How much time, money, and effort do we spend in our quest to be attractive? How many deodorants, scented shampoos, perfumes, colognes, and body washes do we purchase to mask the natural scent of our bodies, so someone, somewhere might find our scent pleasant? How many hours do we spend spraying, brushing, scrubbing, applying, lathering, and repeating if necessary? Recent surveys report that scent factors very low on our list of priorities when seeking a mate. Why, then, do we spend so much money and effort to present the illusion that we don’t have an unappealing odor?
What drives attraction, if not scent? Societal conditioning leads us to believe it’s more about muscles, glands, and bulges in the front and back, but do these visual cues override our sense of smell? Does a person with a sculpted, angular face, great hair, perfect teeth, and a strong chin have an advantage in the world of attraction, regardless of their scent? Pablo Picasso believed they do. He believed the basis of human attraction involves visual cues in the symmetry and angles of the face and the human form. Blunter groups argue that it’s all about being sexy. “Sex sells,” they chant, “so, show your angles, reveal that symmetry, and display those organs and glands in a tasteful or tasty manner. Wear tighter clothing, reveal more cleavage, and accentuate that walk in a manner that will have them flipping and flopping on their path to your pelvic floor.”
In her Serendip Studio piece, Meghan McCabe wrote that attraction is not as complex as Picasso theorizes, nor is it as simple as the blunter groups’ chants.(1) She says sexual attraction centers on “airborne chemicals called pheromones,” and she adds that these “airborne and odorless molecules emitted by an individual can cause changes in the physiology and/or behavior of another individual.” We sense these pheromones in our vomeronasal organ (VNO), which is part of the olfactory system and located inside the mouth and nose. She believes pheromones are “chemically detected, or communicated, from one human to another by an unidentified part of the olfactory system.” Those of us who cake our necks with perfumes and cologne, in other words, are just wasting a whole lot of money on chemical scents, because most research on human pheromones concludes that the main odor-producing organ is the skin, courtesy of the apocrine sebaceous glands.
The skin produces more attraction agents than the entire line of the products in the personal grooming section of your local drugstore. This notion is impossible to sell, however, so we don’t buy it. We don’t buy the idea that the subtle smell of underarm odor could be a valuable tool in attracting a mate. We don’t care for the smell of underarm odor, and we don’t think anyone else does either. On the surface, the whole idea may seem humorous or even ludicrous, yet even those laughing must admit that our understanding of why we do what we do, even on the surface, is subject to further review. When we submit the word subconscious into our argument, most people stop laughing. That word is loaded with a stable of ideas most of know little about, and we’ve been on the wrong end of that argument so many times that we now concede to the idea that we don’t know why we do many of the things we do.
Even those who are open to the idea of body odor as some kind of subconscious agent of attraction would be far too insecure to walk out of the house with even a hint of organic odor on them. Most would feel insecure carrying even a subtle smell, to the point of being afraid to talk to a prospective mate. Therefore, we wash and scrub those odors away when we fear that masking our scent with a topical deodorant might not be enough.
Jousting is commonly understood as a martial game of the Middle Ages. Jousting was a popular form of entertainment that involved two armored knights attempting to unseat one another from their horses. The goal was to replicate the clashes that occurred during heavy cavalry. The spoils of victory, which many of us have witnessed at Renaissance fair reenactments or in the movies included a damsel’s handkerchief, and the victorious knight huffing on that handkerchief with celebratory joy. Most believe the greater importance of such a scene is symbolic. We believe it is a visual depiction of the sweet smell of success, on par with drinking wine from a gullet or showering a locker room in champagne. The portrayals of this moment in modern cinema may illustrate it as a damsel giving her hand to the victor, but in historical actuality, the damsel would have carried that small swatch of fabric in her armpit for the entirety of the jousting match. According to an article posted by Helen Gabriel, after the handkerchief spent a sufficient amount of time in the damsel’s underarm area, it was coated with her smegma, and the jouster’s reward for victory was greater knowledge of the damsel’s true essence when he huffed it.(2)
Having said all that, people needn’t look to the animal kingdom or its artificial equivalents developed in research labs to find an attractant. We might be able to unlock the greatest attractant ever known by bathing less often. It may seem contradictory, but the modern ritual of daily bathing deprives us of the very human scents that are, in many ways, attractants. That said, if you do not bathe very often, your visual cues would suffer. Some might consider this a juggling act fraught with peril, but if we manage our bathing rituals in such a manner that our visual cues still score high in the world of attraction, we might be able to maximize our smegma production. Doing so, according to the research scientists quoted here, could land us atop the dating world, without us having to say so much as a kind word to anyone. As our culture dictates, we are required and expected to bathe and wash away this smegma, which is particularly located on and around our reproductive organs and in our urine, on a day-to-day basis. The same prospective dating community then requires us to replace those scents we wash away with those found in a beaver’s castoreum, civet, musk, and on the tip of a boar’s sexual organs or their preputial glands.
