, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 275-286

Differential use of sensory information in sexual behavior as a function of gender

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Olfactory information is critical to mammalian sexual behavior. Based on parental investment theory the relative importance of olfaction compared with vision, touch, and hearing should be different for human males and females. In particular, because of its link to immunological profile and offspring viability, odor should be a more important determinant of sexual choice and arousal for females than for males. To test this hypothesis a questionnaire was developed and administered to 332 adults (166 males, 166 females). Subjects used a 1–7 scale to indicate how much they agreed with a series of statements concerning the importance of olfactory, visual, auditory, and tactile information for their sexual responsivity. The data reveal that males rated visual and olfactory information as being equally important for selecting a lover, while females considered olfactory information to be the single most important variable in mate choice. Additionally, when considering sexual activity, females singled out body odor from all other sensory experiences as most able to negatively affect desire, while males regarded odors as much more neutral stimuli for sexual arousal. The present results support recent findings in mice and humans concerning the relation of female preferences in body odor and major histocompatibility complex (MHC) compatibility and can be explained by an evolutionary analysis of sex differences in reproductive strategies. This work represents the first direct examination of the role of different forms of sensory information in human sexual behavior.

Rachel Herz completed her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto in 1992 and was a post-graduate fellow at the University of British Columbia. She has been on faculty at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia since 1994. Her research interests include olfaction, cross-modal comparisons of sensory memory systems, context-dependent learning and memory, and evolutionary theory.
Elizabeth Cahill received her B.A. in psychology from Bucknell College in 1995 and worked with Herz as a research technician in 1996–1997.