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On Sex, Smell, And "Animal Nature:" A Neurotic's Lament

Illustration for article titled On Sex, Smell, And Animal Nature: A Neurotics Lament

Katie Wudel can't smell — and, she writes, she's neurotic and not "lusty." But are all three really connected?

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On Nerve.com, Wudel says that she has congenital anosmia — she was born without a sense of smell. This hampers not only her ability to enjoy wine tastings and coffee-flavored Kit Kat bars, but, she feels, her love life as well. Wudel mentions her friends who love to smell their partners' hair or t-shirts, and wonders if her inability to do so shuts her out of the "animal" part of sex and love. She writes,

Is it the schnoz? For every action I perform, I always have a novel-length monologue about it in my head. I question the hell out of anything, from turning left at a one-way stop to putting my arm around my boyfriend's waist. It's always been a big obstacle in my love life. I'm incapable of flirting without mentally debating all the ways my attempts at seduction might be interpreted: as loving, or silly, or stupid, or ironic, or whorish, or rude. Josh doesn't understand why I can't let go, why I'm never swept away. Why can't I just kiss him? Why have I never been able to just kiss anybody? Is it impossible for me to appreciate hormones? Is it because my primal self - my lizard brain, my animal nature - has gone awry?

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For contrast, Wudel offers her roommate Cecilia, "perhaps the only truly lusty woman I've ever met:"

She's from Nicaragua. She has a profound love for each of her senses. Each night, she performs her dinner ritual. She sits at our little table, pours a glass of wine, lights a scented candle (cinnamon or honey rum), and savors a soup or burrito she's made entirely from scratch. Catching her in full sniff - eyes closed, breathing in the lushness of the air - is like catching her mid-orgasm.

There might be a, um, whiff of ethnic stereotype here, but more than that, Wudel may be overstating the contrast between herself and Cecilia. Sure, for those of us who can smell, the scent of a certain deodorant can still bring back all the pain of an unrequited high-school crush, or the joy of a new fling, but just because you can't enjoy scented candles doesn't mean you can't enjoy life. Wudel does realize there's more to love than scent:

I do use my senses when it comes to passion: I like to listen to my boyfriend play the guitar, or watch him dance. Smell isn't everything: I love his face, I get lost in his eyes, I revel in the crush of his arms against me. I adore his mind.

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But her essay keeps coming back to self-criticism, to the idea that she's bad at love and sex because she's not "primal" enough. Thing is, self-criticism is probably a lot more damaging than any other deficiency Wudel may have. She may be less unusual than she thinks — despite her enjoyment of good food and wine, sensual Cecilia probably has some insecurities too. Most women do — and despite their reputation as animalistic sex-and-steak consumers, I've yet to meet a man without a hangup either. And actual animals get stressed out too, so the whole "animal nature" thing may be something of a red herring. Or, like, baboon.

I don't mean to devalue Wudel's quest to enjoy life without over-analyzing. As a neurotic person myself, I too have struggled to turn my brain off from time to time. But I do know that most people who seem relaxed actually aren't (evidence: the word most often used to describe me by new acquaintances is "calm"), and that probably the only real way to be bad at sex or flirting is to think you are. It was interesting to learn about how Wudel's anosmia affects not only her experience of food and sex, but the way she thinks about herself and her life — still, when she wrote, "I want to ask if these things I think I feel could ever be called feelings," I wanted to tell her that sometimes the first step is to stop asking.

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True Stories: Scents And Sensibility [Nerve.com]

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DISCUSSION

It's so dangerous to assign innate limitations to your life. Studies have shown that when female and African-American students are asked to identify their gender or race before an exam, the women do not do as well on the math portion of the exam and the African Americans do not do as well overall. The study was designed to ask whether stereotypes about cognitive ability have an affect on performance, and the result seems to indicate that yes, they do.

This isn't to compare Wudel's real biological handicap to the stereotyped shortcomings of women and African Americans. But I do wonder if Wudel has come to focus to closely on what she lacks. And this focus might lead her to believe that her real limitation extends to other, perceived but not real, limitations. I can see why she might draw a line from sense of smell to love or passion. On the other hand, there are times when not being able to smell my boyfriend would actually enhance passion (morning sex complete with morning breath, or right after his workout).

By assuming her neurotic behavior or lack of sensuality is the result of of an innate and unchangeable characteristic, Wudel may be locking herself into a prison of her own making. I sympathize with the fact that she's never smelled bread baking or the scent of her boyfriend (post shower). But I see no reason why those losses need to lead to others. It sounds to me like her biggest obstacle is her head, not her nose.