Sex Ed

Men Who Lack A Sense Of Smell Have Fewer Sexual Partners

March 25, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller

Our sense of smell has long been known to play an important role in sexual attraction. Indeed, the multi-billion dollar perfume, cologne, and deodorant industries are founded on the premise that smelling good is one of the keys to finding and maintaining a relationship partner. However, those artificial scents aren’t the only thing driving attraction. More and more research suggests that human beings subtly communicate with one another through pheromones, chemicals naturally secreted by the body that can be picked up through our noses. As some particularly compelling evidence of the importance of having a functional set of nostrils, a new study reveals that lacking a sense of smell appears to have implications for one’s sex life.

In a study published in Biological Psychology, researchers examined 32 individuals with isolated congenital anosmia (ICA), a condition in which an individual is born without a sense of smell [1]. These patients were compared to a sample of 36 healthy men and women with an intact sense of smell who were of approximately the same age. Participants’ sense of smell (or lack thereof) was confirmed by a smell identification test. Everyone in the study completed a survey inquiring about their “social behavior and communication,” which included questions about number of previous sexual partners, level of general social insecurity, as well as feelings of felt security (i.e., attachment) within various relationships (romance, close friendship, and parent-child).

Results revealed that among male participants, those with ICA had significantly fewer sexual partners than those with an intact sense of smell—and the difference was not small. Specifically, the median number of partners among men with ICA was 1, compared to 4 for the smelling guys. Sense of smell was not associated with number of sexual partners among women.

Why did men with ICA have fewer partners? We cannot say for sure, but the researchers suggest that it may be a function of men with ICA having more social worries and anxiety (e.g., not being able to tell whether one’s breath smells bad or if they have some unpleasant body odor going on). Consistent with this idea, levels of social insecurity were significantly higher among men with ICA compared to men without ICA. Another possibility is that perhaps ICA makes individuals less susceptible to the effects of pheromones. We know that exposure to pheromones increases sexual activity, so if you cannot pick up on them, it would make sense that you might have less sex (to read more about pheromone research, check out this article).

One other interesting finding from this study was that women with ICA reported lower feelings of relationship security than women without ICA. Interestingly, this effect was only present for feelings of security specific to romantic partners—sense of smell was unrelated to feelings of attachment to close friends and parents. No such effects were found among male participants. Again, we do not know exactly how to explain this effect. One possibility is that it stems from general social anxiety; however, it could also result from the fact that humans communicate emotions through scents that we give off (i.e., “chemosignals”). For instance, research has found that you can literally smell emotions like fear and disgust in the bodily secretions of others [2]. To the extent that you cannot share this emotional information with a romantic partner, it could potentially limit the degree to which you feel bonded or attached to one another.

In short, this study is part of a growing body of research suggesting that our sense of smell may play a more important role in how we develop sexual and romantic relationships than anyone possibly suspected.

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[1] Croy, I., Bojanowski, V., & Hummel, T. (2013). Men without a sense of smell exhibit a strongly reduced number of sexual relationships, women exhibit reduced partnership security–a reanalysis of previously published data. Biological Psychology, 92, 292-294.

[2] de Groot, J. H., Smeets, M. A., Kaldewaij, A., Duijndam, M. J., & Semin, G. R. (in press). Chemosignals Communicate Human Emotions. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797612445317

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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