It may be a cliché that scent is the sense most strongly tied to memory, but from experience I know it is also indisputably true—particularly when it mingles with embarrassment. I was leading a meeting at work a little over a year ago, and as I made a wide gesticulation, I caught a whiff of a ripe, pungent odor that could only have come from a very active, unwashed armpit. Mid-sentence, my thoughts started to race: Did I forget to wash under my arms? Did I forget deodorant? Am I nervous or something? Why does that smell so bad? Once it was someone else’s turn to speak, I tried to discreetly assess my underarms, lifting the collar of my t-shirt ever so subtly and taking a quick inhale.
“Phill,” interrupted my colleague, a gentleman named Zach. Before I could even be horrified that I’d been caught smelling my own armpits by a coworker, he finished his sentence. “It’s me. Not you.” Something about the look on Zach’s face indicated he was perfectly fine that we were both here, in this meeting, sitting among his musky smell. The problem wasn’t his to solve, it seemed—it was mine for judging him.
It turned out that Zach was just one of many gay men who is into the concept of “man scent” (also often called “man musk”), achieved by avoiding the deodorant and manufactured fragrances that interfere with the raw, natural odors of sex. The exact definition of “man scent” varies among its aficionados. Daniel, who asked to just be identified by his first name, defines it as “the smell of a man that’s had a long day at work, come back from a run, or just been at the gym.” Keshav Kant, a writer and editor, says it’s “the way a man or male-aligned person with good hygiene just naturally smells.” Mike Feswick, the co-creator of PHILE Magazine, defines it as “a divinely potent smell, specifically one that causes arousal and sexual pleasure.”
For a more scientific approach, I spoke to Barrie Drewitt, the technical director of Princeton Consumer Research Corporation. Drewitt’s job has often been explained as “professional armpit sniffer”—he’s “literally smelled hundreds of thousands of pits all over the world,” hired by cosmetic companies who are interested in testing products like deodorants, body sprays, and more. Man scent—and how to avoid it—is his life’s work.
“Unpleasant smells on our bodies happen when bacteria that live on the skin break down sweat into acid,” he explains. “Sweating is caused by sweat glands in your body—when your temperature rises, these glands release fluids that cool your body as they evaporate. These fluids are odorless, until they combine with the bacteria on your skin.”
Drewitt notes that “most people smell more after heavy activity, like the gym or going for a run,” which is basically like giving your bacteria an all-you-can-eat feast. But there are many other factors that contribute to our overall scent, including the kinds of food we eat, the amount of stress we’re under, and our overall wellness. This more or less means that each of us is walking around with our own, special blend of fragrance, which can change by the day.
“That’s the beautiful thing about us—everyone smells differently based on their diet, hygiene level, and potentially the customs that accompany their background or ethnicity,” says Carlos Huber, a perfumer and the founder of high-end fragrance brand Arquiste. “It’s good that we all smell differently—some of us are sweet, others are fresh. That ‘real scent’ is like a window into intimacy.”
For years, fragrance companies have made billions of dollars off of marketing the very idea that scents help to amplify our sexuality—creating expensive potions that, they assure us, will make us smell “better.” Commercials for AXE Body Spray have depicted archetypically beautiful women, stopped dead in their tracks by catching a whiff of their brand’s latest product. The clip usually ends with this woman ravaging the man who’s wearing it with kisses and sexual advances (he is, it’s important to note, often quite average looking). Tom Ford’s advertising campaigns can be even more explicit—an advertisement for the scent “Tom Ford For Men” shows the bottle placed directly in front of a woman’s vulva, her legs spread wide open, her polished, red nails placed suggestively above the bottle cap. Dolce & Gabbana’s fragrance Light Blue has long relied on the very visible curves and contours of whatever is underneath David Gandy’s bright white Speedo. And a personal favorite is a television spot for Paris by Yves Saint Laurent, where Kate Moss appears to bring herself to orgasm just by writhing around in the backseat of an expensive car and clutching her perfume. (For whatever it’s worth, I walked away from that commercial wishing they’d make a version for men—a very “I’ll Have What She’s Having” kind of moment.)
In other words, scent has pretty much always been sexualized—so long as money was involved. The modern perfume business has more or less been built on the vague notion that they are able to bottle the smell of desire, to improve one’s scent for optimal attraction and the trappings that come with it, like fame, fortune, or even enhanced machismo or femininity. Part of this myth has been backed up by another myth: that of pheromones.
“Pheromones are really just an idea,” Huber explains. “It’s the idea that certain molecules can have an aphrodisiac effect on people. But really, many different things can arouse many different people, so there’s never been a proven ‘pheromone recipe’ that you can just add to a fragrance.”
“It’s not that pheromones don’t exist,” Drewitt says. “It’s just that we have yet to find them.”
According to many of the men interviewed for this piece, the perfumers and chemists could very well find their answer within the Eagle, popular gay leather bar in New York. Leather bars are special to their patrons, and are often considered to be the last remaining public spaces for cruising and judgment-free exploration of kink. As such, one would be ill-advised to approach a leather bar without a respect for its general code of conduct. Before agreeing to go to a leather bar in Mexico City recently, I texted my friend Mikelle Street, who often writes about the kink and fetish community. “Don’t wear fragrance,” he warned me, as I glanced disappointedly at the bottle of lily-of-the-valley perfume I’d been excited to spritz on myself before walking out the door. “It’s disrespectful.”
