Smells like safe sex

Self, Sex

New study uncovers a surprising, but rather unromantic, way to inspire safe sex

Could foul odors help stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases? Researchers at the University of New Mexico used a comical method to take a serious look at the operation of the so-called “Behavioral Immune System.” Their paper, just released in the APS journal Psychological Science is titled: “Smells Like Safe Sex : Olfactory Pathogen Primes Increase Intentions to Use Condoms.” And their creative research methodology incorporates a “novelty odor liquid” called Liquid ASS!

There’s a serious issue at the core of the research, and it’s one that health psychologist Angela Bryan has been studying for years: How can you get people to use condoms when they have sex? It’s serious because, as they point out, the use of condoms could reduce the transmission of HIV, for example, by 95%. Yet, many young people fail to use condoms, even when, and sometimes especially when, they are having initial sex with a new partner.

Sometimes research scientists take themselves themselves too seriously. Not Josh Tybur, who is the first author of the new study. Tybur was previously a coauthor on a famous study that examined the link between topless dancer’s ovulatory cycle and the size of the tips left by male customers. For the present study, Tybur followed up on previous research demonstrating that people have a “behavioral immune system” – a set of psychological defenses against getting infections by avoiding exposure in the first place (for more discussion, see my Psych Today blog, links below).

In this research, Tybur and his colleagues wondered: “Would priming concerns about disease with a foul odor prompt people to be more sexually safe?” To test this, the experimenters informed participants that the pipes in the building were sporadically emitting unpleasant odors because of plumbing issues. Students were then asked a number of questions about sexual behavior and attitudes, including their feelings about the use of condoms, and their intentions to buy condoms, carry them, discuss them with a sexual partner, and to use them during intercourse. Before filling out the questionnaire, half the subjects got a nasty whiff of something quite foul, as the researchers blasted the room with a shot of “Liquid ASS,” which the authors describe as: “a novelty odor liquid that smells strongly of common bacterial threats (e.g., feces).” Those subjects were significantly more likely to say they intended to use condoms in the future.

Is this research likely to inspire a new wave of pre-date preparation, in which people hoping to romance a new partner will fill up on large portions of refried beans beforehand, instead of heading out to purchase a nice box of chocolates for their intended amour? Somehow, I don’t think the Godiva company needs to worry.

Related posts:

The psychological immune system: When seeing me sneeze makes you healthier.

The psychological immune system 2: When it’s healthy to be antisocial

Behavioral Immune System 3: Foul odors can trigger safe sex!


Joshua M. Tybur, Angela D. Bryan, Renee E. Magnan and Ann E. Caldwell Hooper (2011) Smells Like Safe Sex : Olfactory Pathogen Primes Increase Intentions to Use Condoms. Psychological Science, published online 24 February; DOI: 10.1177/0956797611400096.