Smelly Love

Let’s be honest, we’ve all had at least one lusty night at the pub where you’ve been totally smitten with a complete stranger and… well…say no more. The next morning you most likely asked yourself why you acted with such impulse? Was it due to the boozy haze or due to some strange law of attraction? There are a few elements that could explain why and may also contribute to our search for our ‘perfect’ or not so perfect mate, including a woman’s menstrual cycle, a little immune factor known as the Major Histocompatability Complex (MHC), and funnily enough, our body odour. In humans, fertility in females increases gradually before ovulation then will decrease rapidly straight afterwards. Conceiving is possible only during a fleeting period of around 6 days, which ends on the day of ovulation. Now, it has been proven that during these different phases of a woman’s cycle, their sense of attraction towards men is vastly different, based on their instinctual needs and smell. During the fertile phase it has been shown women are more attracted to men who can provide the greatest genetic benefits for their future offspring, including good physical health and intelligence. During the infertile phase, men who can provide the greatest non-genetic, ‘material benefits’ are preferable. So for some, this might include big house, a safe car, security of income, etc. These are the so called ‘good-dad’ qualities and can be obtained regardless of whether a man’s physical appearance and smell are compatible.

Our level of attraction to another is believed to be majorly influenced by MHC, the Major Histocompatibility Complex. This is a family of proteins that have an important role in helping the immune system recognise and deal with pathogens. This set of genes, however, is significantly different across the human population. In fact, only identical twins have any chance of being born with the same set of MHC genes. The MHC is thought to be responsible for organ recipients rejecting organs from incompatible donors. Furthermore, humans, along with other species of animals are believed to sense other MHC gene sets via their smell perception.

It has been shown that this smell perception during the fertile phase sees a woman subconsciously attracted to a man that has a totally different MHC profile to herself. Biologically, this is most likely to provide her children with the best possible chance of survival through an attempt to broaden their immune capability. During the non-fertile phase however, it has been shown that females are attracted to men with more similar MHC profiles. Indicating that it’s not genetics that is now the priority but instead perceived safety, security and comfort.

Men’s attraction towards women also changes with their cycles. The fertile phase of the woman’s cycle stimulates changes in physical properties of women such as their body odour or voice pitch. It has even been shown that women tend to dress more provocatively during this time and (surprise, surprise) studies have shown that men are highly sensitive and responsive to these changes. For example, a study that looked at tip earnings by lap dancers found that women in their fertile phase made US$20 more per hour compared to their non-fertile phase!

Interestingly, recent studies have shown that the contraceptive pill is having some influence over our choice of prospective mates. In fact, relationships formed whilst the woman was on the pill can change drastically when the woman comes off the pill in order to conceive or for other reasons. For those not aware, the contraceptive pill acts by mimicking pregnancy and hence ceasing the menstrual cycle, thereby having a profound change in the hormonal state of the body. This changed hormonal state also affects natural body odour as the woman is “pregnant” all the time. Going back to the lap dancers, the study also showed that women who were not on the pill made about 50% more tips than woman on the pill and therefore not undergoing their natural cycle.

Attraction is heavy stuff, right? Even a touch frightening as it’s not something you can entirely control! So if you find yourself questioning how you managed to be entwined with someone you met only half an hour ago, the reason may not be as simple as ‘a few too many wines’. Instead that primal instinct of yours may be the culprit- subconsciously causing you to size up, sniff around and finally drawing you to that stranger in the corner based on their genetic or non-genetic advantages. Of course it’s only natural that something unnatural such as the pill could mess with these primal laws of attraction. But, whether you be man or woman you can almost be certain that your nose won’t lie.

by Monica Fortunaso

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