When I lost my sense of smell about five years ago, I was fixated on what it meant for my relationship with food. I lost my ability to appreciate complex notes and aromas when I lost my ability to enjoy eating, so I had to figure out how to keep enjoying eating, which has been one of the key pleasures in my life. I had to learn to appreciate heat and texture. I had to learn how to cook without the help of scent, but also with the knowledge that I can't smell smoke, burning, or gas anymore.
As I learned more and more about the effects of smell on everyday life, my mind turned to sex. My job as a sometimes sex writer is to think about life through an erotic lens. Sex had begun to feel like it was more attractive to me, as my sense of smell began to fade, like there was less feedback pulling me into and engaging all of me within the moment. I wondered if that was a coincidence or another effect of my slow sensory decline.
I was unable to find any information about the effects of smell loss on sex. Several smell researchers told me that their colleagues had not explored this topic in any depth. Sex educators and therapists told me that they were unaware of the effects of smell loss, even though they know odors can act as a turn on or turn off. Sex doesn't come up often in smell loss patient groups and forums because many people still view it as a taboo topic, according to several advocates.
I've found people with smell loss willing to speak candidly about their intimate lives, and I'm not the only one.
Duncan Boak of the smell disorder advocacy group Fifth Sense lost his sense of smell after a head injury nearly two decades ago. "There has been for me."
I worry I will never be able to share again in my social and sexual life because it's like seeing the world in mono.
Boak said that a Fifth Sense survey once asked group members about their sex lives after smell loss, and that one response stuck with him: "'It's like seeing the world in mono and I worry I will never be able to share again properly in my social and sexual life' Chrissi Kelly of AbScent, a UK-based advocacy group for people with smell disorders, who first experienced smell loss in 2012 partially recovered the sense, and then lost it again twice in the last two years.
A woman who lost her sense of smell several years ago and later recovered most of it, and who asked to only use her first name so that she could retain her privacy while speaking openly about her sex life, told me that she nearly came to tears.
Despite common experiences of sexual change among people with olfactory issues, the lack of concise and meaningful information about the effects of smell loss on sex frustrates me to no end. I wanted to make sense of all the scattershot information I found about the interplay between scent and sexuality.
The smell science is anemic.
Scientists, philosophers, and artists have long argued that smell can have a powerful impact on attraction and arousal. Folk wisdom has been given about the use of perfumes for supposedly aphrodisiac scents. Formal studies looking at the dynamics of this interplay began in the 20th century.
Research into smell is neglected compared to research into vision and hearing. According to lowball estimates, at least 12 percent of Americans experienced some degree of smell loss before the coronaviruses hit. A leading smell scientist at the Smell & Taste Research Foundation suggests that the belief that smell is irrelevant to human experience stems from a prevailing modern cultural belief. We assume that humans have a less developed sense of smell than other animals because we rely more on sight and sound to navigate our environments. We don't use enough smell to hone it, but we seem to have the same olfactory potential as most animals.
The wave of smell loss caused by the coronaviruses will draw more attention to olfactory issues in the coming years, and with it more funding for rigorous research. About half of all people in a recent survey with COVID reported they have experienced smell loss for some time, and a dozen smell scientists estimate at least 10% of them will have long-term smell loss. A huge new population needs help.
The smell science that we know about is so poor that we only know the smell of the back of our throats and the smell of our noses. We're still trying to understand how that perception pathway works. We don't know why a given mix of odor molecule in one concentration may smell delicious, but not the other. Parmesan smells great in a small amount, but in large amounts it smells like vomit. We don't know why our brains smell the scent of a dead fish with the scent of potatoes, cucumbers, and tomatoes. We don't know how our sense of smell interacts with sex and attraction, and we don't know how many distinct smells we can detect.
Lawrence Siegel, a sex educator, argues that modern culture tells us that bodily odors are disgusting and that we should cover them up. The effects of smell on sex are often subconscious, which is why it's hard for people with smell loss to talk about how their conditions affect sex. He said it was difficult to understand the impact of losing something when you weren't aware of its significance.
