Wednesday, 4 July 2012

It's Official: Women Prefer Musky Toilets

I try to resist the pressure to think about and assess perfume in terms of inter-sex relations. But I was prompted to re-consider my stance by a fascinating Robin Dunbar piece which appeared in a recent edition of The Observer. Here are two extracts:

There do appear to be significant differences between the sexes in their respective sensitivity to odour: women are much more sensitive than men. There is now quite a lot of evidence that women in particular are quite good at identifying their children and their lovers by scent alone. However, we are by no means perfect at this, it must be said, and it is probably just as well that we don't manage our social world by smell rather than by vision – we would be likely to make an inordinate number of embarrassing mistakes if we did. However, it seems that, having identified the right person, smell plays a very important role in sexual arousal for women in a way it doesn't for men. Perhaps as a result, women rate smell as more important in mate choice than men do, whereas men rely much more on visual cues, reflecting the fact that men tend to make up their minds about a prospective mate from further away than women do. Women need to get up close and personal.
Androstenol is one of a family of steroids formed as a natural by-product of testosterone, the so-called male hormone. It's responsible for the slightly musky smell that men naturally have, and is one of the components of truffles. In an infamous experiment, three psychologists, Gustavson, Dawson and Bonett, once sprayed androstenol around half the cubicles in men's and women's toilets. Then the researchers recorded how often users who had a free choice of all the cubicles (ie none were occupied) entered the ones treated with androstenol. What they found was that men tended to avoid the androstenolised cubicles – having ventured in, they would usually back hastily out and find an androstenol-free one instead. But women apparently found the androstenolised cubicles rather congenial – even if not irresistible – and used them more often than the untreated ones. 

To read the rest of this intriguing article, please click here.



  1. According to "The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour" by David Michael Stoddart (Oxford University Press), a similar experiment was done in 1980 using chairs in dentist's reception area. I quote: "An interpretational problem, however, was that women showed no preference when odorant concentrations were moderate-- the significant response occurred with respect to dilute and high concentration applications only."

    As for the study cited in Dunbar's article in which men's and women's toilet blocks were sprayed, the same source proclaims (capitalization mine): "NO EFFECT was apparent in the female block."

    Dunbar's deliberate emphasis on the toilets (and women's supposed preferences for them, har de har!) strikes me as somewhat of a misogynistic prank... especially when it appears that the earlier study proves his point better in a way less insulting to women.

    1. Olenska, thanks very much indeed for the book reference. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that the article displays a misogynistic attitude. But yes, too concrete a conclusion appears to have been drawn from the fact that women displayed NO particular preference.


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