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7 Tips For First-Time Sex with a Trans Man

By Basil Soper

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For the Most Part Trans Guys are Just Like Other Guys

Since the population is mostly comprised of cisgender individuals it’s totally okay if you haven’t had sex with a trans person. Overall, sex with trans folks isn’t that different than sex with cis folks. However, if you’re new to sex with trans bodies and you think you may need some pointers, that’s reasonable! I am a trans man so I can only talk about what I expect from sex from my perspective. Here is a list of helpful, sexy, actions for your first time with a trans man!

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Talk Dirty to Me…by.. Asking First!

Communicating before sex, like over dinner, via text, or somewhere that makes you comfortable is helpful. Find out what language he uses for his genitala. I call mine the “downstairs.” Ask him about what areas are turn ons and what areas are off-limits. I know, I know.. somewhere along the line we’ve been taught that sex is only hot if it all happens in the moment. Consent is important though, and this conversation can also be used for you to state your boundaries before hand as well. If you use a safe word, this dialogue would also be the time to bring that up. Sex is much more fun and feels great when everyone is respected.

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Bender Roles

As for any person really, don’t assume he will necessarily oppose bottoming. Masculinity has nothing to with who’s penetrating and who’s receiving. Some trans guys do have a problem with being penetrated which is completely valid and should be appreciated. If this is the case with your guy, make sure you talk things through to find his sexual comfort zone. I’m a switch, which means I play both roles. Switches aren’t ‘confused’ or somehow not doing transition ‘properly.’ It just means we know what we like.

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The D

Testosterone takes the downstairs a trans guys is born with (or the body part formally known as clitoris), making it larger into a small dick, and often a lot more sensitive, though sensation may be patchy for some guys. Be mindful of this when pleasuring your dude. Just ask him to communicate the changes as they happen. Strapping on can also be a time of dysphoria for some. Strap-ons can also be an affirming, fun, way to access pleasure for others. I really enjoy wearing a strap-on when my partner puts a condom on for me.  The great thing about sleeping with a trans dude who tops with a dick on is y’all can use a dick size perfect for, and chosen by, the bottom.

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So In Lube With You

Testosterone can, in many cases, dry things up a little. Testosterone or not, trans or not, lube is splendid for any sexual occasion.  If you’re using silicone pieces, or your partner has a silicone ‘packer,’ avoid silicone-based lubricants, and if you’re using condoms, don’t use oil-based lube. Water based and or organic lube is always a good bet.

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Body Issues

If your lover hasn’t had top surgery, he may want to wear a shirt or his binder during sexual encounters. He may be okay with certain things some days and startled by the same action the next day. Dysphoria can be tricky! It comes and goes. Please realize that the way he feels about his own body, in the moment, does not have anything to do with you. If dysphoria strikes, just try to move on and stay in the moment.

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Don’t Treat Me Like a Delicate Flower

It’s true, some additional communication in a sexual endeavor with a trans guy may be needed, however, that doesn’t mean you should be too cautious or have a lot of fear of offending at any point. Sex for the first time can be awkward regardless of the body types involved! Just have fun with the person you are attracted to.

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Safety!!

Use a condom. Bear in mind that it may still be possible for a trans man to get pregnant.Whatever your gender or body type, STIs can still be contracted. Keep all dicks sanitized (the ones you buy at Babeland or the ones attached to bodies). If you’re with a new partner, or have an open relationship, get tested regularly. Sex is sexiest when everyone is at ease and on the same page!

Complete Article HERE!

When you want to be into BDSM but it’s too soon because you’re black

by Luna Malbroux

Black BDSM

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have fantasies about being dominated. I would imagine someone gripping my hair tightly or a stinging slap on my ass—all very exciting. But every time I would let my thoughts run wild, they would get rudely interrupted, like an angry grandmother unplugging the cord while you’re sneakily watching TV after 2 a.m., yelling “Turn this OFF!” As soon as my brain camera spanned to any props—whips, chains, that sort of thing—all I could think about was Roots.

Let me tell you something. Nothing dries you up quicker than Roots. If it’s not Roots, it’s Amistad, or Beloved, or the slave-revolt TV show Underground. Anyone who’s seen a slave movie knows that there are plenty of examples of black slaves having to whip other slaves’ backs, so a whip is a whip to me, no matter who’s holding it. Even if my fantasy involves no props and just a little garden-variety submission, Hollywood’s love of nostalgic “Remember When Negroes Were All Our Servants?” movies gives my brain enough ammo to cockblock my heart’s deepest desires.