Most of the cultural and academic bandwidth available for discussions of sex and scent has been dedicated to the topic of pheromones. While we tend to use this word to refer to smells that evoke attraction, it actually refers to chemicals that are released from animals that cause automatic reactions in their peers, according to an independent smell researcher. He says that the sex pheromone is the cockroach. Every male roach in your kitchen will try to mate with it if you put a q-tip on it. It's like a spell that determines sexual agency.
The mid-20th century generated curiosity about whether humans emit or respond to pheromones in other animals. A famous account of a woman's menstrual cycles after months of living in close quarters suggested that we do, and that this may play a role in our sexual decisions and experiences. The famous menstruation study, among others, was actually the result of a statistical abnormality. The organ that most animals use to detect pheromones is vestigial in humans. The idea of human sex hormones is a dead letter.
Scientists continue to focus on the topic and perfumeries to sell so-called pheromone-based scents, supposedly guaranteed to drive the object of your desires wild and draw them to you.
It smells like burned things.
Over the last couple of decades a handful of studies have yielded some intriguing insights into smell's role in sexual attraction, for example, that many women wear their partner's clothes because of their unique odor signatures. The smell of men's t-shirts with unknown genes seems to make women less attractive than men with more varied or distant genes. Men seem to be able to pick up on sexual arousal in women's body odors.
In the 1990s, 17 percent of people with smell loss had some kind of sexual problem. A group of German smell researchers have found that men who don't have a sense of smell tend to have fewer sexual partners over the course of their lives. For women more orgasms are associated with greater sensitivity to odors. About a fourth of people with smell loss have less sex drive and are more depressed than other people.
A few scientists have come up with cohesive theories about smell's role in human sexuality. According to Rachel Herz, many evolutionary psychologists believe women use smell as an indicator of a man's health and his immune system, whether he might possess genes that complement her own and thus convey benefits to a potential child. Men care less about smell and appearance because they want to spread their genes to as many fertile women as possible, and looks are a better marker of female fertility. It doesn't mean smell is unimportant to men or women. It gives a cohesive narrative of the role of smell in sex, and an explanation for the greater sensitivity to smell that women seem to exhibit in many studies.
It's easy to poke holes in these big, sweeping theories when we think about the culturally and historically contingent nature of what people find attractive. They don't account for all of the information studies that have yielded to date, such as the impact total smell loss has on men's ability to form relationships than on women's.
Most of the researchers behind the studies acknowledge that they are weak. They rely on small samples, drawn from pools of university students, and fail to account for potential variables, like how attractive someone is to the attendant who gives them a smell to assess, which may influence how attractive they rate the aroma itself. There are no studies that have tried to assess how people's other senses affect their sense of smell.
We don't really understand the impact of smell on sex.
Most studies don't distinguish between different types of smell loss. We tend to associate smell loss with COVID-19, but it can be caused by anything from the common cold to brain damage. A partial smell loss can make you smell things that aren't there, make you smell unpleasant smells, and even make you smell something that isn't there. The shuffling of sensations is different from case to case. The experience of living with smell loss from birth is different from the experience of smell loss later in life, and the experience of smell loss gradually is different from losing all of your smell at once.
At one point, when she lost her smell, she developed parosmia, an altered sense of smell, which made sexual fluids smell like burned things, creating a disgust response. She felt a dulled sense of her husband's smell once that faded, something she's appreciated in the past. She felt less disgust and more distance as her symptoms evolved.
Studies on the intersection of smell and sex rarely bother to figure out the mechanisms behind the effects. It's not clear whether some people with smell loss have less partners, less sexual desire, or find less joy in sex because they're missing a vital sensory tool for intimate bonding with others.
Siegel argues that we don't really understand much about the interplay between smell and sex, and that the only definitive thing we can say is that smell has an impact on sex.
Your nose is weird.
There is no single narrative about how scent affects sex and the effects of smell loss on intimate lives. We know that the science of sex and scent is a mess, but we don't know how people perceive smell.
