Asexuality, Celibacy, and Perfume

a perfume bottle

As someone who enjoys smelling things, and as someone who is slowly weaning off a misogynist aversion to femininity, for me the fragrance market holds a special kind of appeal: perfumes and colognes offer the opportunity to take that nice-smelling smell you like and carry it with you wherever you go.

Second to that, smell is very difficult to describe, which makes it a wonderland for writers and word-lovers who relish a well-crafted description.  The internet’s “perfumistas” and fragrance bloggers employ some very poetic language in their reviews, and sometimes I like to read them just to see what analogies they come up with.

Sometimes, though, the descriptions they use are a little hard to wrap my head around.

Although I don’t have a particular beef with the fragrance community as a whole, besides the obliviousness to its own classism, this post is going to be about some observations on its patterns and a few points of confusion from an ace perspective.

Even aside from the rather questionable [ 1 2 3 ] old adage that “sex sells”, perfume has a heavy cultural association with romance and sexuality (and bearing that in mind, there’s probably something to analyze about its association with femininity), so as one would expect from that association, there are numerous perfumes billed as and reviewed as “seductive” and “sexy”, and there are plenty of ads that employ nudity as a gimmick.  Presumably, the aim of these ads is that you will want the fragrance because you’re sexually attracted to the person in the image or because you want to be sexually attractive like the person in the image.  This is a very ineffective tactic on aces who don’t want to be sexy.  Fortunately for the marketers, we are only a small demographic.

Though not every perfume is advertized this way, the market as a whole does express this kind of fragrance-as-sexual mindset and prioritizes the production of “sexy” scents, despite the fact that many fragrance enthusiasts wear fragrances every day regardless of whether they have anybody on the seduction agenda.  One commenter here explained, “most of the time, I don’t consider the perfume that I wear an aid to seduction, though I think that the population at large DOES think that if someone is wearing perfume, he or she is ‘on the prowl.'”  This is a pretty good summary of the difference of perspective between the general culture and enthusiastic fragrance devotees.  To those with only casual knowledge or interest, perfume and sex are strongly linked, whereas for those who get geeky about the subject, being sexy isn’t always the main objective; many of them apply perfume simply for the love of smell itself.

I understand to some degree why that (fragrance-as-sexual) mindset is popular, since fragrance can be very sensual by nature, and a lot of folks seem to get sexuality confused with sensuality, as I’ve talked about before.  Still, it makes things a bit awkward for a sensual ace, and I may never have gotten interested in bottled fragrance if I hadn’t encountered enough people who liked smell for its own sake.  To me, the issue is somewhat comparable to the belief that kink must involve sex and/or sexual attraction–a paradigm that serves to keep out, alienate, and deny the existence of kinky aces, who enjoy aspects of BSDM in an asexual way.

On a positive note, I’ve noticed that overall, the marketing, reviews, and discussion of fragrances do seem to recognize, more or less, a distinction between “romantic” and “sexy”, in that a fragrance can be one without being the other.  The difference between romantic attraction and sexual attraction is a concept that the asexual community likes to emphasize in most explanations to allos, so it’s encouraging to see that it’s already understood to some degree here.

As for what constitutes a fragrance being “romantic” or “sexy”, I don’t really know.  The former label seems to be applied more often to floral, “feminine” scents (again, a lot you could say about that) whereas the latter is applied so liberally, I’m mystified as to what it’s supposed to mean.  And granted, it could just be people’s favorite synonym for “good”, but I’ve noticed that fragrances with positive reviews aren’t always considered “sexy”, so there must be something else going on.  What is the criteria for “sexy”?  What are the elements for qualification?

One could argue that sexiness is just as subjective as beauty is subjective, and I’m sure that’s true to some degree, but I suspect there might a pattern somewhere.  Fragrance reviewers tend to speak as though assessments of the “dirtiness” or “skank” of a fragrance can somehow be informative for the reader.  Meanwhile, I’m always stumped by these evaluations, since I don’t know how to imagine “skank” nor how to detect it–which makes it seem as though, by picking the wrong fragrance, it’s possible to seduce someone by accident.

