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The Smell of Sex, Deconstructed

What’s going up our nostrils when we take a whiff of that nice tall glass of flesh-squeezed juice?

I am neither a poet nor a scientist, and so to describe what sex smells like seems damn near impossible. Like, I know exactly what Marcy Playground meant when they said, “I smell sex and candy,” but at the same time, I haven’t even the slightest idea. 

Sex smells like… body juice? Erotic-flavored sweat? Chicken broth? 

According to expert sex doctors and fellow sex-havers, all of the above. But there are a handful of components that go into making sex smell the way it does. Below, I attempt to break down the ingredients of this most chaotic of fragrances.

1) Sweat

Regardless of gender or body parts, sex usually involves a good deal of sweating. Sure, you put antiperspirant on your armpits, but did you put it on your butt? Hopefully not, since that doesn’t seem safe, but nevertheless, your butt does sweat. And when you’re naked and romping, that butt sweat is free to roam — as is ball sweat, knee sweat, boob sweat and definitely dick sweat. Basically, if you’re having big sex, you’re gonna sweat from places that might usually be covered by clothing — and with no fabric to wick it away, the aroma is in the air for all to smell. 

Sweat itself contains water, carbs, salt, protein and urea, and weirdly enough, it doesn’t actually smell like anything — the odor only appears after it starts being metabolized by the bacteria living on your skin. One of the major contributors to sex scent, therefore, is the kind of bacteria you’ve got sitting around. In the case of your genital region, it’s the kind of bacteria that feasts on the more oily apocrine sweat that you get down there (and the same kind you get in your armpits), which, unfortunately, is notably more stinky than the sweat on, say, your forehead.  

Certain other things can impact how your sweat interacts with said bacteria as well. “There are factors that change your natural scent, such as medications, birth control, health issues and diet,” says Shannon Chavez, a certified sex therapist. “The body also produces chemical messengers called pheromones that are released through the sweat glands in the body. The most concentrated area of pheromones is in the genital area. Pheromones don’t have a distinct smell, but can influence behavior and attraction.” 

So if you find yourself weirdly turned on by your partner’s funky crotch smell, that might be why.

2) Vaginal Liquids

Ditto the butt sweat theory: Pussy juice is in the air, when it usually doesn’t see the light of day, so it’s going to be much more noticeable to passing noses. Not to mention, penetrative sex tends to unearth some of the juices that are mucked up way inside her vaginal cavity, and on top of that, there’s extra juice because she’s producing more of it to help accommodate your monster dong. These juices are comprised mainly of mucus secreted by the glands within the uterus, as well as water, vaginal bacteria and dead cells, since, “the friction of the penis inside the vaginal wall can cause some sloughing of the vaginal mucosa,” according to Michael Ingber, a urologist at the Center for Specialized Women’s Health. 

The exact nature of that vaginal liquid is dependent upon her menstrual cycle and level of fertility: It ranges from creamy and white to stretchy and clear, like raw egg whites. Exactly what it smells like depends upon the acidic pH of the region, though — genitals aren’t meant to smell like a freaking flower garden, but particularly gross smells indicate an unbalanced pH. While this might be caused by certain soaps or diets, it can also be caused by infections like bacterial vaginosis. 

Still, there’s a broad range of healthy scents one might produce. “We see women all the time who come in the office complaining of abnormal vaginal odor,” says Ingber. “However, we often find that everything is ‘normal.’ Every vagina has its own unique odor, and some may have no odor at all.”

3) Cum

Semen contains a lot of things besides just your 200 million to 500 million future children. There are a variety of proteins, phosphates, a sprinkling of zinc, some citrate and a whole bunch of other chemicals that aid motility. Sugar, in the form of fructose, is another primary component. But what does that add up to?

“Cum smells almost… metallic?” says Zane, a 26-year-old in L.A. (who is also my boyfriend). I’m not sure I agree, but cum is another one of those things truly in a category of its own when it comes to smell. It’s certainly a bodily scent, almost in a repulsive way, and unless you ejaculate straight into a vacuum, the scent will be noticeably present in the air. But when semen mixes with vaginal liquids, the scent is bolstered and changed: Vaginal liquid is acidic, while semen is alkaline, so when the two mix, it yields… that smell. “As these fluids mix, they produce a unique scent based on the pH levels of each person,” says Chavez. 

This scent can emanate from the body long after intercourse has ended. “A lot of women complain of significant odor with semen discharge if not using a condom,” says Ingber. “This odor can actually occur within hours or even up to a day or more after sexual activity.” Which may explain why douching remains somewhat popular, even though it’s terrible for you.

4) Latex and Lube

Latex condoms smell like, well, latex, so that’s going to add its own distinct tang to the proceedings. “During friction-based activity, the condom smell can increase as the body fluids mix with the material and spread to different parts of the body,” says Chavez. “Lubrication also can contribute to scent by mixing with the fluids that are released through the glands.”

Flavored and scented lubes aren’t uncommon, either, but for P-in-V sex, they should probably be avoided –– as resilient as they are, vaginas are sensitive to chemicals. Good lubes should probably smell something like aloe vera

5) The Je Ne Sais Quoi

Fuck the science! “It smells like the way Coltrane plays sax,” says MEL writer Zaron Burnett III. “It smells like the way a fur coat feels against bare skin. It smells like the way Amy Winehouse’s voice sounds. It smells like the way a peach tastes.” 

Honestly, though, because of the different lifestyles and body chemistries of different people, the exact smell really is impossible to pin down. “All scents are unique on different bodies because of the varied scent each person carries. No two people smell the same,” says Chavez. 

Ultimately, then, the smell of sex is distinct to the bodies of you and your partner. And that’s kind of sweet, isn’t it?