Women are more likely to orgasm during sex if they have an acute sense of smell, according to a new study in Archives of Sexual Behavior. Researchers tested the sniffers of 70 adults and found that men and women with more sensitive noses were most likely to report enjoying sex, although they did not have greater sexual desire or sexual performance than their peers.
“What it actually influenced was the quality. Whether people found sex more pleasant—not whether people had more sex,” Anne-Sophie Barwich, a cognitive scientist, philosopher, and historian (who was not involved in the study) told Fatherly. “It also shows how important context is. Body odor is ambiguous. It stinks, but with a candlelit dinner it’s actually very arousing.”
Humans probably don’t produce pheromones, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune to the arousing effects of body odor. Smell plays a central role in the sexual behaviors of most mammals, including humans, and there’s ample evidence that we select mates at least partly based on their odors. A series of well-publicized studies from the 90s asked women to smell men’s sweaty tee shirts (real progressive), and concluded that fertile women prefer the odors of the fittest and most genetically diverse men. Long before that, human mating rituals revolved around odor. In 19th century Austria, Barwich says, young women would attend town dances with slices of apple under their armpits. If they hit it off with a young man, “they danced all night, then gave the sweated-on apple to the man in question, and if he liked her he wolfed it down.”
“There has always been a cultural link between sexual pleasure and smell, but of course it was mainly anecdotal,” Barwich says. “Only now are we starting to look at it more scientifically.”
For this new study, researchers first asked participants between 18 and 36 years of age to sniff a series of felt-tipped pens, containing successively dilute odors. This helped them rate each participant’s sense of smell. Then, the volunteers answered questions about their sexual desire, sexual experience, and sexual performance. They found a strong correlation among both men and women when it came to sense of smell and sexual experience—which included orgasm frequency—but no connection between sense of smell and sexual desire or performance.
That’s a bit surprising, as one would expect that people who find sex most enjoyable would also want to have sex most often. Barwich has a theory that may explain the discrepancy. “It might be a bit of a brutish comparison, but when it comes to good food you don’t necessarily eat more just because you enjoy it,” she says. “Some people savor very good food without stuffing their faces. Just because something is more pleasurable doesn’t mean you indulge in it more.”
The study has few practical implications—if you have an acute sense of smell, it’s good news. If you have a broken sniffer, not so much. But Barwich suspects there may be a lesson in here, about how our rational minds and more basic biological sense (smell, for instance) work in concert. “We are trained to think of humans as these rational beings, which is why we’re so fascinated by smell. This instinctive side of us—we’re intrigued and appalled by it. Can we really be that easily overpowered?” she says. “Reason and biological power don’t need to be opposites. It just means that there’s much more going on than we’re consciously aware of.”