Science of Sex: Pheromones

September 9th, 2017

Welcome to the ninth installment in a new feature on Of Sex and Love: Science of Sex. In this feature, I plan to discuss the science of sexuality in an easy-to-digest format that’s accessible to the casual reader. I will also follow up with some extended reading material for people who want to know more about the subject of each post.


science of sex pheromones

You probably think of pheromones as sex chemicals. Many animals produce pheromones, chemicals that help attract mates among other things. But plants and bacteria also produce pheromones that serve various purposes. These chemicals are emitted through sweat, saliva, and other glands.

Human infants, for example, may detect pheromones that lead them to their mothers’ breasts, which is necessary for nursing. One type of moth releases a pheromone-filled mucus cocktail to attract potential suitors. Pheromones may signal whether another member of the same species is healthy and thus a good potential mate. Queen bees attract drones with pheromones (and unappealing pheromones may even serve as a pest repellant). Nature has plenty of examples of pheromones.

It’s the nose that detects pheromones in animals like humans and mice, but detection of these chemicals is unconscious. You wouldn’t realize when pheromones are at play, and animals certainly don’t.

Scientists believe pheromones in a man’s sweat can attract a woman to a man, even if the idea of smelling someone’s sweat isn’t appealing. Since the 1970s, researchers have found ties between body odor and attraction. You may already be familiar with the experiment in which women were asked to smell t-shirts covered in a man’s sweat and rate attractiveness. More recently, a study has shown that a man’s testosterone may rise when in the presence of pheromones of menstruating women.

Even exposure to pheromones from the same gender can elicit an effect as is the case with women and their menstrual cycles (and sweat from any gender can impact the menstrual cycle when applied near the nose). However, the case for pheromones in humans isn’t a strong one, and no specific chemicals have been extracted to reproduce that effect artificially.

Researchers once thought that the vomeronasal organ (VNO) is the pheromone receptor in animals. But humans have a particularly small VNO — and some have none at all. The genes that turn on the VNO aren’t active in every person, either. The VNO may be only part of the picture, too. One study showed that pigs could still detect pheromones even when the VNO duct was plugged, leading scientists to suggest that more than the VNO is necessary to detect pheromones.

The terminal nerve in the brain has been proposed as a pheromone detection, and hamsters with terminal nerve damage do not reproduce. This all makes it hard to make a solid case for human pheromones.

That doesn’t stop companies from promising you can attract a mate and make them obsessed with you with a little help from pheromones. But it does mean that the chemicals, if any, contained in these products are not human pheromones. They come from other animals, usually pigs, and there isn’t proof that they will work for you, a human person.

Even if researchers could prove that human pheromones exist and identify those chemical compounds, a true human pheromone product may not improve your sex life as much as you’d hope. For starters, you’d still produce your own pheromones. Pheromones also have to battle with all the bath and body products we use on a daily basis, which is one reason why researchers haven’t found a strong connection between pheromones and attraction in humans. Finally, humans have a host of other senses that come into play when it comes to attraction.

There’s enough evidence of pheromones in humans to warrant further investigation, but we cannot make a conclusive case for human pheromones.. yet.

Further Reading


Judging His Cover

February 15th, 2015

He was plain. There was nothing special about him. He was lanky with too much gut from years of drinking. His hair was thinning prematurely, and he tried to hide it by wearing it long or, more frequently, wearing hats.

He was tall enough to look awkward. All of his t-shirts looked two sizes too large. If we’re being honest, they were. It’s hard to clothe that frame.

He wore glasses ill-suited to his face shape. Without anti-glare, looking at him was like looking into some sort of abyss. It was empty and soulless.

Whenever he gained weight, his face ballooned out like a chipmunk foraging for its very survival. He tried to hide this by growing a beard. To a certain extent, it worked, but he let it become unruly. At this point, his childlike nose poked out from between the whiskers, and he just looked silly.

That’s all he was: silly.

And yet with all this silliness, his mediocrity and his inability to style himself in a manner that indicated any thought at all, he was confident. He was cool. He was fun. He was the laid back type of person whom you always want to be around because he makes everything look so damned easy.

So despite his awkwardness, his overly-worn hats and glasses that made it impossible to tell whether his eyes were green or blue anyway, I fell in love with him. In spite of myself, I found my mind drifting to him whenever it wanted, whether or not I wanted it to at all.

