All aboard the body odour train

Over the last few years as clubbing went back underground so too did the vibe, mood, look – and smell – of a night out. But is it a fetish or something more?

It’s a cold winter night in London, and The Cause in Manor House is kicking-off. Tonight is Adonis, a monthly queer night that’s the perfect blend of London, Berlin and New York in look, feel, crowd and fashion. 

The occasional waft of poppers drifts across the dance floor. Once upon a time before the smoking ban, you’d leave the club stinking like a pack of Marlboro Lights, today another unmistakable aroma fills the room: the heady scent of hot, sweaty, male bodies. 

Smell in the space of a club becomes a composition,” says Mathias Vef, 43, an artist and photographer in Berlin. It’s a mix of sweat and other body odours, with traces of poppers or leather it can heighten excitement, when I’m in the right mood. It’s like dance or music. 

Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”

If you leave a club looking and smelling as preened as you may have been when you arrived, you clearly aren’t doing it right. It’s what I imagine queer clubs of the hedonistic 70s and 80s were like – before the turn of the century when metrosexual culture had us all reaching for the Lynx. Years ago, my mates and I would have sooner jumped out of a cab, at a petrol station and forked out £4.50 for a can of Nivea Cool Kick than arrive at the club with sweaty pits.

But over the last few years the polish that once dominated club culture has become decidedly passé. Perhaps it happened when the too-slick super club venues were priced out thanks to gentrification (ultimately becoming luxury flats). Run down warehouse spaces (with the dodgy toilets and sticky floors that come as part and parcel) became the reality and, arguably, offered a welcome and necessary evolution from the white-on-white-with-neon-accents that we’d come to expect. 

  • Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.”  Perfume never fits in the composition of club and sex – it’s irritating, artificial, annoying and the opposite of sexiness.” 

As clubbing went back underground so too did the vibe, mood, look – and smell – of a night out. Along with beards and hairy chests, the manly hum of hundreds of hot dancing bodies started to make a comeback.

Now, vanity and ego are brushed aside for kick-ass nights of music and dancing at stripped-down, warehouse-style events like Adonis and Chapter 10 in London or HomoElectric in Manchester. Over in Glastonbury, late-night venue NYC Downlow wears the crown when it comes to dirty disco throwdowns where looking hot, sweaty and dishevelled is par for the course. In Berlin gay clubs, going out is about having the time of your life and not being concerned with how you look – you’d be hard-pressed to find a mirror in the bathroom, let alone a sassy bathroom attendant offering splashes of Joop for loose change.

It’s like you’re mainlining testosterone,” says club promoter Rob Rutt on the feeling of stepping onto a dance floor of heaving male bodies. You get photos on Grindr or Scruff but you don’t get smell. It’s the old school, real-life, sharing-the-same-air experience. The apps can’t give you that.”

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MJ Palmer, who runs British cruise night Jock, is in full agreement. Oh my god, it’s like when a cat is on catnip. The smell drives me crazy. A lot of guys I’ve met enjoy sniffing and licking armpits. Nightclubs are the perfect environment as a lot of guys are shirtless and sweaty.” 

His first introduction to fragrance-free partying was during his trips to Berlin clubs in his twenties, where it was suggested that he didn’t wear deodorant as it was frowned upon. That’s kinda when it all began,” he recalls.

DJ Guy Ruben, from San Francisco and now living in London, couldn’t agree more. That is such a turn on! I just want to dive in and hug everyone and inhale them.” Same goes for portrait and fashion photographer Francisco Gomez de Villaboa (who provided the pits for this story). When a well-known fashion designer complimented him on his smell, it opened his mind and encouraged Francisco to ditch the deodorant and embrace his natural odour. We come from nature. And nature makes us smell like this for something, too. It’s not about not practicing hygiene, it’s about not being obsessed with it.”

Stephen Pevner, 60, is the producer of New York’s long-running Black Party and owner of Montreal’s 45-year old men’s fetish boutique, Chez Priape. Using cologne at the Black Party is tantamount to wearing a white button down shirt and club tie to a hardcore leather event,” he says, pointing out that licking hairy armpits on a packed dancefloor is one of the most achievable sex acts.” 

Fetish-wear designer Ollie is on board the body odour train. It’s an instant attraction if I like the way someone smells – I assume the science behind it is to do with the pheromones working on the right level for me. Synthetic smells and aftershaves give me headaches. I’ve also always found armpits a very sexy part of the body to look at.”

Both Guy and Ollie’s earliest memories of being drawn to manly body smells come from the school locker room. There was just something in the air when all of us would strip off our sweaty clothes after gym class,” says Guy. I was 15-years-old and loving every minute of it.”

