Is It Sex?

I’m in Houston, lecturing to the Houston Group Psychotherapy Society about “sexual narratives”—the vocabulary and stories with which our culture discusses sexuality, which patients and therapists inevitably use, too. Stories like “all men are hounds,” “I have a hot Italian temper,” “oral sex is for prostitutes,” or “I’m cursed with a small penis, so I can’t satisfy women.”

This morning, I talked about the place where I get my hair cut. You check in, then go into the changing room to remove and hang your blouse or shirt, and put on a smock. On a busy day, there might be six or seven garments on hangers in there. Many of them smell like their owners—some of them pretty nice. Not just the occasional perfume, but more often just the scent of a woman. Silk + woman. Cotton + woman. Made in China + woman.

In that little room, it’s intriguing to inhale a few times, then go out into the salon and speculate—which customer belongs to the cute black sleeveless top? Which one wears that white poly long-sleeved number with the sequins? Is the brunette the one who smells active yet clean, or is it the one with the perm?

None of them knows that a fellow customer enjoys their collective wardrobe, or thinks about who embodies which scent.

But it’s interesting to ask: Is the enterprise erotic or sexual? Is the activity sex? If not, why not? If so, could it be considered infidelity? If not, what about briefly touching one or another of these lived-in garments? What about imagining each of their owners putting on their chemises this morning?

I even showed the seminar attendees a photo I’d taken of the salon’s changing room, complete with blouses (and shirts) on hangers. Many attendees were fascinated—who talks about this? Who admits this? (“admits,” because it’s a vaguely disreputable thing to do, isn’t it?) How should a psychologist think about this—is it “normal,” “kinky,” a “fetish,” not even worth mentioning? Maybe too embarrassing for a therapist to contemplate?

But mostly they seemed appreciative, even relieved, that someone with fancy credentials and nice clothes (and a great haircut!) was even talking about something like enjoying the smell of other people’s clothes in a salon changing room. That’s reward enough for me—since these therapists will now be more welcoming of similar conversations with their clients. Maybe they won’t even have to use labels like “kinky” or “normal.”

After the morning session, one of the attendees approached me and smiled. “You talked about smelling the women’s clothes as erotic or sexual,” she said. “I think of it as sensual.”

“I totally agree,” I said, “depending on definitions. What’s the difference between sensual and erotic? Erotic and sexual?”

More importantly, what’s the difference between smelling a flower and smelling a woman’s white silk blouse? And why, in 21st-century America, does it matter so much?

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