Smells like Sex, the myth of Pheromones and Aphrodisiacs

Phermones might put love in the air even if sometimes, it stinks

PhermonesWhile surfing the Internet one day, I ran across an ad for The Scent, a pheromone cologne for men. The ad says it’s a “perfectly legal sexual stimulant cleverly masked in a men’s cologne that, when unknowingly inhaled by any adult woman, unblocks all restraints and fires up the raw animal sex drive in every woman.”

After reading that, I just had to find what this stuff was, if it actually worked, and if so, whether they made some for women.

American Heritage Dictionary defines pheromones as “a chemical secreted by an animal, especially an insect, that influences the behavior or development of others of the same species.

Betsy Rasmussen, Oregon Graduate Institute chemistry professor, said, “‘Pheromone’ literally means to carry a message. In this case, it’s carrying a chemical message.”

According to pheromone perfume merchant Gary Knapp, the owner of the Portland, Ore. adult bookstore Crimson Phoenix, animals exude pheromone scents for various reasons. “We give off scents when we are in a state of fear,” Knapp said. “The idea that animals can smell fear is not wrong.” The pheromone perfumes at Crimson Phoenix are used for the purposes put forth in The Scent’s ad; attracting romantic interest. Their line is all-natural, oil-based perfumes with pheromones in them, what Knapp calls “fragrance oils spiked with pheromones.”

However, Dirk Iwata-Reuyl, organic chemistry professor at PSU, believes that human pheromone perfumes are a myth. There is no established sex attractant in humans,” he said. “In general, these pheromone perfumes are just packaging things like musk oil, which are known sex attractants for other species. In general, there’s nothing in there that is a legitimate sex attractant, and most just smell nice.”

Iwata-Reuyl says stores selling these products may be misleading people by using certain language. “A person who is selling the stuff may be correct in saying that they contain pheromones, but not human pheromones,” he said. “I’m not aware of any that have a bona fide pheromone in there, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t know much about the products that are out there,” Iwata-Reuyl said.

Rasmussen, who is working with elephant pheromones as a research project, isn’t willing to discount pheromone perfumes, though. “I think there is some legitimacy to pheromone perfumes. Some of the perfumes have some compounds in there that come from human body secretions. There is some validity to it, but not to the point where we know exactly which compound elicits which reaction in humans. Even with rats and hamsters, you don’t just put the pheromone compound down and that drives them to mating. It involves experience and maturity levels of the animals.”

With humans, it’s even harder to know, according to Rasmussen. “You don’t know how much is a conditioned reflection; a man might be reminded by the perfume smell of his first girlfriend, and be reacting to that instead of the pheromones. It’s hard to separate out experience, knowledge known before.”

What About Aphrodisiacs?

I asked Knapp about aphrodisiacs and what was the myth and truth of them. “There is nothing short of your own mind that will bring about a state of desire,” Knapp says. Iwata-Reuyl agreed with Knapp, saying, “Nothing has been shown unequivocally to be aphrodisiac. I’m not aware of anything in humans that’s been demonstrated to be an aphrodisiac. Situations are more prone to be aphrodisiacs than chemicals, which doesn’t mean it’s not out there, but as far as I know, nothing’s been proven.”

There are, however, herbs and drugs that will affect sexual response, increase libido, heighten sensitivity, arousal, energy and stamina levels, and affect a stronger sexual response. Knapp listed oat grass (adds a new spin to “sowing your wild oats”), saw palmetto (a berry bush from the Southern U.S. and Mexico), and muirapuama (a rainforest plant) as some examples of herbs that will increase sexual enjoyment. And, believe it or not, the old adage about oysters is true. “Oysters are a wonderful source of zinc, which is known as the male mineral. It helps increase ejaculant fluids,” Knapp says.