Okay, maybe that’s hyperbolic.  But I do fear miscommunicating something via scent choice and making the wrong impression.  Everyone else seems to talk about this subject as if the meaning is intuitive or already known–which it may well be, for them, but I wish they would take into account that people like me exist.  When I attended a book reading for Coming to My Senses and the author said “you know what I’m talking about” in reference to some kind of phrase like “the smell of sex and ashtrays”, I didn’t just feel out of the loop; I felt like I was missing a crucial sixth sense that might get me into trouble one day.

Sure, there are bound to be some aces out there who know what sex and/or sexiness smell like, but I’m not one of them, and I can only speak from my own experience.  This is just a reminder not to generalize based on what I’m saying here and that I don’t claim to be representative of The Ace Experience™.  This is just one ace experience of many.

Although there may not be an easy way to categorize what makes a fragrance sexy, there at least seems to be a consensus that some (pleasant) fragrance notes are not sexy.  In the comments of this announcement post for Avon Ultra Sexy Lace, someone asked, “Pear is provocative and sexy?” to which the original poster replied “I guess if you find shampoo provocative and sexy, then maybe”.  In combination with a smiley face, this appears to be a very tongue-in-cheek answer.  The smell of pears is probably not sexy.  I don’t know what is sexy, but it’s probably not pears.  I can wrap my head around that.

While it may just be a matter of personal preference, these commenters spoke as if sexualizing pears would be bizarre, suggesting that (for people who can detect “sexy”) there’s some sort of defined line between sexy and not-sexy.  On this forum thread, one poster writes, “there are nice smelling colognes that smell nice but to me are not sexy, like most fresh scents, they are cool but not sexy,” and if pears are considered “fresh”, there seems to be a pattern intact.  Of course, that’s just a few folk’s opinions.  I’m just reporting on it because it matches up with the overall impression I’ve gotten from hanging around the fragrance blogosphere for several years.

So what is a sexy fragrance note?  Just drawing on memory, it seems like I’ve seen sexual descriptions mostly given to fragrances which emphasize darker basenotes like patchouli and musk. On that thread I linked earlier, posters report notes like amber, musk, civet, spices, coffee, and chocolate as being sexy.  They also bring up notes like tobacco and leather, two smells culturally associated with “dangerousness” or living-on-the-edge or what-have-you… and incidentally, two notes more typically classed as “masculine”.  However, classic femininity still gets its share of mentions.  One poster lists  jasmine and tuberose, white florals which are headier than rose but just as unabashedly femme.  From this thread, warmth and richness seem like the main throughlines.  Then again, it appears there are some people who prefer fresh/clean scents and would consider them sexy, so it’s all up in the air.

I scoured several “sexy fragrance” polls on NST, but in the absence of a formal tally or final report, it was hard to make sense of the data.  It would be easier just to look at Robin’s candidates for the most “in-your-face-sexy”, which is the type I’m most concerned with here.  Her list revealed preferences for animalic notes, jasmine, tuberose, spices, musk, and leather, which is a bit worrisome, because these are a lot of notes that I like, and thinking about it this way makes me hesitant to try stuff.  I don’t want to end up wearing something that smells like “a fragrance that you would wear to seduce someone”.

Unfortunately, despite my casual attempt at researching what seems like it should already be a thoroughly-discussed subject, I’ve been unable to come up with a useful answer to the question of what constitutes the difference between a sexy and not-sexy fragrance note.

In conclusion:

image of a bird with a question mark by its head

We just don’t know.


2 responses to “Asexuality, Celibacy, and Perfume

  • Calum P Cameron

    I would guess that a “sexy” fragrance is like a “sexy” person or a “sexy” outfit. Which is to say that it’s a fragrance that evokes certain feelings in the majority of the non-asexual population (and maybe some of the asexual population, who knows) which are generally associated in some way with the concept of sexual intercourse. It makes sense, then, that the strong, “dangerous” smells are considered sexy for the same reason as a leather jacket over a muscled, shirtless male is considered sexy.

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