Beauty

How sex positivity is fuelling change in the fragrance industry

With female sexual pleasure finally becoming part of the mainstream, perfume brands are shifting perceptions of scents and sexuality

By Viola Levy

22 March 2021
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erfume is one of the most erotic beauty products. Along with red lipstick, few things are more effective at putting a certain spring in your step. With the rise of the sex-positivity movement and the stigma around female sexuality being erased, the sensuality of scent is only becoming more apparent in the new perfumes launching on the market. “Perfume, of course, taps into our sense of smell which is our most primal sense, and plays a big role when it comes to our own sexuality and who we choose as partners,” says perfumer Maya Njie. “I believe it can truly make us feel both sexy and sexual.”

Perfume can definitely be a playful bedroom tool for those taking time to explore their sexuality, says Chicago-based perfumer Bambi Montgomery of Hive fragrances. “Once a consumer finds which fragrance stimulates themselves and their partner, it can be used as foreplay. From sitting across from a lover during dinner as he takes in their fragrance, to having it linger on the bedsheets the next morning.”

While female pleasure and sexuality has always been taboo, the tide is certainly turning. Over the past few years, we’re seemingly on the brink of a pleasure revolution with more women buying sex toys and consuming female-focused porn than ever before, as well as increased funding for companies focused on female sexual wellness. A lot of this has been born in the wake of of the #MeToo movement, which mobilised different groups of women to speak out on a number of other issues, including the orgasm gap and why sex should not just be consensual – but pleasurable too.

These changing attitudes are also being reflected in the world of perfumery – with scents that are more primal than sweet and as multifaceted and nuanced as female sexuality itself. Montgomery acknowledges that perfumers were historically, predominantly male, and had a penchant for making women smell like pretty flowers. “It reminds them of their mothers and grandmothers, giving them feelings of comfort, support and love,” she explains. “However, like in my fragrance Love Child, there are undertones of floral, but also some heat included to stimulate other feelings.”

“Many women are being drawn to the ‘fleshier floral’ scents which seem to mimic the warmth and texture of skin and body,” says James Craven of London-based perfumery Les Senteurs. “As a result, they often go for scents like Frédéric Malle's Carnal Flower or Andy Tauer's damp, dark Gardenia Sotto la Luna.”

Image by Shutterstock (Mariia Aiiram)

Up until recently, representations of female sexuality could only be found in the marketing spiel surrounding men’s scents. They claimed to make women powerless to resist the wearer’s sexual advances (eg ‘the Lynx effect’), or enhance the body’s natural pheromones – substances secreted by animals to attract a mate. “The issue of pheromones is a very controversial area,” says Carl Philpott, Professor of Rhinology and Olfactology at the University of East Anglia. “There has never been any hard evidence to suggest higher-order primates and humans actually possess them anymore.”

He stresses that there is actually no “secret love potion” to make women feel more aroused. “I play a clip of ‘The Lynx Effect’ to my students as an example of the spurious information surrounding sense of smell,” he notes. “The link between scent and arousal is very subjective – a lot of it depends on the individual and is informed by childhood experiences and the culture you’re brought up in.” He explains that while certain notes and scents are considered sexy, sexuality obviously isn’t one-size-fits-all and the types of fragrance that turn us on are no different. “The scent receptors at the top of each person’s nose are genetically coded individually, so everyone will probably have a different array of receptors,” he says. “While there are some commonalities, everyone is unique – there will be certain things people are almost blind to in terms of specific scent molecules, because they just don’t have the specific receptors for them. What one person will find a turn on, another person could be turned off by.”

‘I curated that fragrance with men in mind, with notes of tobacco and whiskey… all of the women said it made them feel strong and empowered. Men find these qualities sexy. Boys are intimidated’

This subjectivity hasn’t stopped the growing trend for animalic, dirty notes in perfumes, giving them an earthy complexity, which for many can be arousing – like sniffing the collar of your lover’s shirt. A lot of these contain chemicals known as indoles: “a naturally occurring chemical found in florals such as jasmine, orange blossom and neroli”, Njie explains. “They are known to add a sexual, animalic and ripe characteristic to a fragrance. In potent high amounts, they smell somewhere between mothballs and bad breath to me.”

She recalls, “I made a jasmine fragrance a few years back and gave it to a friend who could not wear it due to the high amount of indoles in it. Her younger sister, however, went crazy for it as it made her feel sexually empowered and primal. It goes to show that everybody is different and what is liberating for one person might not have the opposite effect on somebody else.” Two more recent launches, Gucci Bloom also dine out on the indole factor – going heavy on the jasmine to intoxicating effect.

Traditionally obtained from a small scenting pouch from a musk deer’s bottom, musk is another animalic fragrance note. “Musk, like jasmine, is a note that can be floral and clean-smelling or animalic and dirty,” explains Njie. “Historically all are animal-derived, but most commonly substituted by synthetics today.” You can get your musk fix from scents like Hermès Musc Palida, as well as Chapter IV by new indie perfumery yú Parfums.

Of course, you don’t have to resort to animalic scents to feel sexy. Some brands are even poking fun at the whole idea – such as 4160Tuesdays with their pastiche perfume The Sexiest Scent on the Planet Ever (IMHO). “The aroma of lemon meringue pie, bergamot, woods and amber isn’t considered ‘sexual’ for a lot of people,” muses founder and perfumer Sarah McCartney. “I did name it ironically but on the other hand, we find that people feel really comfortable in their own skin when they're wearing it, and that – for many of us – is sexually attractive.”

Helena Rubenstein wearing a smock with chemists in perfume blending lab. September 1956.
Image by Leonard Mccombe

Elsewhere, the modern classic Molecule 01 by Escentric Molecules has been a bestseller for retailers Liberty and Cult Beauty, which many attribute to its unique sex appeal. With very clean and scientific branding, it’s not your typical “sexy” scent and is based around a single synthetic note – Iso E Super – considered by many to be an aphrodisiac. Its creator, perfumer Geza Schoen, acknowledges this, but he agrees that sex appeal is totally subjective. “There is so much more to a person than their scent. Character is still the most important thing, to me anyway. A great character can make up for the choice of a fragrance someone wrongly surrounds themselves with!”

For Njie, there isn’t a particular fragrance family or formula that “does it”’ for her. “I have felt sexual in different types of fragrances: some light florals, some aquatic and others woody and animalic,” she explains. “My own scent Tobak has been dubbed ‘Sex Panther’ by my girlfriends because of how they feel when they wear it. It would be the most traditionally ‘masculine’ in the range, and yet they buy it for themselves rather than buying it for their partner.”

The rising trend for women wearing masculine scents could be party due to the sexual confidence it gives them, Montgomery says. “I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the majority of people enjoying my fragrance Trust are women. I curated that fragrance with men in mind, with notes of tobacco and whiskey. When I inquired, all of the women said it made them feel strong and empowered. Men find these qualities sexy. Boys are intimidated.”

And while there’s no hard and fast formula when it comes to bottling sex in scent, it can still be a great tool when it comes to women exploring and expressing elements of their sexuality. Njie sums this up perfectly. “The sexual liberation connected to scent for me lies in wearing what you enjoy. And if it means ignoring outdated gender stereotypes and heightening your own sexuality in doing so, then that’s a great thing.”

We only include products that have been independently selected by The Stack’s editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

Lead image by: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

The Short Stack

Perfumes are increasingly shaking off stereotypes of femininity and sexuality in scent, and women are choosing to smell exactly how they please.

By Viola Levy

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