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Body Odor, Gender, and Sexual Orientation

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Updated November 06, 2005

Body Odor, Gender, and Sexual Orientation

In the United States and many Western cultures we hide our body odor. Despite this, new research has found that men and women with different sexual orientations differ significantly in whose body odor they prefer. Human pheromones are thought to play a role in sexual attraction, even in cultures that cover-up human body odor. Research in this area had already found that we rate our relatives' body odors as less sexually attractive than the odors of people unrelated to us.

What does this have to do with mental health? Sexual orientation is an integral part of mental health. Not too long ago the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. We no longer consider it to be so. This study provides additional evidence that it is not a disorder - that some people are probably born homosexual. Good mental health includes integrating your own sexual preference as a positive part of your self image.

Researchers obtained the body odors in the present study by paying a group of male and female heterosexual and homosexual "odor donors" to avoid all fragrances, soaps, and shampoos for 9 days. During this time they could not shave their armpits or eat spicy food. Following this preparation they wore cotton gauze pads under their arms for three days. These pads were later cut up and places in plastic squeeze bottles for use in the study.

A different group of subjects, the "odor evaluators" were paid to rate the different odor combinations without knowing which group the odors came from. Significant differences emerged:

  • Heterosexual males found the odors of heterosexual females to be the least unpleasant, and the odors of gay males to be the most unpleasant.
  • Gay males found the odors of heterosexual females to be least unpleasant, but the odors of gay males followed close behind. The odors of lesbians and heterosexual males were judged most unpleasant (but the overall differences were smaller for gay males than for other "odor evaluators").
  • Heterosexual females found the odors of gay males and lesbians to be more unpleasant than the odors of other heterosexual females and heterosexual males.
  • Lesbians preferred the odors of heterosexual females and especially disliked the odors of gay males.

Some of these results make more sense than others. Taken together, they do demonstrate that both gender and sexual orientation affect our preference for human body odors. The study was conducted in Philadelphia, in the United States; and most participants found all of the odors to be somewhat unpleasant. As we get closer to the people in our lives we do inevitably smell them. What we smell may make more of a difference than we think.

Reference: Martins, Preti, Crabtree, Runyan, Vainius and Wysocki. Preference for Human Body Odor is Influenced by Gender and Sexual Orientation. Psychological Science16,9,September 2005.

Last updated 11/6/05

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