It’s not just Hollywood that makes it difficult for me to SWB (Sub While Black). Even the present-day black experience in America can get in the way of exploring different types of sexual “play.” Can you imagine what a black person might picture if her partner wants to roleplay as a cop? The growing list of victims—Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, just to name a few—are a constant reminder that as a black person in America, you are never safe. Which is a hard thing to balance when the very thrill of BDSM plays with our notions of safety.

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My first impression of the BDSM scene was that it was overwhelmingly white—like, really white, as white as a Rascal Flatts concert at a country club in Montana. Even the watered-down pop franchise, 50 Shades of Grey, has to be one of the whitest franchises ever. BDSM has been around for centuries, originating with the writings of Marquis de Sade in the 1700s. There have been historical examples of BDSM in African sexual, spiritual, and religious culture and early black leather culture of “The Old Guard” (returning black gay male veterans of World War II). But black people into BDSM were rarely seen in the media until the early 1970s.

Regardless of their environment, people of color constantly have to navigate stereotypes, discrimination and personal prejudices, and BDSM is no exception. Just being a young, black woman who owns her sexuality yields enough social stigma as it is. Throw in a desire to explore BDSM in a culture where freely enjoying sex is already taboo, and that is quite the mountain to climb.

But my fantasies weren’t going away anytime soon. Like the strong black people of all those tear-jerking slavery movies, my sexual appetite will not go down without a fight! So I began to ask myself: How does one be black and get into BDSM at the same time?

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When I first started having sex in college, I was determined to explore all my sexual fantasies, a la my personal hero, Samantha Jones of Sex in the City. But life at a historically black college in the South doesn’t exactly lend itself to the sexual freedom of a fictional, upper-middle class, white publicist in New York. The thick stew of the Bible Belt and racial oppression created pressure to be a Good, Christian, Black Woman. In other words: Don’t be a ‘ho.

l took baby steps in exploring my proclivities. I would whisper a few encouraging words like “Bite me harder” and “Tell me what you want me to do,” only to be met with “Wow, you’re so kinky!” (Really?) I wanted to go further, but I didn’t know how to dive deeper when my partners didn’t seem game at all. I bought handcuffs and shackles, but they ended up collecting dust in the corner. There were online resources at my fingertips—chat rooms, websites, books, articles—but the jargon intimidated me.

So I let go of my dreams of exploring my deeper BDSM fantasies until years later, when I packed my bags and moved to California.

In San Francisco, people proudly let their “freak flag” fly. There are tons of communities that explore BDSM, from dungeons to classes to meetup groups. I fell in love with exploring the different scenes of the Bay’s sexual subcultures and even created Live Sex, an interactive comedy talk show uniting sexperts and comedians.

It was doing this show that I stumbled upon a man who seemed promising in helping me explore my BDSM fantasies. The anonymity of my partners is important, so let’s just call him Ted Cruz.

Ted, a handsome and slightly dorky white guy with Paul Rudd-esque appeal, caught my attention after one Live Sex show. A history teacher, he piqued my interests immediately by flirtatiously debating the best ways to solve Middle Eastern conflict, the refugee crisis and the importance of critical thinking in schools. Check, please!

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Our night of drinks led to an invite to his house. He was a great kisser. He really took his time. He asked me if there was anything I wanted to do, and I told him I had the desire to explore a kinkier side but never quite found the right opportunity or partner. He nodded. It escalated.

“Your safe word is eggplant,” he told me, pulling my hair as he kissed me. “Say ‘eggplant’ if anything gives you too much pain.” It was clear it was about to go down, full-on 50 Shades of Grey style, minus all the money, so it was more like 50 Shades of Broke but hey, I’ll take it!

He was incredibly communicative, consistently checking in about consent. “This guy’s read a book or three!” I thought, high-fiving myself in my head. I was writing my triumphant journal entry as it happened. I pictured Kim Cattrall’s nodding smile of approval: “You’re the new Samantha Jones now, Luna,” she proclaimed.

Then, everything came to a screeching halt with one simple phrase:

“Call me master.”

Eggplant. That hurt. Immediately, all I could think about was my ancestors rolling over in their graves, breaking out like zombies in the Michael Jackson Thriller video. All my worst fears had come alive. I thought of Harriet Tubman admonishing me: “19 times! 19 times I came back, to save our people from slavery. All for you to be here willy-nilly, calling some white dude ‘master’?”

Life tip: No dick is so good that it’s worth being haunted by Harriet Tubman.

Ted was very receptive to my objections and apologized for his major blindspot. The history of slavery was something he was not reminded of every day so he was able to separate “master” in the context of BDSM play, whereas I…was not. I had failed again, even with a seemingly perfect partner.

