Smelling "right" can play a role in sexual attraction

Pam Suchman
Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash

Even on the days when my partner and I are fighting and my brain screams “head for the hills!” my body tells me the opposite. He smells so… right. His scent is intoxicating to me. It’s like after-shave or cologne — except he uses neither. He, in turn, loves my scent first thing in the morning, after it’s had the night to marinate in me-ness. Our smells attract one another, our bodies are a couture fit. The rest we could work on.

My friend Jen and I used to talk about this in college. A guy could be the nicest human being on the planet, but if he didn’t smell right — not good or bad but “right” — we couldn’t stick with him.

It’s not a hygiene thing.

Some people love the smell of a sweaty partner (I do not). But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m convinced that the natural musk lifting off a person’s skin is nature’s clue to mate selection. At least for sex. Evolution champions reproduction. Whether or not we’re ready for a baby — maybe we’re even on the pill — nature wants us to find a partner who promises to produce the strongest offspring. Usually someone with opposite immune genes to our own, to ensure survival.

Sometimes the smell test is a sneaky pop quiz. Our sniffers may lead us down the path to great sex, but how do we know when it’s pointing us toward a good partner? Once we’ve had sex, oxytocin kicks in to put our body before our brain. We literally lose our minds. It’s the hormone that bonds us with a person whether they’re appropriate for us or not.

Is that a bad thing?

It depends what we’re looking for.

If we’re seeking a sex partner, pheromones are our friend and oxytocin our foe.

If we’re looking for a mate and have sex before getting to know someone: oxytocin’s still our foe.

When is it our friend?

Once we’ve committed to a person. I’m no advocate of convention, so I’m not here to say people should save themselves for the elusive “One.” Nor do I discourage casual interludes. Sex is fun; it feels good. It can inspire us, fill a void, scratch an itch.

But if we’re interested in securing someone for the long-haul, we may want to consider using a different metric system.

From a scientific-standpoint, the idea of matchmaking and arranged marriages kind of makes sense to me. No pesky hormones pointing in random directions. A match is made utilizing (hopefully) an objective set of standards. At least in modern times, when it’s not about securing wealth or status. In an ideal scenario, wherein the couple actually likes one another, oxytocin seals the deal.

As Homo sapiens, we possess the discernment and choice that most other animals do not. We can use our brains, if they’re not all clouded with oxytocin, to determine whether a potential mate is reliable, compatible and generally on the same page with our value system.

What if he doesn’t smell like anything at all?

My first husband had no scent. How was that even possible? I wonder if his current wife is able to detect the molecules of attraction in her nasal cavity that the cilia in mine could not. Still, I married him. My brain did all the talking. Certainly not my body. Despite the fact that I spent seven years dodging his advances, I stayed and even had a child with him. Why? My desire to have a child was stronger than the warning signals in my soul. He seemed like a solid choice, at least that’s what my brain told me. My body sang a different tune. In addition to so many other red flags, he didn’t smell right. He didn’t smell like anything at all.

Mr. Right v. Mr. Right Now

Before him, I had an on-again off-again lover for over a decade whose pheromones drew me in from a hundred yards away, like a mouse to Brie. And I wasn’t the only one. Numerous women at the coffee shop where we hung out felt magnetized toward him.

He’d actually been diagnosed with high testosterone levels, which explained his machismo, sculpted physique and occasional aggro tendencies. It also explained the infinite wave of fertile women drifting in his direction.

I took it in stride, though, and he and I shared a history as lovers and friends. It never blossomed into any kind of real romance. We weren’t right for each other. But he smelled right. So why didn’t that spell relationship material? Well, we didn’t really have enough in common. But we did get to enjoy each other’s company on and off for many years, between real relationships.

Smell may impel, but it doesn’t compel us.

We have choice in the matter.

Even on the days when my partner aggravates me, if my head gets anywhere near the nape of his neck, something in me melts back into him. He smells “right.” I used to tell myself sex wasn’t the most important thing in a relationship. That’s when I was married to husband number one. Now, I understand: sex is the glue. It smooths the bumps in our relationship.

We’re compatible in other ways too. We like to travel and attend concerts together. I like his music, he tolerates mine. He’s kind, sensitive and romantic. He’s good with my daughter. We work in the same industry and understand the crazy ups and downs of the business. We enjoy each other’s company.

Attraction’s a tricky bitch.

Sometimes there’s no tangible indicator for why we choose the partners we do. But if we’re wondering why a date that seemed to have gone well didn’t result in a follow-up call, well, maybe they’re “just not that into you” for any number of reasons. But one of them could be: you didn’t smell “right.”

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Writing about relationships, dating, marriage, sex and Hollywood. Author, TV writer and producer.

Los Angeles, CA

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