Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Erotic Laundry Hamper: T-shirts and Testosterone


He held the panties in his hand and continued to kiss her, leaving her moist and panting. Then he turned away and buried his face in the panties, in the nightgown, wrapped the stockings around his penis, laid the black silk dress over his belly. The clothes seemed to have the same effect as a hand. He was convulsed with excitement.

[From Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin.]
It’s tempting to think of the Basque’s response to the scent of Bijou’s clothes as nothing more than a personal kink, another odd sexual habit that Anaïs Nin was directed to write about by her lubricious pornographic patron.

But the arousing effect of feminine body scent is a resonant theme in literature and locker room—it seems to address something fundamentally biological in a vaguely primate way.

Sensory psychologists—much to the distaste of a certain perfume snob and his pedestrian second spouse—have given lots of attention to the links between smell and sex. Direct olfactory evaluations show that female body odor varies across the menstrual cycle. Men find BO from women in the luteal phase of the cycle less pleasant than BO from women in the follicular (i.e., fertile) phase.

The possibility that men can sniff their way to tactically useful information about a woman’s reproductive status throws a wrench into the conventional wisdom that human females are, in the technical jargon, “concealed ovulators.” But that’s a story for another day.

We focus here on the first study to examine the physiological effect of female BO on men. It’s by Florida State University psychologist Jon Maner and his student Saul Miller and is set for publication in the journal Psychological Science.

The experimental design is simplicity itself. Relevant odors were collected by having nubile women wear T-shirts to bed at different times in their cycle—ovulatory and nonovulatory. Male physiological response was measured by having a guy drool in a tube before and after plunging his face into one of the worn T-shirts. A standard radioimmunoassay quantified the testosterone in the spit.

The results of Miller and Maner’s first experiment were suggestive but not conclusive—post-sniff testosterone was higher in men who had smelled ovulatory T-shirts than in men who had sniffed nonovulatory ones. The data left open the possibility that the difference was due to nonovulatory shirts decreasing testosterone during the 15 minute course of the test.

The researchers ran a second study that included a clean (control) T-shirt condition and more precise estimation of menstrual cycle phase. Once again, post-sniff testosterone was significantly higher in men who smelled ovulatory T-shirts compared to nonovulatory and control shirts (which didn’t differ). Even more compelling: testosterone levels were a curvilinear function—an upside down U shape—of the odor donor’s ovulatory phase. In other words, post-sniff testosterone was highest for shirts worn exactly at ovulation, and it decreased with the number of days before or after ovulation.

Miller and Maner cautiously provide a laundry list of caveats, the most important being that the ovulatory odor cue does not increase a guy’s testosterone—it only prevents the decrease that happens after sniffing a fresh or nonovulatory shirt. Still, this first-ever demonstration of a sexually-relevant endocrinological response to female BO opens the door to some potentially cool work on scent-driven mate-seeking behavior and eroticism in men.

Somewhere out there Anaïs Nin is smiling.

12 comments:

BitterGrace said...

So, men may be at the mercy of a different organ than the one we always assumed. Someone needs to study how perfume figures into this. Does a dose of Joy enhance the testosterone spike, or turn us into genuine concealed ovulators?

Avery Gilbert said...

BitterGrace:

That's exactly the right question. Does perfume amplify or coverup BO?

Years back a well-known fragrance and cosmetics company hired me to brainstorm some "over the horizon" research on olfaction and fragrance--the kind of study that would open up totally new avenues of science and commerce. I proposed a set of experiments on MHC genotype (a genetic determinant of BO that impacts human mate choice), odor preferences, and fragrance use.

I got paid for the proposal, but the client never went ahead with it. I suspect they didn't want to know the answer; they preferred to keep the conversation about youth, romance, beauty, glamour, blahdy blahdy blah.

Sigh.

+ Q Perfume Blog said...

After the table, the condom, the pill, etc..., comes the new birth control method " The BO in the shirt" !
LOLOL

kissesss

Ed C said...

The evolutionary advantage of pheramones is presumably in making more babies. This suggests an experiment to find out if showering before bed makes protected sex more likely. And someone should check whether more experiments like like this one increase registrations for psych classes.

Avery Gilbert said...

+Q Perfume Blog:

So you suggest keeping a worn, nonovulatory shirt on hand as a "not tonight, dear" signal?

Sneaky.

Avery Gilbert said...

Ed C:

Heh.

But seriously this shows how little we know about scent-related sex behavior. For example, are people turned on by BO less likely to use perfume or to encourage it on their partners?

fMRI studies are great, but where's Alfred Kinsey when you need him?

+ Q Perfume Blog said...

I have another question concerning fragrances and pregnancy.
Before I got pregnant I was wearing Carolina Herrera 212. In the second month of pregnancy I dumped the perfume in the trash can and till today I feel sick if I smell the perfume.
Also some shampoos made me sick. But those I could go back to once the baby was born.
The feeling of sickness is so attached to 212 that last forever.
How does that work? Is it psychological, hormone- related?

Nathan Branch said...

I recently asked the BF to smell a very earthy, musky perfume that was created for women. He took a sniff and said it smelled like an alpha male. When I told him it was for women, he said, "That makes sense -- evolution-wise, a woman would be genetically predisposed to consider the body smell of an alpha male as attractive and pleasing."

I hadn't thought of it that way, before. Now I'm beginning to look at the whole sweaty, leather, sour genre in feminine fragrances in a whole new light.

Nukapai said...

What do you think of the research by Dr Craig Roberts from the University of Liverpool? He seems to suggest that (presumably, if free from various other motivating factors such as peer pressure), we choose a scent that amplifies our natural body odour, thereby advertising our scent. So not the other way around.

Avery Gilbert said...

+ Q Perfume Blog:

Smell aversions in pregnancy are both hormonal and psychological. Evolutionary psychologists think the aversions are adaptive because they signal the presence of toxins that could damage an early fetus which hasn't yet developed its own chemical defenses (i.e., liver).

There's probably something to the idea. But there's seldom rhyme or reason to what pregnant women find offensive--one woman told me she banished the family dog from the house for nine months. Another hasn't been able to eat creamed corn since the pregnancy.

And then there's your 212 experience--but you seem to have rebounded very well!

Avery Gilbert said...

Nukapai:

Amplification of one's natural BO is clearly one possibility. I've got several Craig Roberts papers on hand and hope to blog about them soon.

Nukapai said...

I look forward to your comments on Craig's work! His papers would probably be too technical for me, so it will be good to have your analysis to read. He gave a fascinating lecture at the British Perfumers Symposium last May. (If you're coming over for this year's event, let me know and we can say hello!).