I decided to investigate this problem further. First I discovered I was not alone in my anxieties.

“I am interested in going to BDSM meets, but I haven’t, mostly because I’m wary of being the only person of color there,” said Lynn, a young black woman I met in a sex-positive Meetup group. “Also, I’m not interested in being hit on because I’m the only black woman, which has definitely happened to me before.”

I can relate. Half of my stand-up material is derived from my experiences being fetishized. Joking about being told, “I want to look at those big black tittays” or the constant prodding of my hair has always been one of the best ways to cope.

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And because of these experiences, I always hesitated to join kink mixers in real life because I assumed a bunch of white people would be hoping I would come in and “Strong Angry Black Woman” them—i.e. play out their racists stereotypes of what they imagine a black woman to be. Lynn suggested I explore Fet Life, a social network for the BDSM, fetish, and kink community. It was a space she felt comfortable in, but even there, space has to be made for folks of color.

“When I first joined in 2010, there were over 300 groups, at least, and there were no groups for folks of color” said Daniel*, a black BDSM enthusiast who is quite the character. He quickly remedied that by becoming the leader of one of the largest groups for blacks on the site, Black Dominants/Tops and Black Submissives/Bottoms. The members offer each other support while navigating kink; he told me about one woman who reached out to the community after coming across a picaninny fetish.

For anyone confused, a picaninny was a racialized caricature (think blackface) that depicted dark-skinned cartoon children with bulging eyes and grins. It’s an image that painfully captures our history of racism. The idea of someone doing sex play around this was incredibly disturbing to me.

“We have this saying in the black kink community—my kink ain’t your kink,” said Feminista Jones, sex-positive feminist writer, community activist, and author of the book Push the Button. “There is something called race play, and it ain’t for everyone, and it’s not for me.”

Jones told me about an interview she did with writer and race-play expert Mollena Williams, an authority on race play who says that engaging in this kind of play may be empowering but always should be done with caution and consideration. (You can listen to her talk about a particular experience with race play in the Risk Podcast, Slave.) That’s all well and good, but I realized that it was the very idea of race play that had always deferred my BDSM dream. I can assure Langston Hughes that my fantasy indeed “dries up like a raisin in the sun” (along with my vagina) after hearing about a picaninny fetish.

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Luckily, one can experience and engage with BDSM without incorporating race play.

“It was a long path of reconciliation for me,” Feminista Jones said. “But some of the language of BDSM like ‘master’ and ‘slave’ has existed since before black people were enslaved. Most relationships have a dominant and submissive dynamic to them, particularly in religious communities, which many black people are a part of.”

There are endless explanations of why people, black or not, are into BDSM. Sex and relationship expert Celeste Hirshman told me our fantasies “are an unconscious attempt to soothe ourselves around challenging experiences that we’ve had or positive experiences that we’ve missed out on.” Others, like notable black kinkster Craig Fleming, suggest that one’s proclivities have to do more with nature than nurture, and although “people can use [BDSM] as a way to come to terms with a particular experience…it’s not therapy. It’s not the place to work out racial issues, or abuse.” Sometimes it’s as simple as: What arouses you arouses you.

For me, it’s more about exploring power dynamics. Before the “master” debacle, Ted rhetorically asked me, “Why does a strong, assertive, powerful woman such as yourself enjoy being submissive? Is it because you can let go of control? Because you don’t have to worry, or take care of someone?” His hunch may have been right. I was able to experience a type of attention and care that led to unbelievable pleasure. I felt freedom in moments of not having to be the decision maker, nurturer, or advisor.

“The key elements in BDSM is developing that trust in relationships,” Jones said.

For me, trust is the most arousing thing of all, and seeing a partner respond and adapt to a voiced need is one of the most important things in building trust with a partner. The experience taught me more about my limits and desires and how to communicate them. So even though it didn’t go the way I expected, I have hopes for exploring more kinky play in the future. As for, you know, the slavery stuff: Knowing that one can separate race play from BDSM gives me peace of mind. I know I can’t engage in anything that conjures up those images without getting angry or turned off. So for now, my safeword might just have to be “Harriet Tubman.”

Complete Article HERE!

Topping As A Disabled Person

By Lyric Seal

Topping-as-a-disabled-person

People are often surprised when I say that, for me, topping is more vulnerable than bottoming.

