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The power of smell in picking sex partners
January 13th, 2011
08:50 AM ET

The power of smell in picking sex partners

Ladies, be honest: When it comes sexual attraction, how important is a guy’s smell? Not just his cologne or deodorant, but his natural scent? At Good in Bed, we believe that a woman should “follow her nose—it always knows.”

Research supports this idea: In two large studies led by Brown University olfactory expert Dr. Rachel Herz, women ranked a man’s scent as the most important feature for determining whether she would be sexually interested in him.

As it turns out, scent may be the main way in which women literally sniff out genetic compatibility with a potential mate. How we smell is an external expression of the genes that make up our immune system.

Like fingerprints, each of us has our own unique “odor print,”  which is part of a region of genes known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). Women prefer the scent of men whose MHCs are different from their own.

So when we say that opposites attract, we may not be talking about differences in personality, but rather differences in immune systems.  This is one of Nature’s ways of ensuring that we produce the healthiest offspring. No wonder that a woman’s sense of smell is at its peak when she’s ovulating and most likely to get pregnant.

In one study, a wide variety of men were each asked to wear the same T-shirt for two days in a row, after which the shirts were put into identical boxes. Various women were then asked to smell the shirts and to indicate which they thought would have the most sexually attractive wearers, based on the smell. The results showed that women were most attracted to men with an MHC most dissimilar from their own, while T-shirts worn by guys with similar MHC profiles tended to be rated as “fatherly” or “brotherly” but not sexually attractive. And in a survey conducted by the research firm Strategy One, 56 percent of women said they wouldn’t date a guy who smells like their dad.

So what about that cup of joe? Dr. Alan Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, conducted research on behalf of AXE body products to determine women’s scent preferences in 10 different cities. “In each city we tested, women reported different scent preferences,” he says, “indicating that geography has a direct correlation to what scents women find attractive.”

Here are the scents that women found most preferable by region:

1.      New York – coffee

2.      Los Angeles – lavender

3.      Chicago – vanilla

4.      Houston – barbeque

5.      Atlanta – cherry

6.      Phoenix – eucalyptus

7.      Philadelphia – clean laundry

8.      Dallas – smoke/fireplace

9.      San Diego – suntan lotion/ocean

10.  Minneapolis-St. Paul – cut grass

I know what you’re thinking: Cut grass? Clean laundry? What the…?!

But there’s a science to these preferences. Scent can trigger powerful memories, especially from our childhoods, which is why these scents may still exert a hold on us years later. And according to Hirsch, “Research has shown that when women are in the presence of a preferred scent, they are more likely to project positive feelings on those around them, which can lead to increased attraction.”

While there is little to evidence to suggest that scent plays as powerful a role for men in sexual attraction, another study by  Hirsch found that the scents of lavender, pumpkin pie, donuts, and black licorice increased blood flow to the penis by nearly 40 Percent. And as I discuss in my book 52 Weeks of Amazing Sex,  “Certain scents increase oxygen in the brain, which in turn affects emotion, attitude, hormone levels, and energy. Both men and women respond positively to scents such as vanilla, black pepper and cinnamon. Other scents that are supposed to have libido-boosting qualities include frankincense, ginger, lavender, lime, orange, patchouli, and rose.”

So, enjoy that cup of coffee, mow the lawn, or fire up the grill—you never know what will happen!

Ian Kerner is a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him at his website, GoodInBed.


soundoff (240 Responses)
  1. Matt

    "4. Houston – barbeque"

    I nearly spewed my coffee all over my keyboard when I read that.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. phoenix

    woman that smoke cigs or cigars are looser in the sack.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hickgal

      what about chewing tobacco?

      January 14, 2011 at 13:38 | Report abuse |
  3. GregR

    As a market researcher, I would like to see those results replicated. Basically, that is way too much variance based on city. And the devil is in the details. Are we saying 80% prefer that scent? 30% but it's the largest category?

    Whenever you report studies without any methodology and without any data, you might as well leave it out.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Contrary

    And in a survey conducted by the research firm Strategy One, 56 percent of women said they wouldn’t date a guy who smells like their dad

    All men know, do the opposite of what women think they want...

    January 14, 2011 at 12:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • A Trapped Viking

      ...so that means 46% would! Hmmmm that's not bad odds, you know!

      January 14, 2011 at 12:49 | Report abuse |
  5. Faisal

    Does anyone know what the sample size in that worn T-shirt was? How many men's tshirts? How many women subjects?

    January 14, 2011 at 12:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. GregR

    Also, how did we jump from "natural scent of a man" to "lavender" and "eucalyptus"?

    January 14, 2011 at 12:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. debbie

    Would give a lot to smell a good man....been extremely long time.....sigh.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Everald

      Debbie, mi lady you can take whiff I promise you will not be disappointed

      October 23, 2012 at 10:44 | Report abuse |
  8. Snafu

    If the story is right and opposites attract, it totally makes sense for Philly chicks to dig a clean laundry smell.

    January 14, 2011 at 12:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Nadia

    Ah, another advice of the "experts"... I wonder why do they in their expertise miss the real issues... It's no wonder that we have a society that is filled with immages, suggestions, and advice how to find love, but it's people are starving for it... and the compelling evidence is, the obesity prevalent in this country, and number of people on depression medicine, hoping to gain their self worth, and fill the void that's in their hearts and souls, preoccupation with the beauty that's only skin deep....
    What have we become, people? The answer is, we have become what we' have been fed... When people are continuously being told that we have no souls, and are no more then animals, being a product of a freak cosmic accident... it's no wonder that people behave like beasts which have no souls...
    I assure you this one thing... that people who look for attraction by those base instinct of their human nature, (which we're being bombarded on daily bassis) will NEVER find the love that they long for, and they will in the end always remain empty, with void in their hearts and lives, betrayed and deprived of the fulfilment they were told they find! But this is the fate fo f sth society that has given itself over to gratification of deprived humna nature, instead of rising above it, by looking to the laws that GOd, our Creator has put in our human consciences, , but we have allowed them to be silenced. And what we are seeing is the outcome of iit...

