Why Are We So Obsessed With Smelling Like Sex Again?

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When it first appeared in 2000, Editions de Frédéric Malle by Maurice Roucel’s Musc Ravageur caused a bit of a sensory shake-up. Described as “torrid” and “savage sex appeal,” the fragrance was entirely and intentionally unapologetic—a “magnetic” musk mix with amber, vanilla, patchouli and sandalwood, completely devoid of any floral notes.

Today, it is celebrated in all its sensuousness as the “Sistine Chapel of soft amber tradition.”

While the frenzy surrounding the turn-of-the-century scent may seem silly by modern standards, six years later Tom Ford’s fragrances walked so Gwyneth Paltrow’s often-scandalous Goop perfumes and candles could run.

And let’s not forget Eve in the Garden of Eden, ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, the Romans, the Greeks, India, China, the royals, the Renaissance, Chanel, Elizabeth Taylor—and pretty much every era of history that all deserve more than a sentence.

Before Sephora shelves stocked with shiny bottles, there were countless stories of the connection between perfume and attraction. As the long-told tale goes, Cleopatra seduced Marc Antony with the aid of fragrance, soaking the sails of her ship with perfume so the scent would precede her whenever she visited him.

Most recently, Charlotte Tilbury’s six-SKU Fragrance Collection of Emotions launched to a 20,000-plus person wait list, which included a big demand for the More Sex ($150) perfume, a musky-leather scent described as “hot, and sexy with animal and musky facets.” While the amount of buyers waiting with bated breath to buy the suggestive-sounding perfume may be big, so are the stats and the science behind what Tilbury calls “emotion-boosting” molecules: According to the brand, 84-percent of testers agree the fragrance enhances feelings of seduction.

The Link Between Fragrance + Sex

“The connection between fragrance and sex isn’t new—it’s been around since the dawn of time,” says Walter Johnsen, vice president of product development at InterParfums, which develops, manufactures and distributes prestige perfumes and cosmetics as the exclusive worldwide licensee for Abercrombie & Fitch, Anna Sui, Boucheron, Coach, Dunhill, Ferragamo, Graff, GUESS, Hollister, Jimmy Choo, Karl Lagerfeld, Kate Spade, MCM, Moncler, Montblanc, Oscar de la Renta, Paul Smith, Repetto, S.T. Dupont, and Van Cleef & Arpels.

Romy Kowalewski, creative director and founder of 27 87, agrees. “The notion of ‘sex’ in fragrances isn’t exactly a trend—it’s more of a timeless element in perfumery. Throughout history, scents have played a crucial role in attraction and seduction.”

And, like most things, what might seem like a current trend is often a shift in how themes are communicated and produced, Kowalewski says. “This especially applies to our fast-paced, highly visual culture. Gen Z‘s directness and the immediacy of social media have brought this topic to the forefront in new ways, but the underlying concept remains as enduring as ever. It’s all about love, and sex is part of it.”

“To me, a ‘sex’ perfume isn’t about being overly explicit or mimicking bodily fluids,” she continues. “It’s about evoking sex appeal through subtlety and personal connection. Take our fragrance Genetic Bliss ($228), for instance. It incorporates five high-quality captives that blend with the wearer’s skin and pH, creating a unique scent for each individual. This personalized touch acts as a seductive booster, enhancing natural smell of a person. It’s this celebration of uniqueness and individuality—our DNA—that defines what is truly sexy and very individual.”

Jasmina Aganovic, founder of Future Society, also doesn’t consider this wave of sexual fragrance storytelling to be something new—but she does think the narrative has changed. “The sensual experience of perfume has always been a driver of consumer appeal. Stemming back to our own biology-based pheromones, there is a natural gravitation towards scents that derive from human connection and shared intimacy.”

The factor Aganovic thinks is different this go: How consumers view sex appeal. “One thing I do think is new is that we the reframing of sex to be individual—rather than dictated by others. In other words, consumers are looking to define sex appeal on their own terms rather than those dictated by society.”

Plus, she says, it’s apparent the pandemic had some pull. “The reason we are now seeing an influx of ‘sex scents’ is directly tied to the emergence from our extended period of COVID-induced isolation and distancing. Humans are longing for more instant personal connection in all forms—and that translates over into beauty and fragrance purchasing habits as well.”

Perception + the Personalization of Fragrance

In Johnsen’s opinion, fragrances are worn for various reasons—including to feel desirable, to feel a part of a brand, to maintain personal hygiene, and to express individuality.

“Notice that the first reason is ‘being desirable,’” he emphasizes. “As humans, ultimately, our primal nature compels us to seek companionship throughout our lives. Our bodies react instinctively to scent, particularly in our pursuit of a partner. Some even argue that we are inherently drawn to our mate based on their scent.”

While purchasing a fragrance fix won’t guarantee finding a lifelong partner or a fling, it does affect our psyche profoundly. “Spritzing on our favorite fragrance can give us a confidence boost and a spring in our step,” says Johnsen. “Humans are naturally drawn to captivating scents, and adding a touch of fragrance can attract extra attention and enhance our sense of desirability. Even if it’s just to boost our own perception of feeling sexy, it ignites a fire within us that accompanies us in every encounter.”

As fragrance is also a highly personal matter, Johnsen points out that what is sexy to one person might not be for another. “We all feel and experience sex and sexy differently, just like we do with fragrance, which is why there is such a connection between the two, expressing oneself and feeling desirable.”

The bottom line: How fragrances come to life in the space varies drastically.

“But, typically, it all comes back to the fundamentals of olfactive notes, defined by our own biology,” Aganovic says.

What Is a ‘Sexy’ Note?

Common ingredients connected with sex and sexy include musk, vanilla, patchouli, saffron, sandalwood, rose, champaca, ginger, jasmine, and lily of the valley, according to Johnsen, who says that, from his own portfolio, his suggestions for “sexy, sultry” additions include Ferragamo Red Leather ($106), Ferragamo Bright Leather ($106), Ferragamo Signorina Unica ($122), and the new Donna Karan Collection of Cashmere and Tiare Flower ($150), Cashmere and Wild Fig ($150) and Cashmere and Palo Santo ($150). “Musk and ambergris create a deeply intimate base, while vanilla and sandalwood add a creamy, comforting layer,” adds Kowalewski.

Musk, patchouli, saffron, sandalwood, and champaca all possess earthy qualities in their scent profiles, Johnsen says. “This earthiness often evokes a primal, grounding sensation, which can contribute to a feeling of sensuality and connection to nature.”

Vanilla, patchouli, sandalwood, rose, and jasmine are noted for their dual ability to relax the body while simultaneously stimulating arousal. “This balance between relaxation and stimulation creates an ideal environment for intimacy.”

Saffron, jasmine and lily of the valley have cultural associations with enhancing sexual behavior or attraction in various societies. “These cultural beliefs often stem from historical usage or symbolic significance.”

Sandalwood and rose are known for their therapeutic properties, such as calming anxiety and lowering inhibitions. “These effects can help individuals feel more open and receptive to intimate experiences.”

Patchouli, sandalwood, rose and jasmine have been used for centuries as aphrodisiacs, indicating a long-standing recognition of their sensual qualities across different cultures and time periods.

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