I remember going to a sex party with a bunch of other queer people of color, many of them sporting strap ons and saying that they weren’t interested in receiving penetration, but that they would gladly top, as that was an empowering, safer place for them. From multiple gender and racial standpoints, I deeply understand this, but it is not what my body knows. The reasons are even more complicated than perhaps I am ready to admit. But I am going to try.

Even now as I write this, I feel a welling up in my face, under cheek meeting eye. This is tear territory. I want to write you a ferocious little article, a tasty little piece, like me, but topping with a physically and visibly disabled body is a place of uncertainty and fear for me. Luckily, they say I’m brave.

When interviewed by .Mic  on the subject of being an “alt/disabled porn performer”, I was asked to speak on the issue of disabled people being desexualized by an ableist society. I told my interviewer that. as a disabled child, I was nonconsensually sexualized and yet also constantly infantilized by people around me. There are many disabled femmes (can I get an AMEN?) who know the complex plight of being a sexy baby in a lover’s or society’s eyes, whether or not we choose it.

Some identify with this; in my personal, intimate sexual life I have a Daddy. I love being topped. I love knowing I have someone wrapped around my finger. I love being taken care of. But I am not only this. I am an adult too.

I have choices. I have desire. And there is a fire in me.

When my own desire and agency tried to creep through the baleen-like filter through which I was understood by minds inside bodies not like mine–able bodied people fed on ableism with narrow understandings what my body was for–I felt like this hunger of mine was monstrous, too big for me to let out or in.

I know all too well that bottoming is not passive; even when we are touched against our will, it takes every fiber of one’s being to receive, or to not receive, psychically or physically. When I am bottoming, submitting, opening to my lover, there is that fire too, that hunger, that capacity for desire. Maybe it’s that I feel I can let loose when I am bottoming. I feel I can be a screaming hole. I feel I can be a possessed banshee. I feel I can be a taken siren/muse. When I trust what I am opening to, I can be so generous.

Perhaps it’s the performance I fear with topping. It reminds me more of dance than of song. It feels more visual. It seems it requires precision. It is only naked, or near a bed, or bench, or car, or miraculously accessible rooftop with all my clothes on, about to have sex with someone who wants me to top them, that I get such stage fright.

Socially, I’m a great top. As a wheelchair user, with a visibly disabled body in other other ways too, with the privileges of being neurotypical with a quick tongue, I learned to make speech my tool, my entry point, my point of connection and flirtation. I don’t even always know when I’m flirting; t’s my comfort place. I like to make people blush! Have since I was a teenager and all my friends were having sex with their boyfriends in private and I was having no sex but coming onto awkward boys in public

If I don’t think someone’s a charming top, I don’t like being hit on by them in an aggressive way. I’m particular about tops. I have the best one now already.

With switchy people, with subs, I’m all about the bait and switch. I’m all about the talking and dancing not leading to anything. I am hung up. I am scared. I have created a locus of control through my social interaction, in which you can view me as powerful for my words, my dancing on my own, my compliments, my insight, my tease. Physically, once we are touching, I am less confident of my abilities, or that my desire will be received, once someone feels/sees how awkward the form. What if I am too slow? Too imprecise? What if I stop for pain or discomfort?

I had a girlfriend once, who encouraged me to practice topping her, which was wonderful, and then she would embarrass me by telling new dates in front of me that I was a “big domme”. Proud parent with bad boundaries much?

It was like she was saying, EVERYONE! NEVE HAS A PERFORMANCE THEY WOULD LIKE TO SHARE! My partner, my daddy, actually does invite me to top him sometimes. And the practice is heart-altering. I become a more well-rounded me. Despite my Picasso body.

When you are learning the dance of how to top someone well, in the way they like, in the way you like it, it can take time and experimentation. It can take translation, modification. It can take making up a whole new way to move and relate to another body from scratch. Especially if you are physically disabled, if your partner is, if you both are.

I have been learning, slowly, that while there are tricks of the trade on how to top or dominate someone safely, there is no rulebook (thank goddess) on what it actually means to top someone. I am learning to take the time I need with my gimp body to top in a way that is true to me.

When you are learning a new dance, you begin slow. In fact, some bodies will only ever be able to replicate a dance slowly, and some do not replicate at all. Fuck replication. This is not to say that there are not disabled people who have topping on lock. I am not one of them! But I’m sassy as hell.

Complete Article HERE!

The Ultimate Guide to Pregnant Sex

By Lauren Katulka

Takeaway: The nine months of pregnancy bring with them a host of coital challenges, but with our handy guide you can enjoy good loving during any trimester.

