A rose by any other name: scent preferences, gender, and sexual orientation.

Author:Muscarella, Frank


"I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning" (Proverbs, 7:17-18).

Humans have used fragrances to attract romantic partners and to induce romance throughout recorded history (Milinski & Wedekind, 2001), and undoubtedly even before. According to Milinski and Wedekind, some fragrances appear to be used consistently in cultures and across cultures, and it has been speculated that certain fragrances may have chemical structures similar to those found in the odors normally secreted by humans. Further, they suggest that when people use perfumes and colognes, the fragrances, rather than masking odors, are enhancing natural odors and thereby increasing the signaling effect of natural odors. Odors are an important method of communication among most animal species (Symonds & Elgar, 2008) and are an essential element in the mating process (Rekwot, Ogwu, Oyedipe, & Sekoni, 2001). Odors and the sense of smell also appear to play an important role for humans; for example, people can differentiate the natural axillary odors of men and women (Milinski & Wedekind, 2001). Anecdotally, and apropos of this, in a sex appeal-infused Abercrombie & Fitch store that frequently employs scantily clad young male models, a Spanish-speaking woman was overheard saying to another "Esta tienda huele a macho" or "This store smells manly". There is considerable evidence suggesting that human odors are genetically linked and may serve as pheromones, or chemical signals (Martins et al., 2005) that mediate sexual attraction and mate preferences (Cutler, Friedmann, & McCoy, 1998; Herz & Inzlicht, 2002; Kohl & Francoeur, 1995; McCoy & Pitino, 2002; Milinski & Wedekind, 2001; Sergeant, Davies, Dickins, & Griffiths, 2005; Stockhorst & Pietrowsky, 2004). Essentially, among heterosexual men and women, men produce odors that tend to attract women, and women produce odors that tend to attract men (Kohl, Atzmueller, Fink, & Grammer, 2001; Kohl & Francoeur, 1995).

Both men and women use perfumes and colognes to increase their attractiveness (Milinski & Wedekind, 2001; Summer & Doskoch, 1996). Some cultures reportedly do not differentiate between fragrances for men and fragrances for women (Milinski & Wedekind, 2001). However, Summer and Doskoch (1996) report that, at least in American culture, men's fragrances tend to be "woodsy" and women's fragrances tend to be "floral". As evidenced by advertising, fragrances for men are predominantly musky-spicy, and fragrances for women are predominantly floral-sweet. The meaning of this dichotomy is unclear, but at a fundamental level it may reflect the fact that stronger odors are considered characteristically male and weaker odors are considered characteristically female (Milinski & Wedekind, 2001).

It is commonly recognized that human males and females evolved different reproductive strategies (Symons, 1979), and mating behavior and preferences related to these strategies appear to be universal (Buss, 1994). Differences in brain structure and organization appear to contribute to gender differences in behavior, particularly mating behavior (Ellis & Ames, 1987; LeVay, 2011; Ogas & Gaddam, 2011; Pillard & Weinrich, 1987). Neurohormonal theories of sexual orientation development hold that various patterns of feminization--defeminization and masculinization--unmasculinization of the brain direct attraction to specific physical characteristics which contributes to mate preferences and ultimately to sexual orientation (LeVay, 2011; Muscarella, 2002; Muscarella, Elias, & Szuchman, 2004). The brain differentiation pattern in heterosexual men is speculated to be defeminized and masculinized, and the pattern in heterosexual women is speculated to be feminized and unmasculinized (Ellis & Ames, 1987; Pillard & Weinrich, 1987).

Neurohormonal theory on the development of a homosexual orientation has two directions: inversion theory and continuum theory. In essence, the inversion theory holds that the brains of gay men and lesbians are "inverted" such that their structure represents the same structure found in the opposite-gender, heterosexual counterparts (Ellis & Ames, 1987; Pillard & Weinrich, 1987). Thus, gay men exhibit the behavior and preferences of heterosexual women, and lesbians exhibit the behavior and preferences of heterosexual men. Anatomical studies of brain differences between heterosexual men and women and gay men and lesbians have been used as evidence to support this theory ( e.g., Kinnunen, Moltz, Metz, & Cooper; 2004; Savic & Lindstrom, 2008) as have psychological studies of behavioral differences (e.g., Bailey & Zucker, 1995; Singh, Vidaurri, Zambarano, & Dabbs, 1999).

By contrast, the continuum theory holds that opposite-sex differentiation of embryonic brains is not global but rather exists on a continuum and varies in degree and across structures between individuals (Kauth, 2000; Woodson & Gorski, 2000). Consistent with this idea, Rahman and Wilson (2003) have argued that homosexuality is associated with predominantly sex-typical behavior and some sex-atypical behavior that varies unpredictably. This variability is speculated to give rise to the wide range of behaviors and preferences associated with a homosexual orientation. The majority of psychological studies support this interpretation (Chivers, Seto & Blanchard, 2007; Kauth, 2000; LeVay, 2011; Muscarella, 2002; Muscarella et al., 2004; Petty & Muscarella, 2011; Rahman & Wilson, 2003).

Very little research has examined odor preferences in gay men and lesbians. However, there is some evidence of differences in olfactory preferences between heterosexual men and women and gay men and lesbians (Martins et al., 2005).

The Present Study

The purpose of this study was three-fold: a) it examined common fragrances to determine if they can be divided into major categories; b) it examined gender and sexual orientation differences in scent preferences for oneself and for one's partner among those categories: and c) it compared odor preferences between heterosexual men and women and gay men and lesbians to determine if the pattern of odor preference in gay men and lesbians is better explained by the inversion theory or the continuum theory. Specifically, the inversion theory predicts that gay men will show a pattern of odor preferences similar to that of heterosexual women while lesbians will show a pattern of odor preferences similar to those of heterosexual men. Conversely, the continuum theory predicts that gay men and lesbians will show a mixed pattern of gender-conforming and gender-nonconforming preferences.



The study was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board of Barry University, a small, Catholic university located in metropolitan...

To continue reading