the studies on these hormones and the relationship to all our different receptors are highly mixed and inconclusive because it’s hugely difficult to achieve the level of control necessary to parse out all the different factors.

“You can’t do a ‘classic’ experiment with people. ‘OK take a year of your life and live in this sterile box for me so we can control everything you’re exposed to. And we’re going to cycle in certain people to expose you to and then we’re going to measure that.’ It’s completely unethical and would drive people over the edge! So scientists have used various approaches to get at this question.”

Whereupon she reminded me of the infamous White T-shirt study — it came out when I was 21, just a wee bairn in the living forest. I had forgotten all about it. In short, a team led by Swissman Claus Wedekind at the University of Bern decided to see whether MHC differences in men’s apocrine gland secretions affected cis women’s reactions to cis male smells. (A segment of our DNA is called the major histocompatibility complex — MHC. It codes for some of our ever-clever disease-detecting structures; in essence, it functions as the ‘immune system’s eyes.’)

The team recruited just under 100 college students hailing from different schools to minimize the possibility they knew each other. The men were given untreated cotton T-shirts to wear as they slept alone for two consecutive nights; they were to avoid spicy foods, cologne, perfumed soap, drinking, sex, and of course, deodorant. During the day, their sweaty precious cargo was kept in sealed plastic containers.

Meanwhile, for two weeks prior, women had been using a nasal spray to protect and cleanse the delicate mucous membranes lining the nose. Then! Around the time the women were ovulating and their olfactory sensitivity skyrockets (the Smell Report says that a woman’s sense of smell sensitivity to male pheromones is 10,000 times stronger during ovulation than during menstruation) they were presented with the stinky t-shirts. They were asked to rate each man’s shirt for “sexiness,” “pleasantness,” and “intensity of smell.”

The point is, the women’s noses told them everything they needed to know; “sexiness” depended entirely on how much of their MHC profile they shared. They were most excited by men whose DNA was the most different from their own. The smells of some men were elating — a teeth-gnashing turn-on! — while that very same smell was a gag-inducing huff to others.

But, I sigh to myself, that was women rejecting men. As it turns out, “nobody yet knows what roles MHC may play in male evaluations of female attractiveness,” says F. Bryant Furlow of Psychology Today. But, as Furlow deftly points out, it’s vastly better women can vet out those who will taint her womb. A poor choice in a mate could prove a lifelong struggle or a child unlikely to survive — for the man it’s but a few moments of shuddering pleasure.

Marzullo maintains she still thinks desire and smell is more complicated than genetic compatibility. “We know the environment and our genes interact continuously and the person I am growing up in California is not the same person I’d develop to be in Washington DC — there are different climates, foods, exposures. This is an open question: reproducing with someone who smells good to you — does that just help reproductive fit or is it more around sexual pleasure? ‘I want to have sex with someone and certain smells are more arousing.’ We’ve had mixed results — that means that there is something there — but what do these things actually do for us?”

Moreover, huge swathes of the population aren’t cis or straight and potential reproduction plays little to no part in their sexuality or choice of a mate; their relationship with their olfactory senses and the smells of lovers is being informed by vastly more than just their MHC.

Amid all these questions, one thing is certain Marzullo says.

“Sex is dangerous. We’re face-to-face, completely naked without any weapons trusting that the other person isn’t going to kill us during this interaction. Humans are at the top of the food chain — we’re the most dangerous organism on earth. But thankfully we’ve developed these different pleasure mechanisms to make this dangerous activity a happy one.”

PULPMAG

PULP is a multimedia sex, sexuality, and reproductive rights publication celebrating this human coil hurtling through time and space.

Katie Tandy

Written by

co-founding editor // medium.com/PULPMAG // former co-founder | theestablishment.co | writer. playwright. singer. nail biter. feminist. bibliophile.

PULPMAG

PULPMAG

PULP is a multimedia sex, sexuality, and reproductive rights publication celebrating this human coil hurtling through time and space.

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