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You’ve just received the happy news that you’re expecting and you’re feeling more connected to your partner than ever. Although those nine months of pregnancy can be a challenging time to be a woman, that doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice time between the sheets. Read on to discover the difficulties you might face during each trimester, and how you can overcome them to experience some of the best sex of your life.

First Trimester Fun

It wasn’t too long ago that you were getting down to business on a regular basis, but now that you’ve got a bun in your oven you might be thinking of sex less often. The first trimester can leave you exhausted and morning sickness can make you feel far from sexy.

Just know that you’re not alone. A waning libido is only natural as your body stops sending signals to pass on your genes. You’re also feeling the maternal urge to protect your tiny offspring. Even if the doctor assures you sex is safe, a mother’s instinct might have you second-guessing hanky-panky.

During the first trimester it’s good to remember that sex doesn’t have to mean intercourse. If you’re not feeling up to going all the way, perhaps you could rediscover the joys of outercourse or even a simple massage. Touching one another and talking about your desires can ensure you stay close to your partner through these challenging months. (Get some tips in Double the Fun! 5 Hot Tips on Self Touch for Two.)

You don’t have to take intercourse off the table though. Sex during pregnancy has plenty of perks, including better sleep and a feelings of wellbeing . Sex during these early months can also be really enjoyable, even if you don’t feel up to it from the outset. Allow yourself to be seduced with an open mind and you might be surprised how much fun you’ll have.

Steam It Up in the Second Trimester

Many women say their second trimester is their favorite part of pregnancy. The fatigue and morning sickness are gone and your libido has returned. Your genitals will also be constantly engorged and lubrication is increased. These changes can make you feel more open to sex and can maximize your enjoyment.

Your changing body can be a bit of a stumbling block though. A baby bump and the extra curves that come with it may take some getting used to, but it’s important to take pride in these changes. Your awesome body is building a baby! (Get some tips on body confidence in 6 Steps That’ll Help You Love Love Love Your Naked Self.)

Urinary tract infections can also curb your sexual activities for a while. Pregnant women are more likely to contract these painful problems, and they can have nasty implications for pregnancy and your sex life. Don’t ignore painful urination or cramps; see a doctor as soon as you notice these symptoms. An untreated UTI can bring on early labor, so it’s crucial that you act quickly.

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We hope you enjoyed your second trimester, because the third might be tough. That cute little baby bump has grown so large many women find that it feels impossible to get comfortable. And your estrogen and progesterone levels are at their highest.

This is the perfect time to remember the tactics you used to get through your first trimester. You might not always feel like intercourse, but sex can take many forms. Communicate about how you’re feeling so that you can stay close to your partner, even if you aren’t getting as close physically.

Oh, and with that big bump in the way, it can be difficult to get as close as you might like. Sex might seem daunting, but there are ways to work around your new body shape. Women on top and rear entry positions are ideal. See our article on safe, sizzling sex positions for pregnant women for enough inspiration to spice up this final trimester.

Your bump is also a real reminder that baby is on board, and men can struggle with this. However, doctors insist that no matter how hung your man is, his penis can’t possibly go through the cervix, amniotic sac and placenta. In simple terms, sex is totally safe for the little one (and good for you). For normal pregnancies, sex also won’t cause miscarriages or preterm labor.

And Another Thing

While sex is safe for most pregnant women, those with high-risk pregnancies should exercise caution and consult their doctor if they have any concerns. More important than sex itself is the intimacy this act can foster between new moms and dads. If you can get steamy during this time, go for it. If not, make sure you talk about your feelings and remember to show your affection in other ways. This will help couples deepen their connection with each other before the new addition to the family.

Complete Article HERE!

Scents and Sensibility

“Sexual chemistry” is more than just a way of talking about heated attraction. Subtle chemical keys actually help determine who we fall for. But here comes news that our lifestyles may unwittingly undermine our natural sex appeal.

By Elizabeth Svoboda

illustrated sex

Psychologists Rachel Herz and Estelle Campenni were just getting to know each other, swapping stories about their lives over coffee, when Campenni confided something unexpected: She was living proof, she said, of love at first smell. “I knew I would marry my husband the minute I smelled him,” she told Herz. “I’ve always been into smell, but this was different; he really smelled good to me. His scent made me feel safe and at the same time turned on—and I’m talking about his real body smell, not cologne or soap. I’d never felt like that from a man’s smell before. We’ve been married for eight years now and have three kids, and his smell is always very sexy to me.”

Everyone knows what it’s like to be powerfully affected by a partner’s smell—witness men who bury their noses in their wives’ hair and women who can’t stop sniffing their boyfriends’ T-shirts. And couples have long testified to the ways scent-based chemistry affects their relationships. “One of the most common things women tell marriage counselors is, ‘I can’t stand his smell,'” says Herz, the author of The Scent of Desire.