Rasmussen used the example of her own research with elephants. “When you put down the urine of elephant and put it down in front of the bull elephant, he regards it as ‘the thing,’ and elephants are creatures definitely ruled by experience and complex courtship rituals. They are thoughtful, not into just out-and-out mating like with moths. Most of [the] perfumes in antiquity were based on urine-derived compounds, which contain a large amount of pheromones. So there is definitely something to it. It’s not just a bunch of hogwash.”

When Knapp let me take a whiff of a male pheromone called “Havana,” I felt light-headed and a little warm, a little more relaxed. I was told my eyes got glassy and my face flushed. Other signs of an unconcious reaction include dilated pupils, increase heart rate, and a mild state of euphoria. It did not, however, instantly make me want to rush into Knapp’s arms, as The Scent ad promised. “People are more relaxed and calm…some people break into ear-to-ear grins after one whiff of a pheromone,” Knapp explains. I guess in that case I should count myself lucky. But what about the people who catch a whiff of you drenched in some Masterful Lust or Chained Desire (a sampling of some pheromone names available at the Crimson Phoenix)? Will pheromones really “compel them towards you, make you irresistible to them… make women go from NO NO NO to YES YES YES, PLEASE,” as The Scent’s ad promised?

As you can probably guess, the answer is “no.” Even Knapp says that wearing these perfumes will not make people throw themselves at you. “I make no claims that wearing pheromones will make someone get lucky. It will, however, bring about a more attentive, warm, relaxed state on those around you and tend to calm you and increase your confidence levels. I don’t know if that’s a psychological effect. I find that when you are relaxed, you project a sense of self-confidence that is in itself an attractant.” When pheromones are used in a “passionate encounter,” Knapp says an increase in passion levels and arousal occurs. Rasmussen agrees that “pheromones can affect behavior or change hormone cycles and levels.”

Anh Phan, a Portland State University student, has tried pheromones two or three times and had no reaction to them herself.

“It didn’t work too well,” she said. “It gave my then-boyfriend an allergic reaction. He got a stuffy nose as soon as he got a whiff of me and couldn’t breathe, and I thought, ‘Great, that’s not sexy!’ And as soon as I walked into the door, my mom said, ‘What’s that smell? You smell like cheap perfume, wash it off!’ I guess that means it was obviously potent if my mom noticed it the minute I came in.”

She does not, however, discredit pheromones. “I’m very sensitive to the way I smell and the way others smell, so I don’t discount them at all. I’ve been attracted to guys who were all wrong for me and I strongly believe it was pheromones.”

I decided to experiment with pheromones and, with Knapp’s help, I selected a scent called “Miss Behavior.” I wore it all day and attempted to catalog the response I got, but it was difficult. I wondered whether I was noticing people noticing me because I was more observant, because I was paranoid or because I did feel more sexy wearing pheromones. But I am pretty sure the guy who delivered my pizza was checking me out, unwittingly drawn into my trap by the alluring scent of “Miss Behavior.”

Any reaction may be due to sexual stimulant caused by the analogs (chemical reproductions) of human sweat included in the pheromone perfume, said Rasmussen.

“The analogs of human sweat is probably the most important ingredient,” she said. “Research has shown that some women are attracted to armpits of men and sweat, and some of the reverse studies have been done. I would place more validity on secretions from opposite sex than on cedar.”

Both Rasmussen and Iwata-Reuyl admit that science still does not know everything regarding pheromones.

“We don’t have all the answers, but we know a lot more than we did ten years ago,” Rasmussen said. “We’ve made a lot of advances. Pheromones definitely do affect behavior and hormone levels through higher bran centers, it’s just to what extent [that we don’t know].”

If you’re expecting men or women to drop into your arms with a single whiff, you’re going to be spending another Valentine’s Day with a big box of Whitman’s Sampler’s while watching reruns in your sweats. Maybe Phan was right when she said, “I have a friend who says romance is dead, it’s all just chemicals, and if I get any more bitter and cynical, I’d be very inclined to believe it.”