And despite all of his own insecurities, he carried himself with enough confidence that he was magnetic, his charisma always pulling me closer to him when his arms weren’t physically wrapping around me and bending me to his will. He twisted and pulled and I melted against him, this plain, not-special, awkward boy who was trying too hard to be a man.

What was it about him? It wasn’t visible. It was chemical, running through his veins and jolting across neural pathways. It was gustatory, sliding across my tongue and sticking in my mouth with a sweetness that was only as bitter as I imagined. It was tangible, electric, breath-quickening and pulse-quickening.

What it was that drew me to him, kept me at his side and begging for me, left me looking after him when he’d already walked away, was an eddy of forces so subtle and quick that I was already gasping for breath by the time that I realized what had happened. And by then, his animal magnetism had already replaced oxygen as my primary source of survival.

That is the power of the main who looks plain from the outside but feels like a storm once he’s inside you. Flowery descriptions seem so far from apropos when it comes to the boy who slouches and drinks too much and isn’t sure of his own self worth.

But when I think of the awkward boy with all his flaws, even through the filter of my broken heart, I cannot help but see a little beauty.


When Sex Isn’t The Best

February 16th, 2009

Sometimes sexual intimacy, even with those we love the most, is a bit of a letdown. It can be disappointing for everyone involved. A caring partner wants his or her lover to feel pleasure and it can be just as frustrating when the pleasure we seek is just out of reach. Nevertheless, it’s completely normal and there are a lot of factors which can occasionally put a dent in our sex lives. The important thing is to recognize there is nothing “wrong” with either partner and allowing these instances to bring down our sex lives in general does no one any good. But before you go and get all hotheaded, keep these things in mind:

Sex will sometimes disappoint
It happens. It has happened before and it will happen again but letting a handful of instances erase your memory of dozens which are excellent won’t make you feel any better. On the other hand, is the ratios are reverse, perhaps your sex life can use some sprucing up.
Sexual performance is not always linked to attraction, emotion or even physical pleasure.
Your health, lack of sleep, stress level, medication, anxiety to perform and mental preoccupation with anything can all lead to less than desirable sex. If you have been busy, overworked, under nourished or are suffering from a medical ailment, sex may suffer, too. If your mind is elsewhere, too busy to focus on pleasure, how can you expect sex to be wonderful? Rest assured that if some sessions in the sack are less than perfect, it doesn’t mean you don’t find your partner attractive, love them or enjoy what they do and the same applies when roles are reversed!
We all have off days.
Maybe you’re an excellent speaker, writer, artist, performer, mathematician or scientist. Even experts have “off” days and they learn to take them in stride. Few, if any, people are at their best 24/7.
We learn from our mistakes.
No one who ever did anything amazing stopped after their first set back. Some kept up, failure after failure, until they came up with something that worked. I doubt Einstein or Steve Jobs or DaVinci gave up just because the job was tough and neither should you.
It doesn’t have to hurt your relationship.
Sometimes we take it personally when our partners aren’t experiencing as much pleasure as we’d like them to but communication goes a long way. If you couldn’t orgasm don’t storm out of the room; let your partner know that he or she did everything you expected and more but, hey, it’s just “one of those days.”

When you’ve taken a deep breath and accepted these facts, then it might be time to figure out why sex was lacking but do not assign blame.It might be one of the issues highlighted before or something else completely. When you recognize the issue, you can do more to fix it? Stressed? Lay off the caffeine, cut out projects which are unnecessary and stop spreading yourself so thin. Take more time for you (take a bubble bath, do a crossword or nap), add more foreplay and focus on your senses rather than just getting off. Interference from your health or medication? Talk to your doctor. Preoccupied? Take time to unwind after your day before hopping into bed. Once you shut the bedroom door, keep your worries out there.

If it helps, have a conversation with your lover to let them know what’s going on inside your mind. Maybe they can help you de-stress, get healthier and wind down after a rough day. Sex is a two-way street and no one expects you to walk it alone.

I know I sometimes (okay, always) have a tendency to focus on the bad and can use a reminder every once in a while: disappointing sex is not the end of the world! One bad session may lower my interest in sex in the recent future but, the truth of the matter is, if you’re too busy focusing on what’s bad, you’ll never feel motivated enough to work toward the good. The sooner you get back on the proverbial horse, the sooner you’ll be enjoying sex again. There’s no use causing further disappointment in your sex life by lamenting over something which is easily fixed and completely normal.

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