In fact, many bars may actually have an explicit rule against fragrance as a part of their dress code. In a statement from the Eagle, the club told me, “Many years ago, we had one weekly night devoted to leather. Patrons were monitored for appropriate dress, and no cologne or deodorant was permitted, as it was seen as something that hid a man’s natural smell...musk as a powerful aphrodisiac played an important role in creating the sexy vibe at the Eagle.”
Chuck King, the general manager of a related leather bar near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, called the Eagle Wilton Manors, considers this rule important for maintaining the space’s overall ambience. “We have a section called the Code Bar, where you have to be shirtless or wearing leather or you can’t enter the area—we want it to be a natural environment. It’s a very sexually charged arena, one where you can feel the excitement and arousal, and embrace and celebrate the fetish.”
“Man scent” finds plenty of admirers outside of leather-oriented spaces, too. More than one friend pointed me to the “Chicago gays” when they heard I was working on this story, and indeed, one came calling. The OnlyFans performer known as “DamagedBttm” describes dancing at a Sunday night party called “Queen,” which is “all about letting your freak flag fly,” (read: many patrons forsake their deodorant). “I was having the time of my life with my friends when this 6’4”, hairy, muscle god walked by. I smelled him as he passed, and I was hooked.”
DamagedBttm abandoned the gaggle of friends he was dancing with, and after a few awkward moments, he finally found a way to introduce himself, and complimented the gentleman on his odor. “The moment I did, he wrapped his hands around my neck—one in the front, one in the back—and shoved my face into his armpit. The sensation was so extreme. He was choking me with one hand and holding me in place with the other...I’m really into choking, so that just made it even better.”
DamagedBttm leads quite an active sex life—but, he says the five minutes he spent in that stranger’s pits was “one of the best sexual experiences” of his life. They didn’t even go home together, he he says, but the scent immersion was more than enough.
Even connoisseurs of “man scent” can still get repulsed by body odor when it’s in the wrong setting. “You have to smell appropriate for the occasion,” DamagedBttm says. “If we’re at dinner and I’m getting intense BO, I’m not into it at all.”
I mention context to Zach—specifically, how taken aback I was by his admission during that business meeting. While he is into “man musk,” he assures me that was not his intention in the workplace. (He had an allergic reaction to his deodorant, and was experimenting with a few natural varieties at the time.) In fact, he knew from firsthand experience how crucial “the mood” was for true appreciation of scent. A few years ago, Zach was photographing a fashion event, and got immensely sweaty under the hot lights of the event space. He had forgotten to wear deodorant that day, and thus began stressing, causing the amount of sweat to worsen. When the fashion blogger Bryanboy passed by, he remarked loudly on the smell before relocating his friends to a different corner of the party.
“It made me so anxious and self-conscious,” Zach recalls. “But that was a case where it was inappropriate, right? It’s not a sexualized space! It’s not a time of, ‘let’s let our natural bodies do their thing.’ Clothing and fragrance and beauty are all things we put on ourselves, as opposed to what we’re taking off. In a sexual space, we’re getting ready to take things off and strip down.”
Fetish is fascinating—many of our unexpected predilections can reveal something deeper about us. And, of course, a recurring theme around fetish is that thoughts and impulses that at first feel private and shameful so often turn out to be common, almost universal. With that in mind, maybe consider that the torrid and pungent nature of your own natural scent may be offensive only in context.
And you can (and should!) apply this exact same logic to wearing your favorite fragrance. “You want perfume to have a presence, personality, and longevity—but you don’t want them to become a coat of paint on top of you,” says Huber. “You want them to mix with your own chemistry, and change the way they smell. That, for me, is way sexier than everyone smelling like one million of the same scent.”
This idea—that everyone has a unique scent—is underscored by the reality that most of us have responded positively (even if just subconsciously) to the scent of someone we’ve been physical with.
“When you create a bond with a person, some of that is based on what they smell like. Because what they smell like is also a part of what you’re attracted to and, in a way, what you agreed on,” Huber says. He tries to find the words to explain the very particular smell he’s learned to love on his partner, Andrew. There’s “something very specific” that’s “less sexual, but more intimate,” something oily and a little powdery, but not quite clean. “I can’t associate it with anyone else. It’s just him,” he says. “It’s not necessarily sexual, it can be. Because if I smell it, then...I might think about other things.”
That smell, for example, might recall a Sunday morning, white bedsheets, the imprint of our heads on pillows, bodies that are still warm from being kept under the covers. It’s the kind of scent that we allow ourselves to love and be comforted by—and maybe, within it, we find arousal.
There’s a reason we smell the t-shirts of the ones we’ve lost, why people who are grieving their loved ones are reticent to wash their sheets or their clothing. And while it might not quite be the same as ambience at the Eagle, the two are absolutely related. It’s up to us who we let see us (and smell us) when we choose to be naked.
In a way, it’s nice to know that—no matter what we think we look like when our clothes come off—at least somebody likes the way we smell.
Originally Appeared on GQ