How much money, effort, and time do we spend in the quest to be attractive? How many deodorants, scented shampoos, perfumes, colognes, and body washes do we purchase to mask the natural scent of our body, so someone might think we smell attractive? There are five scent-masking agents listed here, and the reader could probably think up three or four that we missed. How many hours do we spend spraying, brushing, scrubbing, applying, lathering, and repeating if necessary? Recent surveys have reported that scent factors very low on our list of things we seek in a mate. So, why do we do it? Why do we spend do so much money and effort trying to give the illusion that we don’t smell?
What drives attraction if not scent? Our peer group suggests it’s all about large muscles, glands, and bulges in the front, and the back (wallet) are the keys to attraction, but do these visual cues override the 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 what they smell like? Pablo Picasso believed that they did. He believed the basis of human attraction involved visual cues that are located in the symmetry and angles of the face and the human form. Sex sells, blunter groups will say, so show your angles, reveal that symmetry, display your organs and glands in a tasteful, or tasty, manner. Wear tighter clothing, reveal more cleavage, accentuate that walk in a manner that has them flipping and flopping, and the world will beat a path to your floor. If you got it, flaunt it!
In her Serendip Studio piece, Meghan McCabe writes that attraction is not as complex as Picasso theorizes, and it may not be as simple as the chants of those blunter groups. She says that the basis of sexual attraction centers on “airborne chemicals called pheromones.” She said 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) that is a part of the olfactory system and located inside the mouth and nose. She believes that pheromones are “chemically detected, or communicated, from one human to another by an unidentified part of the olfactory system.” Those of us that cake our neck with perfumes and colognes, in other words, are wasting a whole lot of money on smells, when most research on pheromones in humans indicates that the main odor-producing organ reside on the skin, in the skin’s apocrine sebaceous glands.
The skin produces more agents to attract than the entire line of the products in the beauty and grooming section of your local drug store combined. 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 may be a valuable tool in attracting a mate. Yet, we don’t care for the smell of underarm odor, and we don’t think anyone else does either. On the surface. On the surface, we may find this whole idea humorous, yet even those laughing would admit that our understanding of why we do what we do, even on the surface, is subject to further review. If we entered the word subconscious into our argument, most people might stop laughing.
Even those open to the idea would be far too insecure to walk out of the house with even a hint of organic odor on them, knowing that even a subtle smell would lead them to be insecure when talking to a prospective mate. Therefore, we wash away those odors, and we scrub them away when we fear that masking our scent with a topical deodorant may not be enough.
It’s also impossible for us to believe that the subtle smell of urine may cause sexual excitation in a prospective mate. Urine stinks. The very idea of it causes us revulsion when we walk into an unclean bathroom, and we associate the smell with a general lack of cleanliness. We think the key to attracting a mate is convincing them we don’t have odors, 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. We believe we need help attracting a mate, and we seek assistance from those companies that spend millions in research and development to come up with that perfect chemical combination that puts us over the top in the race to attract people. McCabe and Dr. Goldsmith believe that most of these products are not just a waste of money, and they may be counterproductive.
Contrary to what the marketing arms of these companies sell to the public, the key to sexual attraction lies in the skin. The skin contains apocrine sebaceous glands that produce pheromones. Many believe the skin’s apocrine sebaceous glands produce the most abundant pheromones 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. “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 (body) hairs produce these pheromone messages, but that the hairs hold onto the chemical stimuli that the skin’s apocrine sebaceous glands produce.” Yet, 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 of 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 the 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 a smegma substance found on and around the reproductive organs, and in urine. The fact that men’s bodies secrete these substances, and that women have a greater sensitivity to them, when they are most fertile, indicates that there may be an olfactory role for these substances in human sexuality.
It is also important to note that while researchers believe that the vomeronasal organ (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 will not have a dominant role in attraction. In addition, while the VNO’s functions link to the sense of smell, this does not mean that it’s relation to scent is as direct as one might guess.
The VNO detects these chemical messages called pheromones, and it is possible that an overwhelming scent could overwhelm the VNO’s ability to detect these subtle chemical messages. If the sense of smell dominates, the message that the brain receives might be the smell, leaving the chemical messages that the VNO picks up as secondary. Coating one’s self in urine, in other words, will not increase one’s chances for attracting a mate. It is not true, for example, 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 produce no sexual attraction. The messages that the other senses send to the brain regarding visible fecal matter would drown out any subtle chemical stimuli the VNO detected even if it managed to gather sexual attractants as it makes contact with the skin.
Urine in and of itself is not a pheromone producing agent, but when the liquid we drink comes in contact with the various parts of our body that produce pheromones it holds those pheromones in the same manner body hair will. As stated above, however, urine does produce a slight, musk smell that women are attracted to at certain times of the month, and in faint doses –where the overall smell of it does not dominate– it could contain some attractants
The study of pheromones, the functions listed above of the VNO, and the very idea that humans are susceptible to them, in the same manner other animals in the animal kingdom are, is a controversial one. For every study that suggests that humans are no different from any other animal when it comes to chemical attraction, there is another study suggests that the definitive conclusions reached are not conclusive.
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