Our distinct genetic profiles are likely to start us off with unique olfactory receptors. People with certain genes think that cilantro smells like soap. As we grow up, we all hone our physical potential to different degrees, as some of us attend more to smell than others.
Our brains use cultural meme and personal memories to interpret smells. In the West, we often hear that lavender is relaxing, and so our brains and bodies use the scent of lavender as relaxing. Herz notes that a woman claimed to orgasm spontaneously when she smelled leather. She developed an idiosyncrtic connection between leather and sexual pleasure because of her early masturbatory experiences.
"Odors that are sexually arousing are likely to be very specific and, in some cases, strange or bizarre," wrote Mark Griffiths, a psychologist who studies kinks.
Some people put a premium on scent in sex because it is a key element of the sensory feedback that drives pleasuring during sex. It's just one of many factors. Even if they have a fully intact sense of smell, it's still not a factor. Some people who don't like to smell in a positive sense but like to smell negatively, like ass, may benefit from smell loss.
Herz notes that context and priming can have a huge impact on how we interpret smells, even within the framework of one individual's unique smell system and set of sense memories. Siegel says that if you ask people to close their eyes and wave an aromatic compound under their noses several times in a row without telling them what it is, they will pick up on something different within it.
Jim told me that he used to love the smell of women and that he lost his smell. He was aware that the same scent was stimulating or relaxing depending on his mood and circumstances.
If you have lost your sense of smell, what can you do?
Siegel says it's difficult to overcome the subjective experience element in research. Sex educators, doctors who know about smell issues, and patient advocates alike are left with little hard and fast guidance for people who feel as if smell loss has negatively impacted their sex lives because of a lack of solid research findings. "I don't know what to say to them," Kelly says.
He says that he just focuses on trying to regain their sense of smell. There aren't a lot of established treatments for smell loss. Sniffing concentrated odors several times a day may be worth trying, but there's not a lot of data that supports their efficacy. There are no treatment options for people with total smell loss due to the severance of the olfactory nerve. People who claim to have regained their sense of smell, either through natural healing or a purported treatment, often acknowledge they don't get their original sense back.
She tried to push through the unpleasant odor distortions that came with her smell loss. Others told me that they just accepted a shift in their sexual lives and lived with it. Sex and pleasure are often given up for some degree. Deborah McClellan lost her sense of smell around 2012 and says her interest in sex has been dulled. She says that this dulling is the loss of a simple joy.
Even if smell loss takes a toll on someone's sex life and they accept that they're not going to get their sense of smell back, that doesn't mean that they have to live with lessened sexual desire. They just have to shift their focus onto other aspects of sexual experiences, building up new arousing associations, memories, and feedback loops that get them worked up, draw them deep into a sexual moment.
A comedian who was born without a sense of smell says that she has a strong sex drive and a great sex life because of her non-olfactory sense memories. She says that the way he kisses her neck, the way his voice sounds, and the feel of his whiskers all get her going. I'm an active service person, too, so he fixing the dishwasher is more of a turn-on for me than the smell of his shirt must be.
Klein says that when you don't have a thing, like a sense of smell, you or your body will come up with a way to compensate. If you don't fixate on what you don't have, that's fine.
The smell disorder advocacy group echoes this sentiment. Not being able to smell my girlfriend is still the thing that I miss the most. Over time, the sense of loss has not diminished. He says that he has learned to appreciate touch since he was younger. He says that a simple hand on the shoulder can carry a lot of meaning. It can be even more powerful.
"You can work with your partner to explore new ways of being intimate."
It's difficult to write our sense of attraction and arousal back in to make up for what we've lost. It takes time. I'm still trying to figure out what makes sex different for me now, what senses I use, and what sensations I could try to get more out of it.
This need not be boring. Herz says that it can be a journey of exploration with another person. "You can work with your partner to explore new ways of being intimate."
smell loss can be devastating on many levels. To learn more about how we've experienced sex, and to consider all of the new ways we could explore it in the future, is an invitation. If I think about it this way, my smell loss will feel more exciting. Even if it still sucks.