Sexual attraction remains one of life’s biggest mysteries. We might say we go for partners who are tall and thin, love to cook, or have a mania for exercise, but when push comes to shove, studies show, the people we actually end up with possess few of the traits we claim to want. Some researchers think scent could be the hidden cosmological constant in the sexual universe, the missing factor that explains who we end up with. It may even explain why we feel “chemistry”—or “sparks” or “electricity”—with one person and not with another.nice boobs

Physical attraction itself may literally be based on smell. We discount the importance of scent-centric communication only because it operates on such a subtle level. “This is not something that jumps out at you, like smelling a good steak cooking on the grill,” says Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico. “But the scent capability is there, and it’s not surprising to find smell capacity in the context of sexual behavior.” As a result, we may find ourselves drawn to the counter attendant at the local drugstore, but have no idea why—or, conversely, find ourselves put off by potential dating partners even though they seem perfect on paper.

Though we may remain partially oblivious to scent signals we’re sending and receiving, new research suggests that we not only come equipped to choose a romantic partner who smells good to us, but that this choice has profound biological implications. As we act out the complex rituals of courtship, many of them inscribed deep in our brain, scent-based cues help us zero in on optimal partners—the ones most likely to stay faithful to us and to create healthy children with us.

At first blush, the idea of scent-based attraction might seem hypothetical and ephemeral, but when we unknowingly interfere with the transmission of subtle olfactory messages operating below the level of conscious awareness, the results can be both concrete and devastating. When we disregard what our noses tell us, we can find ourselves mired in partnerships that breed sexual discontent, infertility, and even—in extreme cases—unhealthy offspring.

The Scent of Desire

When you’re turned on by your partner’s scent, taking a deep whiff of his chest or the back of her neck feels like taking a powerful drug—it’s an instant flume ride to bliss, however momentary. Research has shown that we use scent-based signaling mechanisms to suss out compatibility. Claus Wedekind, a biologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, created Exhibit A of this evidence by giving 44 men new T-shirts and instructing them to wear the shirts for two straight nights. To ensure that the sweat collecting on the shirts would remain “odor-neutral,” he supplied the men with scent-free soap and aftershave.

hair pullAfter the men were allowed to change, 49 women sniffed the shirts and specified which odors they found most attractive. Far more often than chance would predict, the women preferred the smell of T-shirts worn by men who were immunologically dissimilar to them. The difference lay in the sequence of more than 100 immune system genes known as the MHC, or major histocompatibility complex. These genes code for proteins that help the immune system recognize pathogens. The smell of their favorite shirts also reminded the women of their past and current boyfriends, suggesting that MHC does indeed influence women’s dating decisions in real life.

Women’s preference for MHC-distinct mates makes perfect sense from a biological point of view. Ever since ancestral times, partners whose immune systems are different have produced offspring who are more disease-resistant. With more immune genes expressed, kids are buffered against a wider variety of pathogens and toxins.

But that doesn’t mean women prefer men whose MHC genes are most different from theirs, as University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Martha McClintock found when she performed a T-shirt study similar to Wedekind’s. Women are not attracted to the smell of men with whom they had no MHC genes in common. “This might be a case where you’re protecting yourself against a mate who’s too similar or too dissimilar, but there’s a middle range where you’re OK,” McClintock says.

Women consistently outperform men in smell sensitivity tests, and they also make greater time and energy sacrifices on their children’s behalf than men do—in addition to bearing offspring, they look after them most of the time. These factors may explain why women are more discriminating in sniffing out MHC compatibility.

Men are sensitive to smell as well, but because women shoulder a greater reproductive burden, and are therefore choosier about potential mates, researchers are not surprised to find that women are also more discriminating in sniffing out MHC compatibility.

Unlike, say, blood types, MHC gene complements differ so much from one person to the next that there’s no obvious way to reliably predict who’s MHC-compatible with whom. Skin color, for instance, isn’t much help, since groups of people living in different areas of the world might happen to evolve genetic resistance to some of the same germs. “People of different ethnicities can have similar profiles, so race is not a good predictor of MHC dissimilarity,” Thornhill says.

And because people’s MHC profiles are as distinct as fingerprints—there are thousands of possible gene combinations—a potential sex partner who smells good to one woman may completely repel another. “There’s no Brad Pitt of smell,” Herz says. “Body odor is an external manifestation of the immune system, and the smells we think are attractive come from the people who are most genetically compatible with us.” Much of what we vaguely call “sexual chemistry,” she adds, is likely a direct result of this scent-based compatibility.our what?

