More allure, bigger sex appeal, unrestrainable feelings… Just what is it that pheromones are supposed to do when it comes to sex? What can they (and can’t they) achieve? Are pheromones really the key to seduction, as we are told? Is our sense of smell our most highly developed sexual radar? Let’s find out.
There is a widespread urban myth about sense of smell, pheromones and the way they are linked to how attractive we are. The story goes that pheromones are like a ferocious force which can take control of our most basic instincts and play around with our senses to the point of madness, as if we were wild animals at the mercy of (a very fickle) natural power and our impulses were, well, completely untamed. Nothing could be further from the truth, because in reality pheromones are one thing and sense of smell is quite another. Even though it’s true that pheromones (if they were traceable) would be detected by smell, to this day no conclusive proof has been found.
There is no evidence that we humans have the ability to detect these elements. In fact, some researchers believe that no mammal is heavily influenced by pheromones. For example, copulins are a group of molecules which were discovered at the end of the 1960s in a primate laboratory. Secreted by the vagina of the female, these supposed pheromones we able to arouse sexual excitement in the males. This did happen, yes, but it had nothing to do with pheromones. The males used in the study were already familiar with the females and had learned to recognise their characteristic smell. And, just like copulins, the majority of pheromones can be explained by there being previous experience of characteristic odours.
Different scientific studies have tried to prove the existence of human pheromones. One of the first was carried out by the American psychologist Marta McClintock, who was seeking to explain the synchronising of menstrual cycles in women. The study mentions the possible existence of substances in the underarms, transmitted through smell, which were influencing the menstrual cycle of other women. However, this substance or molecule has never been found.
There was also a study, published in 2011 in Science magazine, which discussed how the smell of female tears could have the effect of reducing sexual arousal in men. There is even an article from 2014 which mentions molecules which are candidates for being considered human sexual pheromones. In this case it was two steroids, androstenedione and estratetraenol, that may allow us to detect someone’s sex by their smell, but nothing else.
But… they just smell so good!
Although our sense of smell is a powerful radar for detecting people who are highly compatible with us, it is more of an add-on to an attraction ensemble, something which is works hand in hand with other similar factors, such as tone of voice, physical appearance, body language…; even some learned factors, such as what they are wearing, their interests and economic status… everything which distances a person from their innate reality and has a positive impact on the person to attract.
So, there it is: we can say that we don’t only ‘see’ people with our eyes, for sure, but it is not all down to sense of smell! Although smelling good may well be important when it comes to seduction, odours are subjective and learned. And, of course, you don’t have a pheromone detector in your nose.