    January 14, 2011 at 12:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Snafu

      God smells like barbecued cherries

      January 14, 2011 at 12:24 | Report abuse |
    • A Trapped Viking

      So dear sweet Nadia, just what defines the sweet smell of love for you? I would suspect that the olfactory temptation for you is a bit more refined than most.... sweetly named Nadia!

      January 14, 2011 at 12:40 | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Wait...are you saying the GOd made my armpits smell like rotten onions...and he gave you the inability to spell and use proper grammar?

      That big DOODYHEAD!

      January 14, 2011 at 18:00 | Report abuse |
    • PRISM

      Don't cast your pearls... Fools will never understand!

      January 15, 2011 at 13:46 | Report abuse |
    • Anna

      I agree with the poster. You are wasting your time with people here on CNN. They are too stupid to comprehend the depth of your comment. They actually believe this nonsense that ODORS Is what makes you find a good mate. Complete hogwash. This is why our country and world really is screwed up. We are not dogs okay? Stop trying to reduce us to nothing more than animals driven by instinct.. we are NOT. We are complex, we have the power or reason, we contemplate our future and our very existence UNLIKE animals. I have found a wonderful husband who loves me and treats me with deep respect and honor and I do the same from him. I could give a crap what his ODOR is whether it is something topical or what have you. This is pseudo science and completely and utterly useless.

      January 19, 2011 at 15:41 | Report abuse |
    • scientist

      this is not talking about sniffing and finding someone you find attractive physically or emotionally but finding someone that you will be able to make strong offspring with. nothing about how to find yoru true love or anything of that nature. you must be reading another article.
      then here they go into how interestingly different scents are popular to certain regions. could be culture based.
      this is not taking away from you religion but saying that we as a population still have nature take certain tolls so we can make strong offspring. this doesn't mean you will fall in love with those that smell of cut grass more likely than cherries.

      the sense of smell has the capability to bring back strong memories and emtions with just a single whiff. haven't you ever walked by someone in a crowd and gotten a sudden flashback to years before? to maybe a particular childhood memory?

      May 6, 2011 at 23:39 | Report abuse |
  10. A Trapped Viking

    I love the smell of a woman who won't be beaten. I love the smell of a woman who is strong enought to handle my throbbing muscle, rippling across my loins. I love a woman who can grind me until both of us lie sweating, exhausted, and slippery with cool aftersweat. Any Celtic woman who thinks she is stronger than I is the ultimate smell of my hunt.....

    January 14, 2011 at 12:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jenny

      Yo, Viking, had to clean my keyboard off after I read this one!

      January 14, 2011 at 14:47 | Report abuse |
  11. joj

    Yes this is true<, but what your man is on an antibiotic?

    January 14, 2011 at 12:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. NWUS

    An article that totally surprised me. More surprisingly, just found out the correlation between scent and MHC has been known for more than 30 years and there is a lot of serious scientifc research on the subject.

    January 14, 2011 at 13:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Audrey

    I agree completely with the body smells and how you match up with people. Day old body smell is the most attractive thing about my partner.. HOWEVER.. Vanilla makes me sick and my guy hates cinnamon.. I don't think smells can be determined by region, it's personal taste.

    January 14, 2011 at 13:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hippie

      sure the can be determined by region, look at Atlanta. Atlanta is predominately black, blacks love the smell of cherry for some reason.

      January 14, 2011 at 14:05 | Report abuse |
  14. hippie

    Notice that Atlanta is cherry. LOL

    January 14, 2011 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. A Trapped Viking

    Time to raid Atlanta?

    January 14, 2011 at 14:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mark

      Would you please burn it completely to the ground this time?!

      January 14, 2011 at 17:43 | Report abuse |
  16. nuts

    a clean smell on a man, as if he just showered and dashed on a little cologne...that's all I need. makes my toes curl!

    January 14, 2011 at 15:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. albie

    I can't even begin to say how idiotic this article is ... its may as well be an Onion article

    January 16, 2011 at 02:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MNBluess

      Awe...your no fun=(

      February 2, 2011 at 11:44 | Report abuse |
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  19. gino

    hahaha... hhmpfff sniff.. sniff.. now i know, Axe was invented and dedicated for men

    January 26, 2011 at 00:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. MNBluess

    No wonder the lawn guy seems so HOT to me.

    February 2, 2011 at 11:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. eduardz

    The day I met my wife 30 years ago the first thing she did was sniff my butt. She must have liked what she smelled.

    February 4, 2011 at 21:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Bob

    I certainly agree with the post by (scientist) in his sense of what the article discusses. He also refers to smells bringing back the recollection of youth, when we were first exposed to the smell of a rose perhaps. The poet Wordsworth was famous for his poems in that regard. But regardless , the undershirt smell test, if valid– does prove the point that women are attracted to the scent of some men and not others. Many years ago when I would use the cologne "Musk" by Jovan. women would often ask what I was wearing. It seemed to agree with many. If anything, it did prove to be a good opener for conversation. Picking a mate for marriage is a totally different selection process. Some of the wisest women often couch their choice of men to a narrow field such as; a man must have hair on his head in order to be considered for dating. Physical attributes is a timeless choice criteria for both men and women. I believe a lot more so– than merely intellect. For some reason; many short women seem to gravitate toward tall men. I guess that also has to do with offspring concerns!

    May 18, 2011 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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