Typically, our noses steer us in the right direction when it comes to picking a reproductively compatible partner. But what if they fail us and we wind up with a mate whose MHC profile is too similar to our own? Carol Ober, a geneticist at the University of Chicago, explored this question in her studies of members of the Hutterite religious clan, an Amish-like closed society that consists of some 40,000 members and extends through the rural Midwest. Hutterites marry only other members of their clan, so the variety in their gene pool is relatively low. Within these imposed limits, Hutterite women nevertheless manage to find partners who are MHC-distinct from them most of the time.

The few couples with a high degree of MHC similarity, however, suffered higher rates of miscarriage and experienced longer intervals between pregnancies, indicating more difficulty conceiving. Some scientists speculate that miscarriages may be the body’s way of curtailing investment in a child who isn’t likely to have a strong immune system anyway.

What’s more, among heterosexual couples, similar MHC profiles spell relational difficulty, Christine Garver-Apgar, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico, has found. “As the proportion of MHC alleles increased, women’s sexual responsiveness to their partners decreased, and their number of sex partners outside the relationship increased,” Garver-Apgar reports. The number of MHC genes couples shared corresponded directly with the likelihood that they would cheat on one another; if a man and woman had 50 percent of their MHC alleles in common, the woman had a 50 percent chance of sleeping with another man behind her partner’s back.

The Divorce Pill?

Women generally prefer the smell of men whose MHC gene complements are different from theirs, setting the stage for the best biological match. But Wedekind’s T-shirt study revealed one notable exception to this rule: women on the birth-control pill. When the pill users among his subjects sniffed the array of pre-worn T-shirts, they preferred the scent of men whose MHC profiles were similar to theirs—the opposite of their pill-free counterparts.

This dramatic reversal of smell preferences may reflect the pill’s mechanism of action: It prevents the ovaries from releasing an egg, fooling the body into thinking it’s pregnant. And since pregnancy is such a vulnerable state, it seems to activate a preference for kin, who are genetically similar to us and likely to serve as protectors. “When pregnant rodent females are exposed to strange males, they can spontaneously abort,” Herz says. “The same may be true for human females.” What’s more, some women report a deficit in sex drive when they take the pill, a possible consequence of its pregnancy-mimicking function.

The tendency to favor mates with similar MHC genes could potentially hamper the durability of pill users’ relationships in the long term. While Herz shies away from dubbing hormonal birth control “the divorce pill,” as a few media outlets have done in response to her theories, she does think the pill jumbles women’s smell preferences. “It’s like picking your cousins as marriage partners,” Herz says. “It constitutes a biological error.” As a result, explains Charles Wysocki, a psychobiologist at Florida State University, when such a couple decides to have children and the woman stops taking birth control, she may find herself less attracted to her mate for reasons she doesn’t quite understand. “On a subconscious level, her brain is realizing a mistake was made—she married the wrong guy,” he says.

“Some couples’ fertility problems may be related to the pill-induced flip-flop in MHC preferences,” Garver-Apgar adds. No one has yet collected data to indicate whether the pill has created a large-scale problem in compatibility. Still, Herz recommends that women seeking a long-term partner consider alternative birth control methods, at least until they get to know their potential significant other well and are sure they like the way he smells. “If you’re looking for a man to be the father of your child,” she says, “go off the pill before you start your search.”

If you were on the pill when you met your current partner, the situation is more complicated. Once a relationship has progressed to long-term commitment, says Herz, a woman’s perception of her partner’s smell is so intertwined with her emotional reaction to him that it could be difficult for her to assess his scent as if he were a stranger. “If she’s in love, he could smell like a garbage can and she’d still be attracted to him.”

Crossed Signals

The pill subverts a woman’s ability to sniff out a compatible mate by causing her to misinterpret the scent messages she receives. But it may warp olfactory communication channels in the other direction as well, distorting the signals she sends—and making her seem less appealing to men, an irony given that women typically take the pill to boost their appeal in a partner’s eyes.

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico and author of The Mating Mind, noticed the pill’s connection to waning male desire while studying a group of exotic dancers—women whose livelihoods depend on how sexually appealing they are to male customers. Non-pill-using dancers made about 50 percent more in tips than dancers on oral contraceptives. In other words, women who were on the pill were only about two-thirds as sexy as women who weren’t.

