Cleopatra’s aim — to seduce by intoxicating the senses — still resonates today.
Fragrance has a long history with sex and seduction. “The height of that was Cleopatra filling her ship with rose petals, wading knee-deep through them to go and meet Mark Antony, creating the indelible image and smell of a bouquet of roses,” says perfumer Mandy Aftel, the author of Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent. “Seductiveness is embedded in the history of perfume — that’s why it’s lasted across the globe and across the millennia.
“It’s intimate for sure — sexual for some people,” admits Frédéric Malle, the perfumer behind Carnal Flower, a tuberose scent that’s the date-night go-to for just about every woman in-the-know. These pretty flowers exude an almost carnal smell, superimposing in a quasi-miraculous way flower shop freshness, camphorous violence – spicy and animalic – and milky sweetness. “It’s all about increasing our magnetism.”
We humans are walking scent antennae. Whether participating in vigorous physical activity or engaging in a sensual relaxation, our bodies are constantly responding to and giving off scent cues. Now, add in scent’s longstanding flirtations with ritual, hedonism, and fetish, and it’s easy to see why so many look for a little sex with their fragrance narratives. After all, just like real sex, fragrance is part biology and part ritual, not to mention it has a hard line connection into the part of the brain that unlocks a firestorm of human emotions.
The biological relationships between sex and scent are fascinating, though human behavior pales when compared to some of nature’s more olfactively oriented creatures. When we smell something favorable (or even something not so favorable), that olfactive message is sent directly to our body’s limbic system, tapping directly into the area of our brains that control feelings of sexual pleasure, happiness, and nostalgia. In turn, our brain sends out responsive information to our body’s pleasure and pain receptors. Odors we find pleasurable have been shown to stimulate the body, with exposure to certain scents increasing blood flow to our sex organs, heightening sensations of sexual desire and arousal. Fragrance can also encourage a more acute awareness of others – remember you don’t just feel, but also smell your partner’s body. Yes, scent triggers very real (and sometimes immediate) physical responses. You can’t get much more intimate than that… now if only there were a magical potion that could guarantee that response always led to sexual satisfaction…