Ollie grew up in south east London and remembers the day when one of the older lads was changing next to him after a rowing lesson on the Thames: If I didn’t know I was gay before – I certainly did then.”

  • Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.”  Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better.” 

Is it a fetish?

Francisco thinks not. Read the meaning of fetish: a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body.’ I don’t think so. I feel it’s more a deconstruction of where a commercial society has been trying to lead us. Which I believe is stopping us feeling good with what we naturally have so we buy products to cover it.”

Rob agrees the appeal is about being authentic” and rejecting pointless commercialisation. Why would I buy something that makes me smell like chemicals and the same as a load of other guys?”

When it comes to sex and sweat, there are few things worse than going down on someone’s pits and talking a mouthful of armpit dust. If I’m being intimate, I’ll go for the pits and give them a lick and big sniff,” says DJ Guy Ruben, from San Francisco, now living in London. Tasting chalky deodorant is a turn off. Guys tend to smell amazing when they go without deodorant. My smell, is not particularly strong, but I can definitely smell pheromones. After sex I feel like I can smell hints of cum in my pits.”

MJ Palmer thinks an element of fetish may be involved in the mildest terms” but, Everyone is different, I think it’s quite normal. But then on the other side, I’ve been turned off by someone who is over ripe.”

For Ollie, tagging the pleasure derived from blokey odours as a fetish might be a tad extreme, it simply comes down to preference. Some guys are disgusted by it, some love it. Some just burst out giggling when you put your face in their armpit.”

But like anything, there are extremes fit for everyone. Some guys like it stinky as fuck. The more pungent the better,” says Rob. For me it’s part of the package. If someone looks good, has some chat, a nice smile and smells naturally great, that’s boyfriend material.”

It’s pretty much no holds barred at Rob’s rubber/​leather cruise event, Rutt, where there’ll be guys licking or sniffing pits. Some guys might have their face embedded in a pit the whole night, and some won’t shower before going out, to make sure they’re at peak man smell. His customers aren’t shy wallflowers: I’ll be chatting to a customer and he’ll suddenly stop talking and say You smell so good, can I sniff your pit?’”

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Proving the point that there’s something for everyone out there, Guy recounts a night at Powerhouse, San Francisco where Stank, a monthly armpit party contest is held. The contestants walk around offering their pits up to get the crowd’s vote. I judged it one time when I was DJing and while blindfolded I ended up choosing a guy who I had hooked up with a few weeks before – his pits smelled incredible and triggered my memory. I had no idea it was him until I removed the blindfold.”

Going au natural isn’t necessarily about being an all out sweat-fest for Guy. All you have to do is wash your pits and let them just blossom on their own, no fragrance, no deodorant. I think I smell clean but still have my own scent.”

Of course, there are always exceptions, where a manly smell is just a bad pong: It has to do with people’s body chemistry, cleanliness and diet. I’ve smelled guys who smell too oniony, and that’s not what I’m into at all,” says Guy.

A man smelling fresh and clean and not coming with a hint of body odour isn’t necessarily a turn off for sex, although they all agree that anything highly scented might be too far in the other direction. I’ve kicked a guy out before for turning up doused in Versace Jeans,” says Ollie.

Guys who don’t sweat or excrete smells concern me as it usually means that they’re more toxic on the inside,” warns Stephen. They say love is blind so you should be able to fall for someone with your eye’s closed.”

It’s a big no-no from Francisco if someone makes him feel bad or awkward for not wearing deodorant. But for him it’s one thing not using deodorant or fragrance, and another not having good hygiene or smelling bad. You should know there are some limits, too. And some context where it is appropriate and some that aren’t. I always wear deodorant when I go to work, when I do photoshoots. I might even use perfume, but rarely. I have had Yves Saint Laurent for 10 years. But it’s still half full.”

On the opposite end of the scale, Rob had a member of staff turn up to work the door at Rutt one night reeking of aftershave”. He sent the errant employee away to wash it off before they opened the club to the public. Indeed, fetish events don’t mix well with Tom Ford’s finest.

It’s all about right place and the right time”, and Rob is fully aware when and where it’s appropriate to freshen up a tad and use an unscented deodorant. Top of the list is public transport. After Paris Pride last year, I’d checked out of my hotel and wandered around the city in a heat wave until my late Eurostar train back to London. The very posh French lady sitting next to me made a big deal of sniffing loudly, giving me side-eye and moving to another seat. But fair dues, I was pretty ripe.”

When all is sniffed and done, where a smell sits on the sexy scale ultimately depends on the individual. As Ollie muses, Beauty is in the nose of the beholder.”


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