The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

What Turns You On?

The short answer is: your nose and your brain.

I have a confession to make. I love how men, some of them anyway, smell. Not a big surprise, I guess. After all, I’m gay. It’s not unusual for me to take a deep breath, when a good looking guy happens to pass by me, stand in my general vicinity, or sit next to me on the train. In fact, it’s almost instinctive, and — depending on the guy — could make me a little lightheaded and more than a little interested. The last time it happened on the train, an attractive young (20-something) got on the train — hot and sweaty, fresh from an evening jog — and ended up standing right next to me. If it hadn’t been for the pole I was holding on to, I would have swooned. When I hold my husband, I close my eyes and take a deep breath.

It’s something that goes back at least as far as middle school, around the time puberty hit. (Which, incidentally, was around the time I came out.) It was also around the my male classmates got an extra ingredient added to their sweat. Something that drove the girls wild. And me too, of course, though I had to be a quieter about it then.

What brought all this to mind was the news I heard earlier this week about the pheromone in men’s sweat that drives women wild. Apparently, it still works on me too.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley said women who sniffed a chemical found in male sweat experienced elevated levels of an important hormone, along with higher sexual arousal, faster heart rate and other effects.

They said the study, published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, represents the first direct evidence that people secrete a scent that influences the hormones of the opposite sex.

The study focused on androstadienone, considered a male chemical signal. Previous research had established that a whiff of it affected women’s mood, sexual and physiological arousal and brain activation. Its impact on hormones was less clear.

A derivative of testosterone, it is found in male sweat as well as in saliva and semen. It smells somewhat musky.

“It really tells us that a lot of things can be triggered by smelling sweat,” Claire Wyart, who led the study, said in an interview on Wednesday.

There’s more on the study here. GrrlScientist points out something that neither article mentions: the study was focused on heterosexual women. I’m not even sure it’s a new thing, since I think I’ve heard something about it before. I remember some company coming out with men’s and women’s fragrances containing synthesized human pheromones. I even went out and bought some, during my single days, in hopes that it might help.

I’m no scientist, but my own experience suggests that this pheromone phenomenon isn’t an exclusively heterosexual thing. Turns out, some Swedish scientists think the same thing. Two years ago it was reported that gay men respond to pheromones in male sweat, a lot like heterosexual women do.

When homosexual men smelled the odor of male sweat—more specifically, a chemical in the male hormone testosterone—their brains responded similarly to those of women.

The findings suggest that brain activity and sexual orientation are linked. It also supports an opinion held by most scientists, that people are born—not bred—gay.

“This is one more line of evidence that there’s a biological substring for sexual orientation,” said Dean Hamer, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

…For their new study, the scientists added a sexual-orientation element, which revealed a difference in the brain activity of gay and straight men.

The researchers found that the testosterone compound activated the hypothalamus in homosexual men and heterosexual women, but not heterosexual men. Conversely, the estrogen compound activated the hypothalamus only in heterosexual men.

“It shows a different physiological response to the same external stimulus,” said Ivanka Savic, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute and the study’s lead researcher. “This response [occurred] in the brain region involved in reproductive behavior.”

It gets even more complicated when you consider that other research also suggested that gay men preferred pheromones from other gay men, but heterosexual men and women preferred them least of all. That just leaves the lesbians, but it turns out the same Swedish scientists say lesbians respond differently to pheromones too.

The researchers found that the testosterone compound activated the hypothalamus in homosexual men and heterosexual women, but not heterosexual men. Conversely, the estrogen compound activated the hypothalamus only in heterosexual men.

“It shows a different physiological response to the same external stimulus,” said Ivanka Savic, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute and the study’s lead researcher. “This response [occurred] in the brain region involved in reproductive behavior.”

… Heterosexual women found the male and female pheromones about equally pleasant, while straight men and lesbians liked the female pheromone more than the male one. Men and lesbians also found the male hormone more irritating than the female one, while straight women were more likely to be irritated by the female hormone than the male one.

Of course, given how controversial the findings would be, it’s no surprise that the scientists issued an obligatory disclaimer.

“But our study can’t answer questions of cause and effect,” cautions lead researcher Ivanka Savic at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. “We can’t say whether the differences are because of pre-existing differences in their brains, or if past sexual experiences have conditioned their brains to respond differently.”

And Hamer, in the the article about the previous study, suggested that it’s unlikely the brain would rewire itself because of an attraction to men and explained why the disclaimer was necessary.

“This, incidentally, is not in any way controversial for biologists,” Hamer said. “It’s completely expected from the basic tenets of biology. It’s only controversial because of the social and political controversy over homosexuality.”

