Your sense of smell is a very powerful emotional trigger. Think of how, upon entering, the smells of your childhood home can immediately affect you and send you back to the emotional state you were in as a child–for better or worse. This is because scent is tied very closely to memory, and specifically tied to the limbic system, which determines your emotional and behavioral responses to stimuli.
The fact that smell is tied to memory makes it all but certain that those memories could (and the behaviors they trigger) can be sexual in nature. Since scent is a sense that is very evocative of your first-person memories, a feeling conjured by a smell (of a sexual partner, say) is directly tied to an experience that you have previously had. With smell’s effect on memory, it stands to reason that the scent of a sexual partner will trigger one’s sexual desires.
Historically, sex and smell have been linked in various ways. A very loose connection would be references equating nose size to penis size in the legendary play Cyrano de Bergerac, but more specifically, perfumes gifted to prospective partners in ancient Sumeria and those given in marriage rituals in many cultures reinforces this link. Even the psychological thought of Jung held strong connections between scent and sex.
Whether you’re aware of it or not–and you are most definitely aware–the smells of sex play a large role in indicating our arousal, which will reinforce its connection with our sense memories of sex. However, what if you lose this valuable innate sense?
Losing the ability to smell is something that can happen, whether gradually due to diminishing senses that can come with age, or all at once because of an infection or sickness. Anosmia is the term specific to losing one’s sense of smell due to nasal blockage brought on by a cold, a flu, or even COVID-19. Many people who have been infected with Covid have reported a temporary (or even permanent!) period of time without their senses of smell as well as taste.
When one loses their sense of smell, it greatly impacts their experience with and enjoyment of food. The same goes for how they experience sex. While there hasn’t been much scientific study of anosmia and its impact on intimacy, accounts from people with smell disorders claim that their affliction has a detrimental effect on their sex lives, with some worried about how to navigate intimacy without this additional sense of perceiving sex.
For people currently affected by smell disorders or diminished capacity to smell, there are support organizations to turn to, such as AbScent in the UK. It is a hope of many that the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase in the number of people experiencing anosmia will raise even greater awareness. To illustrate how much larger the anosmia community may have gotten since the start of COVID-19, consider that of all of the people who experienced loss of smell during infection, some smell scientists estimate that about ten percent of them now have long-term loss of smell. And with seemingly no end in sight for transmissions and mutations of the virus, that number may continue to grow.