Scents and Sexuality: This Spring's Breakthrough Study on How Gays and Straights Respond Differently to Human Smells Is Only the Latest in a Long Line of Studies Suggesting a Genetic Link to Sexual Orientation

By Neff, Lisa | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), July 5, 2005 | Go to article overview

Scents and Sexuality: This Spring's Breakthrough Study on How Gays and Straights Respond Differently to Human Smells Is Only the Latest in a Long Line of Studies Suggesting a Genetic Link to Sexual Orientation


Neff, Lisa, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Chicago's Lake View. Known to many as "Wrigleyville," the north side neighborhood serves as Chicago's sports mecca, where the Cubs play hardball in the Friendly Confines. And it's known to many more as "Boystown" because it serves as the city's vibrant gay center. Sure, the population of women is on the rise here, but still, in Lake View on a muggy spring eve the troposphere is saturated with testosterone emissions.

Can't you smell that smell?

"I'm sort of like in heat," says an animated Brian-Mark Conover, 49. The Chicago events organizer is at the Cell Block leather bar preparing for some 10,000 men from around the world to arrive for International Mr. Leather 2005 Memorial Day weekend.

To pick up the scent of man on this evening, follow any number of trails--to the dark bar in Cell Block on Halsted, to the cavernous Circuit nightclub, to the beer-soaked right-field bleachers in Wrigley Field. There's the gym, the bathhouse, the police precinct, the batting cages. So many trails for so many hound dogs.

According to new research from home and abroad, these scent trails may tell us something about the sexual orientation of the odor-seeker and perhaps the sexual orientation of the odor-maker.

In May researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm announced that gay men and straight women respond similarly to hormonal sex scents, and differently than straight men do. As for lesbians-well, it's complicated and inconclusive.

Using brain imaging, the scientists studied responses to a testosterone derivative in men's sweat, called AND, and an estrogen-related compound in women's urine, called EST. They found that sniffs of EST activated the ordinary olfactory region in straight women and gay men but fired up the hypothalamus, a region of the brain connected to sexual behavior, in straight men. Meanwhile, AND activated straight men's olfactory while firing up the hypothalamus in straight women and gay men.

The headlines to reports on the Stockholm study provided days of watercooler chatter and sent more than a few gay men out on the town minus even a splash of cologne or a swash of deodorant.

"There is something about the smell of a man, with maybe just an itty-bitty drop of Old Spice behind the ear," declares gay Chicagoan Rick Garcia, who says he abandoned cologne and deodorant years ago. "So that study makes perfect sense to me."

The power of certain smells is undeniable, adds native Brazilian Pedro Andrade, cover boy for this magazine. "I've always said that nothing brings me back to a place like scent," says Andrade, who now lives in New York [see page 36]. "No letter, no music, can remind you of things like smell. It's one of the most personal senses."

Also in May researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia announced findings in a study on underarm odor and sexual orientation. Researchers asked 82 men and women to indicate their preference among 24 samples of sweat from men and women, gay and straight. They found that gay men preferred the sweat of other gay men but their sweat was least preferred by heterosexual men, heterosexual women, and lesbians.

"The bottom line is that the production and perception of body odor is influenced by gender and sexual orientation," says Monell neuroscientist Charles Wysocki, who has studied odor perception since the 1970s. "The production of body odor has a strong foundation in biology--how deep into biology is not known. So what does this mean? Are there genetic differences among these four groups that produce four different metabolic pathways? Or are the genes nearly the same within gender and being expressed differently? If so, it still begs the question: Is there a strong genetic determinism in sexual orientation?"

Though researchers stress that scent studies don't reveal the biological origin of homosexuality, the information builds on the body of evidence connecting sexual orientation and biology. …

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