And, it’s worth noting that no such disclaimer seems to accompany news of the most recent study on heterosexual women’s response to male pheromones. Indeed, it’s called “he first direct evidence that people secrete a scent that influences the hormones of the opposite sex” and evidence “that a single component of a complex mixture like sweat could induce a change on a hormonal level.”

The only disclaimer here is that more research is needed on other hormones, but there’s a noticeable lack of any “chicken-or-egg” type conundrum like the ones that accompanied the studies on gay men and pheromones in 2005 or lesbians and pheromones in 2005. There’s no hand-wringing about the brain responses in heterosexual men or women are a sign that their sexual orientation has a physiological component, or whether their brain responses are such because sexual activity with the opposite sex has changed their brains.

In other words, the assumption is that if you’re heterosexual, your heterosexuality is “hard-wired” into your system. It has no origin. Nothing “caused” it. It just is. That it’s now been shown that your brain responds to the pheromones of the opposite sex just proves it. But if you’re gay or lesbian, and your brain responds to the pheromones of your own gender in a way similar to the way heterosexual men respond to women or heterosexual women respond to men, the jury is still out. It can’t be that you’re brain is just wired that way. So maybe engaging in sexual activity with members of your own gender has changed your brain.

Changed it from what? Well, remember when I asked “When did you know you were heterosexual”?

The assumption is that heterosexuals know they’re heterosexuals, and have never been anything else, while homosexuals have not always been homosexual and just don’t know that they’re really heterosexual. (And if they experience too much acceptance and empathy too early, and are treated with too much dignity and respect, they might never have incentive to become heterosexual rediscover their heterosexuality.) In other words, if you’re gay it’s just because you don’t know you’re really heterosexual. (That doesn’t quite jibe with the reality that many “ex-gay” organizations are abandoning the idea of changing sexual orientation.)

Or, in this case, if you’re gay it’s because you’re brain damaged. Actually, it’s because you’ve damaged your brain by being gay.

That heterosexuals’ respond to the pheromones of the opposite sex can only be evidence of how their brains have always worked. That homosexuals respond to the pheromones of the same sex cannot be taken as evidence of how their brains have always worked, but may also suggest that their brains have been changed from a presumably heterosexual previous orientation by engaging in sexual activity with other men or women. The same cannot be said of heterosexuals, because that would suggest that heterosexual men and women might then have had some other orientation initially. However, it can be said of gays and lesbians, along with the unspoken assumption that we are really just damaged heterosexuals.

It takes me all the way back to my college days and the feminist theory class that introduced me to Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality”, in which the following definition could apply to the different conclusions regarding reached in similar scientific experiments.

Compulsory heterosexuality is the assumption that women and men are innately attracted to each other emotionally and sexually and that heterosexuality is normal and universal. This institutionalization of heterosexuality in our society leads to an institutionalized inequality of power not only between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals, but also between men and women, with far reaching consequences.

Under a regime of compulsory heterosexuality, men control all aspects of women’s lives, including their sexuality, childbirth and rearing activities, safety, physical movement, labor, and access to knowledge. Compulsory heterosexuality leads to discrimination against homosexuals and the intolerance and/or invisibility of gay men and lesbians in society.

Moreover, compulsory heterosexuality routinely punishes those who do not conform to heterosexuality. Thus, same-sex relationships are made taboo and, often, criminalized, while pressure is placed on people to form heterosexual relationships and bonds. The need to enforce male-female relationships as a social norm suggests that heterosexuality may be less an innate response and more of a social conditioning.

The ironic thing, though, is the need to “enforce” heterosexuality seems needless, since even in cultures where homosexuality was accepted or at least not despised the only a small percentage of the population has been same-sex oriented people. So, maybe Rich is onto something with her reasoning. Maybe it has more to do with power than with fear of a queer planet.

What turns you on may be physiological, but it’s also political. Consciously or not, that seems to have some effect on the conclusions of scientific experiments.

That stinks. And not in a nice way.


  1. The Mind's Eyes: Human Pheromones, Neuroscience and Male Sexual Preferences
    echoes your thoughts and experiences, and integrates the research data you mention into a developmental model.

    It's a very long and technical biologically-based review of how our sexual preferences develop, with focus on the sexual preferences of males for other males. Unlike your commentary here, few people will be able to understand my review.

    I think we are saying the same thing, and hope you will read my review. Since it was a press release that partially inspired your comments on this topic, it appears that you might be able to compose a press release on my review that would inspire others to read it. Minimally, you have shown your ability to digest reports from different scientific disciplines and integrate findings to arrive at a meaningful conceptualization.

    Thank you.

  2. Pingback: The Birth (and Death) of Heterosexual Bias - from The Zero Boss by Jay Andrew Allen