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.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.
[From Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin.]
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.