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Bering in Mind


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Bromidrophilia: Beauty is in the Nose of the Besniffer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Close-up of a Human Nose in Side View, by Cristina Pedrazzina“Coming home soon; don’t wash,” Napoleon Bonaparte once wrote to his wife, Joséphine. It’s unclear from this snippet of a love note if the most famous Emperor in French history had a certifiable case of bromidrophilia—a paraphilia in which the individual finds the natural body odors of attractive people to be the most arousing erotic stimulus imaginable. But it’s clear enough, anyway, that upon their being tickled by such pungent effluvia, the olfactory bulbs in Napoleon’s brain certainly weren’t inclined to give his fingers marching orders to pinch his delicate nose.

The titillated snouts of other men throughout history, however, have led them dangerously astray. This was owed to their overwhelming desire for intense odors—a desire exceeding even their arousal by the bodies that produced those odors in the first place. Take the case of a sixty-year-old Frenchman (the French emphasis here is just a coincidence, do note) described by the physician Charles Samson Féré, in 1899. “He was in the habit of teasing both girls and women”:

… sometimes even the very old ones. He only tackled women who worked in the fields in chemises with short sleeves, and beset them until he had succeeded in getting his hand up to their armpits. When he had done this (and his victims never seemed to understand what he was on about), he went away satisfied; but he used to hold his hand to his nose for a long time with an obviously happy expression.

Féré asked the man to explain. “It is an odor that refreshes me,” he said:

… and I would go miles to smell it.” He then told me that, when he was younger, he would do extraordinary things in the case of women who had a very strong-smelling secretion, and that during the last few years they were the only ones that could excite him sexually … When he was a child he loved this smell, without knowing why.

Whatever became of this rather pushy pensioner with a penchant for women’s stinky armpits—a swift kick in the ribs (or something worse), I’m sure you’re hoping—has been lost to the dusty old annals of sexual deviancy. But half a century later, in 1950s America this time, another man’s nasal affections for strong-smelling females led him into some serious legal woes. First, however, they led him directly into a pair of freshly laundered knickers on a crowded elevator, which is where our story begins.

“In front of him was a woman with attractive buttocks which exerted such a compulsive influence on him,” describes Valentine Ujhely, the psychiatrist assigned to the case, “that, when he reached the upper floor, he quickly bent forward and established incomplete contact between his nose and the girl’s buttocks.”

It’s an odd image. “This was his usual way of sexual satisfaction,” Ujhely continues:

Following such an experience, he would disappear in the crowd, only to repeat the same act about three times the same afternoon … As a rule, the compulsion would become so great that, in spite of danger, he had to submit to the urge again.

The psychiatrist describes the man—a 33-year-old decorated war veteran with PTSD, incidentally—as a “renifleur,” which is essentially a subtype of bromidrophile, but more specifically, a person who is aroused by sniffing underwear. A panty fetish may be harmless enough, assuming that you’re sniffing the panties of a woman who (a) doesn’t mind; and/or (b) isn’t presently wearing them. But sooner or later, an unchecked habit of deeply inhaling the private odeur of unwitting strangers as they’re wearing those panties is probably going to lead to a broken jaw or jail time.

He engaged in these bromidrophilic acts about once every five days. But the scandalous elevator incident involved a pair of beautiful buttocks belonging to a woman who was smart enough—or offended enough—to realize that the man wasn’t, in fact, innocently tying his shoelaces. Police finally apprehended him and he agreed to six weeks at the psychiatric hospital, during which time Ujhely taught him to “produce a sexually neutral but spectacularly motile imagery of various sorts” (basically, a sort of mental cold shower that would kill his impulse to sniff strangers). As a parting gift from the hospital, the psychiatrist gave him a “small flat jar containing a ‘solid’ perfume” that the renifluer could carry around with him in public and, as a last resort, from which he cold surreptitiously inhale to satisfy his urge. A far cry, er, far smell, from beautiful buttocks, perhaps. But legal.

As for the big why question, Ujhely argues that the man’s bromidrophilia stemmed from his having latent homosexual desires. That line of reasoning is as clear to me as it is to you, I’d wager, but such was the go-to explanation for all male sexual dysfunction in the Freudian psychiatric West throughout most of the 20th century. For the patient’s part, however, he maintained that his paraphilia was related to his debilitating fears of sexual infection and of getting a woman pregnant. He does have a point about that, I suppose. Nobody was ever inseminated by nose.

Actually … there’s still that unsolved case back in Bethlehem. But that’s a post for another day.

I discuss paraphilias like this one, and much, much more, in my new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, which will release on October 8, 2013. Follow me @jessebering (#DailyDeviant). For more on all things deviant, and to find out if I’ll be visiting a city near you for the Perv book tour, visit www.jessebering.com.

Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering is Associate Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). To learn more about Jesse's work, visit www.jessebering.com or add him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jesse.bering). Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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