How to Pick a Lover

It starts with her beauty in my eyes, it moves...

Pheromones may be the “body chemistry” that attracts people to each other . . . they do not have to be consciously perceived to have an effect.
—Janet Hyde, Understanding Human Sexuality

Among animals, sexual arousal is very dependent upon pheromones, which are sexually attractive odors that facilitate communication. A single lady moth of amorous intent can draw hundreds of gentlemen moths from a radius of many miles. She exudes the original something in the air, and they are irresistibly attracted. Similar effects are known for such mammals as dogs and primates.

While there has been considerable debate about the existence of comparable odors called sexones in humans and what their possible effects might be, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley recently found the first direct evidence that people secrete a scent that influences the hormones of the opposite sex. According to the Berkeley researchers, women who sniffed a chemical called androstadienone, present in male sweat, experienced elevated levels of an important hormone, along with heightened sexual arousal, a faster heart rate, and other effects. Compared with other animals, humans may not be as attuned to the sense of smell and we may not rely on it nearly as much as we do on other senses like sight or sound; but apparently, for women, there is nothing like the smell of a man’s sweat.

A young friend of mine came back from a Caribbean vacation, proud of her all over tan and bubbling with enthusiasm about her adventures. She reported, “I was just sitting on the beach one day, next to this almost-naked man whose skin glistened lightly in the sun from having been washed by the sea; and I knew, I just knew, that his toes would taste delicious. And so they did!”

Whether or not the debate about the existence of sexones has finally been settled and whether or not we understand what role they play in human sexuality, the fact remains that every person has a distinctive body scent. You don’t have to be a German shepherd to recognize the scent of people you know well. You remember, although you will find it difficult to express, the scent of your mother, your father, your brother, or any person you have lived in close contact with for a long time.

There are almost no words to describe such very real perceptions. Some people do smell wonderful. Some don’t smell at all, and some smell bad. There is really no debating such judgments. Everyone who is unwashed for many days smells, although if you are unwashed as well, your sensitivity may be reduced. Even squeaky-clean bodies have a scent or develop one if they work up a good, clean sweat. One man’s good, clean sweat is heady; another man’s good, clean sweat is just sweaty.

Napoleon Bonaparte once wrote to the Empress Josephine, “I will be home in five days, six days at the latest. Pray do not bathe until I arrive.” You cannot defend a taste you cannot even describe because there are no words. The test, however, is simple: do you want more or less? Do you want to come closer, or do you want to pull away?

Despite what the deodorant commercials say, body odor may play an important role in physical attraction. Some body odors are enticing, and in that case, Napoleon was not so far off base after all. However, some body odors are not, and there is no defense against that judgment or any polite way to explain to a potential lover, “Yes, but . . . I don’t like how you smell.” In any case, if the sexones are heady enough, all of the rational decisionmaking process may become irrelevant!

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