Every Saturday the CSPH highlights news or recent research in the field of human sexuality. This week we’re looking at a study from Barry University’s Department of Psychology in Florida that looks at sexual orientation differences in scent preference.
Researchers Frank Muscarella, Ph.D., Luciana Arantes, M.S., and Stephen Koncsol, Ph.D. explain how the fragrances in colognes and perfumes are used to enhance our own natural odors, and human odor is an important element in sexual attraction and mate selection. Their study sought to examine common fragrances to determine if they can be divided into major categories; examine gender and sexual orientation differences in scent preferences for oneself and for one’s partner; and compare odor preferences between heterosexual and gay/lesbian individuals.
The researchers also discuss the inversion theory and the continuum theory of sexuality. Inversion theory holds that the brains of gay men and lesbians are “inverted” such that their structure represents the same structure found in the opposite-gender, heterosexual counterparts. The continuum theory holds that opposite-sex differentiation of brains is not global but rather exists on a continuum and varies in degree and across structures between individuals. For this study, the researchers sought to determine which theory would better explain the resulting patterns of odor preference in gay men and lesbians. The inversion theory would hypothesize that gay men will show a pattern of odor preferences similar to that of heterosexual women while lesbians will show a pattern of odor preferences similar to those of heterosexual men. The continuum theory would predict that gay men and lesbians will show a mixed pattern of gender-conforming and gender-nonconforming preferences.
The results show that there are easily categorized gender-specific fragrances. Traditionally, male-specific scents tend to be “woodsy” (a fragrance found in the musky-spicy cluster) and female-specific fragrances tend to be floral. Scent preferences for oneself and one’s partner for gay men and lesbians was also more consistent with the continuum theory rather than the inversion theory of brain differentiation. This showed a pattern of mostly gender-conforming behavior and preferences accompanied by some gender-nonconforming behavior and preferences that vary unpredictably. The overall pattern of results shows that gay men are more similar to heterosexual men than heterosexual women in odor preferences for themselves. However, in their odor preferences for a romantic/sexual partner, gay men are more similar to heterosexual women than heterosexual men. The overall pattern of results for lesbians shows more variation and gender nonconformity in their odor preferences.
While this study presents an interesting perspective not only of what constitutes attraction, but also the way in which different sexual orientations can be distinguished, the make-up of participants presents some limitations to the study’s conclusions. A large percentage of the participants for the study identified as male or female and heterosexual (370 out of 553) and the other 183 participants identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. According to the article, all 553 participants were used in the factor analyses for the development of the odor scales, but only heterosexual men and women and gay men and lesbians were used in the between-group comparisons. The authors state that there were too few bisexual men for these analyses, and the sexual interests of the bisexual women, as indicated by other measures, suggested they were not a homogeneous group. Issues of gender variance or the option to choose “genderqueer” in the identifying data were not included either. Because of these variables, the study’s conclusions about the biology of sexual orientation must be interpreted as surface-level and not all-inclusive.