Friday, September 20, 2013

The Scent of Love

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.

In heterosexual romance novels, the expression of olfactory sexual chemistry typically comes via the three-fold scent description. Two scents indicative of a romance hero's personality or environment are added to a third smell, that of "man," "male," or occasionally, simply "masculinity" (see epigraphs above). Not "a" man or "a" male, but a generic, all-encompassing odor indicating a person of the opposite sex.

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.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Jean Simmons & Marlon Brando as Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson: cerebralcereal
Nose to Nose:


  1. I think about smell a lot because I have MCS and pretty much can't bear any artificial scent or essential oil on another person. This makes mingling in the world difficult. When I read these descriptions of how people smell in books, I often think, "wow, I'd hate this person."

    Before I had MCS, I was still very attuned to smell. I could recognize friends coming up behind me by smell and could figure out what part of town I was in blindfolded because of smell. (I fell asleep in a lot of cars and would wake up and know where we were based on how it smelled.)

    I once broke up with a boy I'd had an intense long-distance relationship with because his smell bothered me when we'd finally spent more than a few hours together. I never told him that was why. Now it makes total sense to me, but at the time it seemed like a freak think to do: hey, we don't work because you smell weird.

  2. Scent is so important-- pheremones and all. There have even been studies which show how oral contraceptives change a woman's scent and this can cause chemistry problems later in a relationship if she goes from taking birth control to not taking birth control or vice versa.
    There is a conversation that made me laugh out loud in Julie Anne Long's "It Happened One Midnight":
    Her: "I'm sure you always smell like starch and soap and bay rum"...
    Him: "You left out 'and a certain ineffable manly goodness native only to you.'"

  3. I find this kind of research fascinating. A couple of years ago, an olfactory researcher from Vienna gave a guest lecture at the university in the Dutch town I live in. His talk was on pheromones, and he referenced the sweaty-shirt study that you talk about here, Jackie. I thought a lot of what he said could apply to real-life and fictional love. (I wrote a blog post about it, if you're interested.)

    The "smells like man" description in romance novels has always turned me off. For one thing, it's too easy. For another, it's too generic. It always pulls me out of a story and makes me think, "What - like sweat? Farts? Beer? Cigarettes?" - which I know isn't very kind to men, but there it is.

    Another description I can't stand is "He smelled musky." When I was younger, I looked up what musk is, and discovered that it was originally a secretion from a gland near the musk deer's rectum. Ever since then I've been horrified by the description. I wrote a blog post about that, too (see? I'm fascinated by this topic), in which I try to give authors tips on writing more interesting descriptions of scent. Weirdly, even though I wrote it three years ago, it has been a in my top ten most popular posts ever since. You wouldn't believe the number of people searching for "smells like man" (or "smell my butt", which probably leads to disappointment when they get to my site and find no butt-sniffing).

    It also kind of bothers me that women are described as smelling flowery. I'm very sensitive to smells, so I don't wear perfume and I have a hard time being around people who do. I actually find it easier to be around people who smell like B.O., but I can understand why readers wouldn't want to have their hero or heroine smell that way. Since I write a series about rugby players, I try to be pretty realistic if I feel like I have to describe their scent, and since their heroines have jobs and hobbies that are physically demanding (one of them is a sanitation engineer who builds toilets in refugee camps), I try not to shy away from letting them be sweaty and dirty, too. I like portraying women who work their asses off, and that usually means that they sacrifice smelling like lilies.

  4. Perhaps it's because other than specific smells, all of which are included in the examples as well, it's hard to express in words what distinguishes one man's scent from another but easy to discern that men as a group smell different from women? Do we even have the vocabulary or experience to describe it? I doubt I could describe the way in which two men smell different without having them there to sniff and compare.

    Also, as you point out, smell is a big factor in attraction. It's also something that is likely to be noticeable during and after sex. So it makes sense to include it as a an attractiveness factor or a sex scene, particularly in erotic romance. If anything, I see more of it in m/m than I do in m/f. I also see more fetishizing (if you want to call it that) of sweat and natural body odor in m/m.

    In m/f, I think a lot of the point of these descriptions is that he smells like a man and not a woman, and based on the science I'm not sure that gender categories like that are unfounded. While it can get repetitive and cumbersome, one sentence of this stuff in a book or novella doesn't seem excessive to me. I am more bothered by the extravagant visual descriptions of the characters, especially since they tend to tie into that cycle of good looks leading to attraction leading to sex leading to love (notice no mention of friendship) I've decried elsewhere.

  5. It does seem like man-worship/deifying of masculinity as much as it's mentioned. But it gives me a laugh sometimes because the descriptions can get so complicated. Some heroines read a lot into these scents. Like fresh snow on mountains, etc. I will always remember Nalini Singh's Guild Hunter books for this. But to be fair, her heroine has a special nose made for hunting vampires, and she managed to make something like smell, so bodily and practical, elegant, even though she's basically a bloodhound.

  6. I'm glad you wrote a post about this topic. I think it's interesting because it is all over romantic fiction and sometimes the descriptions are either repetitive or don't make sense--or both. I don't know what starch and sandalwood smell like, so sometimes the descriptions throw me off if they're too inaccessible for me. Honestly? I like the idea of a "male" smell. I get it; whether it's accurate or not, it reminds me of an attractive smell, something that I haven't quite figured out how to describe.

    I think about this in terms of my own characters, since I'm writing a romance novel. I would like to get to a point where I can describe the "male" smell which, as much as I like that description sometimes, is lazy. I try not to use it to describe the romantic interest in my own work. I want it to be realistic, but not off putting. Because smells can often go wrong. It's an interesting balance, and it's not easy, for sure.