It’s also impossible for us to believe that the subtle smell of urine can sexually excite a prospective mate. Urine stinks. The very idea of the smell of urine causes revulsion when we walk into an unsanitary bathroom, and we associate the smell with a general lack of cleanliness. We think the key to attracting a mate is convincing them we have no natural odor and that we don’t engage in impolite body functions, or at least we don’t want those thoughts at the forefront of a person’s mind when they’re talking to us.
We are an insecure people, but we are also competitive. Our insecurity might provide subtext for our competitiveness, for we seek assistance from companies that spend millions in research and development to come up with the perfect chemical combination that will put us over the top in the race to attract others. McCabe and Dr. Goldsmith believe most of these products are not just a waste of money may also be counterproductive.
Contrary to what the marketing arms push so hard to sell to the public, the key to sexual attraction lies in the skin. The apocrine sebaceous glands mentioned before produce pheromones in great abundance, particularly in the sweat glands and in tufts of body hair that are located everywhere on the surface of the body.
“They [pheromones] do tend to center themselves in six primary areas,” Melissa Kaplan writes in her Herp Care collection piece. (3) “The underarm, the nipples (of both genders), the genital region, the outer region of the lips, the eyelids, and the outer rims of the ears. This is not due to the fact that the hairs [on these parts of the body] produce these pheromone messages, but that the hairs hold onto the chemical stimuli that the skin’s apocrine sebaceous glands produce.” Nevertheless, most of us shave these pheromone holders away to attract a mate.
While many believe we have natural predilections to these pheromones, we are not attracted to them all the time. Women, for example, are no more attracted to the smell of musk than men are during a woman’s menstruation cycle. Ten days after ovulation, however, women become very sensitive to it. Production of this musk substance also occurs by synthetic means, as it is in exaltolide, but it is also a substance produced in a cat’s anal glands and on the tip of a boar’s sexual organs or their preputial glands. Ten days after menstruation, women reach a peak in estrogen production, and this causes them to be far more susceptible to the musk scent.
Production of musk tends to occur in the underarms, in smegma found on and around the reproductive organs, and in urine. The fact that men secrete these substances and women have a greater sensitivity to them when they are most fertile is an indication that there may be an olfactory role for these substances in human sexuality.
It is also important to note that while researchers believe the (VNO) is a powerful organ in detecting chemical stimuli that leads to attraction, other stimuli can overwhelm the messages this organ receives. If a person provides no visual stimuli to a prospective mate, for example, chemical messaging might not play a dominant role in attraction. In addition, while VNO functions link to the sense of smell, this does not mean its relation to scent is as direct as one might guess.
The VNO detects these chemical messages, these pheromones, and it is possible that an overwhelming scent could impede the VNO’s ability to do so. If the sense of smell dominates, the message the brain receives might be only the smell, and the chemical message will be secondary. Coating oneself in urine, in other words, will not increase one’s chances to attract a mate. It is also not true that fecal matter contains sexual attractants, even though it gathers some as it makes contact with areas of the skin believed to produce these pheromones. So dabbing a little fecal matter behind the ears before going out on the town will induce no sexual attraction. The messages sent to the brain by other senses regarding visible fecal matter would drown out any subtle chemical stimuli the VNO detected, even if it managed to gather sexual attractants as it made contact with the skin.
Urine, in and of itself, is not a pheromone-producing agent, but when the liquid we drink makes contact with the various parts of our body that produce pheromones, it holds those pheromones in the same manner that body hair will. As stated above, however, urine does produce a slight musk scent that women are attracted to at certain times of the month, and in faint doses –when the overall smell does not dominate– it could contain some attractants
The study of pheromones, VNO functions, and the very idea that humans are susceptible to them in the same manner other animals are, is controversial. For every study that suggests that humans are no different from any other animal when it comes to chemical attraction, another study counters that these definitive conclusions are anything but conclusive.
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