He was tall and strong, and he smelled like fabric softener and wine and man. — Ruthie Knox, Along Came Trouble
He smelled like sweat and horse and man. — Eloisa James, Winning the Wallflower
He smelled like bay rum and male, with a sweet hint of pipe tobacco. — Kate Cross, Heart of Brass
I've been thinking a lot about chemistry of late. Not Chemistry with a capital "C," the high school class kind. No, the kind that Sky Masterson of Guys and Dolls challenges prim Sergeant Sarah Brown with, after Sarah tells him that she'll recognize the right man for her by the outward signs of his steadiness and moral fiber. In contrast to Sarah, Skye asserts:
Mine will come as a surprise to me
Mine I leave to chance and chemistry.
Just what is this chemistry, this invisible something that makes your ears prick, makes your attention hone in on one specific person, and not another? Have scientists been able to find evidence for it, or is it simply a myth? And if there is a scientific basis for sexual chemistry, is the science reflected in romance fiction?
Interestingly, not a lot of research has been done on the topic of sexual chemistry, according to Dr. Tim Loving, a relationship researcher and blogger at Science of Relationships. Many scientists have put forth interesting hypotheses pointing to general preferences for certain characteristics that are theorized to signal genetically positive traits, traits that will help the species propagate: a low waist-to-hip ratio for women (good for bearing children), broad shoulders and strong jaws for men (signs of higher testosterone = good protection for said children). Yet few studies look at individual attraction, why one particular person is attracted to another particular person, as opposed to the other twenty people in the room.
Interestingly, the one line of study about sexual chemistry that's been explored by multiple researchers examines not the visual, which many assume is the most important sense in attraction, but the olfactory. In 1995, Swiss biologist Claus Wedekind and his colleagues published the results of what has now come to be known as the "sweaty t-shirt study."* Wedekind asked 44 college-aged men to wear a new t-shirt for two straight nights, providing them with odor-free toiletries so that only their own scents would mark the shirts. After collecting the shirts, they asked 49 women to smell them, and asked each to identify the ones they found most appealing. The results were quite intriguing. Far more often than chance would allow, women selected the t-shirts of men who were immunologically dissimilar to themselves. Mating with men with whom they did not share MHC (major histocompatibility complex) genes makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; children of such unions will be more disease-resistant than children of parents who share most of the same 100+ MHC genes, and so will have a greater chance of survival.
A 2009 study** has shown that in general men's body odors smell differently than women's (apparently women smell more like onions or grapefruit, while men smell more like stinky cheese, even though women generally have higher levels of a sulfur-containing compound in their sweat—go figure). And a 2006 study*** suggests that women are more attracted to the scent of men with low cortisol levels (the stress hormone), and, except during their fertile period, to men with lower testosterone levels.
Why do romance writers emphasize these aspects of a hero's scent (not the stinky-cheese aspect, but the difference between male and female smells, or the presumably testosterone "male" scent), rather than the more interesting one that suggests we might find some specific individuals' body odor more attractive than the odor of others?
The three-scent description is so common that it's become a bit of a joke among romance readers. But even well-regarded romance authors (see epigraphs) continue to deploy it. What would happen if romance writers stopped fetishizing the scent of the generalized "male" and instead called attention to the way that a specific individual makes a heroine's nose cilia and chemoreceptors jump to attention?
Can you recall any memorable scent-descriptions from your romance reading? Is there a difference between how heroes and heroines' scents are described?
*Wedekind, C, et al. (1995) "MHC-dependent preferences in humans." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 260: 245-49.
** Troccaz, M. et al. (2009) "Gender-Specific Differences Between the Concentrations of Nonvolatile (R)/(S)-3-Methyl-3-Sulfanylhexan-1-Ol and (R)/(S)-3-Hydroxy-3-Methyl-Hexanoic Acid Odor Precursors in Axillary Secretions." Chemical Senses 34.3: 203-210. Here's a link to a summary of the research written in words the non-scientist can understand.
*** Moshkin, F P et al. (2006) Scent Attractiveness and Endocrine Status in male students before and after a stress situation. Ross Fiziol Zh Im I M Sechenova. Oct;92(10):1250-9
Jean Simmons & Marlon Brando as Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson: cerebralcereal
Nose to Nose: Girlschase.com