IPT Book Reviews

Title: The Scent of Eros: Mysteries of Odor in Human Sexuality  Positive Review Positive Review
Authors: James Vaughn Kohl and Robert T. Francoeur
Publisher: Continuum Books, 1995

Continuum Books
370 Lexington Ave.
New York, NY 10017
(212) 953-5858
$24.95 (c)

The 14 chapters of this handsome and readable book cover an aspect of human life that is often overlooked if not denigrated how we smell and what it may mean.  The 275-page book has a useful glossary and bibliography and an index.  The authors carefully trace and summarize the scientific knowledge about smells.  There is more apparently reliable knowledge about odor than most of us are aware of or understand.  Although the book is a bit loosely organized, much of the material is fascinating and may assist in understanding the full range of human behavior.  This information about odor and the human response to it fits readily into the literature on attraction and affiliation.  Some of the observations made may seem far fetched but also make immediate sense.  An example is the observation that ordinary restaurants put carnations on the table because they are cheap.  But carnations represent the smell of death because they are associated with funerals, so a good restaurant puts roses on the table because the odor is associated with romance and special occasions.  This is so clearly face valid that it is hard to dispute or question.

The basic concept the book advances is that humans, like other organisms, use odor as a means of communication.  Odor is very much associated with human sexual behavior.  The material relating sexuality and odor is also fascinating, though to a person who, by and large, has learned not to attend to awareness of odor it is surprising.

There have been instances in which allegations of sexual abuse have included someone's perception of odor.  A foster mother claimed to know parents had sexually abused their one-year-old child because, when the child was returned from being at a church supper with the parents, the foster mother insisted he "smelled of sex."  In the Kelly Michaels case, the prosecution's expert testified that an aversion to tuna fish was a sign of sexual abuse since a woman's genitals were said to smell like tuna.  When interrogated, children may make comments about how things such as semen smelled.  If such questions arise, this book is one of the few sources of knowledge about odor that brings together the scientific data in a cogent, and reasonable manner.  It is also fun to read and offers a wide range of interesting facts that will be new to most people.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies.

Order this book: Hardcover

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