Why were the pill-takers in the study so much less attractive to men? “Women are probably doing something unconsciously, and men are responding to it unconsciously,” says Miller. “We just don’t know whether it has to do with a shift in their psychology, their tone of voice, or if it’s more physical, as in the kind of pheromones they’re putting out.”

The biggest earners in Miller’s study were non-pill-using dancers at the time of ovulation. Other studies have shown that men rate women as smelling best when they are at the most fertile point of their menstrual cycles, suggesting that women give off scent-based signals that broadcast their level of fecundity. “The pill might be producing cues that a woman is in the early stage of pregnancy, which would not tend to elicit a lot of male sexual interest,” Miller says. “It makes sense for men to be sensitive to that and for them not to feel the same chemistry with the woman.”

Drowning in Fragrance

The pill isn’t the only way we might confound sexual chemistry. Every day, far more people may be subverting their quest for love with soap and bottled fragrances. In ancestral times, smelling ripe was just a fact of life, absent hot showers and shampoo. This held true well into the 19th century, when the miasma of body odor in Parisian streets grew so thick that it was dubbed “The Great Stink of 1880.” Back when a person’s scent could waft across a room, a mere handshake could provide valuable information about attraction.

Since the 20th-century hygiene revolution and the rise of the personal-care industry, however, companies have pitched deodorants, perfumes, and colognes to consumers as the epitome of sex appeal. But instead of furthering our quest to find the perfect mate, such products may actually derail it, say researchers, by masking our true scent and making it difficult for prospects to assess compatibility. “Humans abuse body smell signals by hiding them, masking them, putting on deodorant,” says Devendra Singh, a psychologist at the University of Texas. “The noise-to-signal ratio was much better in primitive society.”

Miller argues that modern hygiene may be such an impediment to sexual signaling that it could explain why so many people in our culture get so physical so fast. “Hunter-gatherers didn’t have to do a lot of kissing, because they could smell each other pretty clearly from a few feet away,” Miller says. “With all the showering, scents, and soap, we have to get our noses and mouths really up close to people to get a good idea of their biochemistry. People are more motivated to do a lot more kissing and petting, to do that assessment before they have sex.” In other words, the need to smell our mates—and the comparative difficulty of doing so in today’s environment of perfumes and colognes—may actually be driving the sexual disinhibition of modern society.

Scents and SensibilityOther scientists counter that odor detection is a bit subtler. For one thing, it’s possible we select store-bought scents to complement our natural odorprints, rather than mask them entirely: One study found that people with similar MHC profiles tend to go for the same colognes. And Garver-Apgar points out that in spending hours together each day, partners have ample opportunity to experience each other sans artificial scents. “Once you’re in a close enough relationship,” she says, “you’re going to get a real whiff at some point.”

Scents and Sensibility

There’s no way to know whether couples who shell out thousands of dollars to fertility clinics—and those who struggle to make a relationship work because “the chemistry just isn’t there”—suffer MHC incompatibility. We might never know, since a multitude of factors contributes to every reproductive and romantic outcome. But we can, at least, be cognizant of the importance of natural scent.

“Scent can be a deal breaker if it’s not right, just like someone being too stupid or unkind or short,” says Miller. Nevertheless, smell isn’t the be-all and end-all of attraction, but one of a constellation of important factors. Armed with knowledge of how scent-based attraction operates, we have some power to decide how much priority we want to accord it. Is it more important to be with the partner who smells amazing and with whom you have great chemistry, or with the one who may not attract you quite as much on a physical level but is honest and reliable?

“People tend to treat this as an either-or situation: Either we’re completely driven by pheromones, like moths, or we’re completely in charge of our own destiny,” University of Chicago psychologist McClintock says. “But it’s not a wild idea that both factors are involved.” While people like Estelle Campenni have reaped untold benefits by trusting their scent impressions, it’s ultimately up to us how highly we value what our noses tell us.—Elizabeth Svoboda

Follow Your Nose

How to put your nose to work in choosing a partner—or evaluating an existing one.

Think twice about opting for the pill if you’re seeking a long-term partner. The first few weeks of a relationship are critical to assessing compatibility, so make sure your nose is up to the task.

Try a fragrance-free week. Eliminate factors that could throw your nostrils off. Have your partner set aside scented shower gels in favor of fragrance-free soap, nix the cologne, and use only unscented deodorant.

Keep smell’s importance in context. If you sometimes find your partner’s scent off-putting, don’t panic; it doesn’t necessarily mean fertility issues are in your future. Connections between MHC compatibility and conception problems have yet to be confirmed in large-scale population studies, so don’t plunk down big bucks for MHC testing at this point.

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