#1399: “My sex partner says I smell and wants me to be more diligent about hygiene. My friends say I smell fine. Is she gaslighting me?”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have been involved in a long distance situationship (intimate friends) for 3 years. She lives in Minnesota and I am in Missouri. We met once then became friends online and that is where it blossomed. I have visited her once and it was a very intimate and fun experience for both of us, although she did mention once or twice while I was there that she noticed my body order. I took care of it ASAP every time, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Anyway, we have been planning on another visit but she keeps bringing up the BO problem and has even said, “If it is as bad as last time, you have to get a hotel and can’t stay with me.” Which is confusing because we were very intimate last time and she didn’t seem to mind, she was enjoying herself quite a bit and said so for weeks afterwards.

Should I just take her advice and be super diligent about BO or is this emotional manipulation or gaslighting of some sort? My close friends tell me they never notice my body odor and I bathe once to twice daily and use deodorant every day as well as brush multiple times a day… Also, and here’s the dinger, she has untreated BPD.

Hello there, I kept thinking about your question, and I couldn’t figure out why at first, but then I realized it’s a perfect example of a request for an objective ruling about something that depends entirely on subjectivity. It’s what the advice column genre is made for, gaining outside perspective on a vulnerable and intimate situation, with a teensy bit of “Dear Captain Awkward, who is more right here (and why is it me)?” sprinkled in. Thank you for sending it, I’m going to do my best to help.

The way you’ve set up the problem, either you actually smell bad or it’s all in your friend’s head. But many things can be true at the same time: She had a great time *and* she likes you *and* she wants to see you again *and* she has a sensitive sense of smell and/or is particularly sensitive to something about *your* smell, so she would like your help mitigating so that next time you can have a better hot-sex-to-awkward-conversation ratio.

I certainly have no way of knowing whether your usual ablutions are sufficient unto the sexy day. And, respectfully, unless your friends routinely bring their faces within kissing distance of your naked b-hole, neither do they. Even we were all working from the same dataset, how people smell to each other is wildly subjective.Your friends and I could only tell you about how you smell to us, not to anyone else. In truth, I have heard tell of one earthly being who always smelled objectively great to everyone he met, and his name was Prince. In the 1990s I ate peanut butter sandwiches for a month so I could afford to see him play live. I couldn’t afford the front row where people might catch a whiff or feel droplets of Princely sweat land on them while he thrashed, wailed, writhed, and shredded for four hours straight (that was like, six months of PB&J, worth it in retrospect), but even from the cheap seats I could believe all the rumors that he smelled like angels fucking.

Then there’s the distressing fact that how we smell isn’t always consistent, either to others or to ourselves.. I can personally attest to the fact that aging and shifts in hormones, diet, health conditions, stress, etc. can drastically change how bodies react to familiar routines and products. One minute I was aging like fine wine, and the next I was aging like cheese, and not basic supermarket cheese sealed in plastic, I’m talking serious cheese, with funk levels a Parisian cheesemonger once calibrated by asking whether I would prefer un fromage comme le vagin, un fromage comme des pieds, or un fromage comme le mort[¹] and then had me taste a morsel from each category to determine just how much adventure I could tolerate. I think of that story every time I eat a fancy cheese that warrants a rating on the crotch-feet-death scale and also when the basic deodorant-antiperspirant combo I relied upon for decades proved no match for weapons-grade perimenopause sweats and I had to ransack the whole drugstore before something called “Bearglove” even made a dent. Whenever I apply it, it smells exactly like the soap-on-a-rope I used to get my dad for Father’s Day when I was a kid, and no, that’s not weird at all, just me and my septuagenarian dad-armpits over here keeping it sexy.

You mention independent smell assessments, the possibility of gaslighting and emotional manipulation, and toss out your friend’s mental health diagnosis all as if to say, are her perceptions about this even real? I wasn’t sure whether you intended “BPD” to stand for bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, but what do you know, I looked it up and there is some evidence[²] that *either* condition can heighten or alter olfactory responses, though olfactory hallucinations can have many other causes, including COVID-19.[³] So it’s possible that a smell can be in someone’s head, but that doesn’t mean the smeller isn’t “really” experiencing it.

It seems to me that whatever you’re emitting, whatever she is sensing, you’re not doing It with the Principle of Objective Truth, you’re having sex with one specific person, with her unique, subjective needs. So what do you win if you successfully “prove” her wrong about her own experiences and preferences? What’s the plan here? “Your concerns are noted, but I think I shower enough and my friends/people on the internet all say I smell fine, so quit being so crazy and do me.” Seductive! If that somehow sounds *easier* than booking a hotel room and taking more showers because the person you’re sleeping with asked you to, then that’s a problem where the solution is: 1) Find a dumpster 2) Get in.

Do you really and truly think she’s manipulating you? Has that been an issue in the past? Just like I can’t smell you, I don’t have your years of history with her, so if your gut is telling you something is not right here you should probably listen and apply the brakes accordingly. Nobody has to be gaslighting anybody for something to not be working, and either of you can put an end to the relationship at any time.

If you want to double-check your instincts, think back to your last visit and the times she asked you to take care of a smell. Did fulfilling her request make things better, at least in the immediate aftermath? From your letter, it sounds like it did:I took care of it ASAP every time, it didn’t seem like a big deal.”  She raised a problem, you solved it, you went back to having fun, there were no blow-ups or crises. Everybody still likes each other and wants to do the fun thing again, and seems to be able to talk openly about any concerns. That does not sound like a warning bell to me. Going forward, pay attention to what happens when you agree to or offer a reasonable solution to a problem she raises. When  bad faith actors get exactly what they say they want, they will shoot down every solution so they have more excuses to criticize and argue.

Assuming she isn’t gaslighting you into a perpetual argument, and assuming that ignoring her requests and pressuring her to comply anyway is not your plan (and it fucking better not be), then I must ask, what is the argument against acting on the consistent, actionable feedback she gave you? Why on earth would you not “take her advice and just be super-diligent about BO?” She’s been direct, so why not be just as direct? “Nobody’s ever had this kind of reaction to my powerful musk before, so I confess I’m not sure exactly what else to do. But I want to do whatever it takes to have a great time with you and ease your mind, and I want you to feel like you can tell me what you need.”

Fortunately, you already know at least two things you could try  that might make your friend look forward to the visit more.

1) Book a hotel, already. Since she’s mentioned a hotel more than once, maybe don’t wait for her to bring it up again or force the issue, and don’t look at it as a punishment or reluctant concession. If you make getting a hotel Plan A now, it’s a great way to show that you take her comfort seriously. “You mentioned a hotel a few times, and you know what, I think that’s a great idea, so I got a room at ________.”

Right now, there is this bird outside my window who chirps at the exact frequency and pitch of my alarm. The first morning it woke me up, it was a little bit annoying. Four days in, that bird makes me feel like a protagonist in an Edgar Allan Poe story. I’ll be wide awake in bed, or here at my desk working away, and realize I’ve been grinding my teeth in frustration in time to the tune of Cheep-cheepity-cheep? Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!  for the last hour. I promise I’m not going to invite the jaunty little asshole in for a tour of my special wine basement, but my point is, something that would normally be a small, passing annoyance intensifies with proximity and time.

It sounds like you both had years to build up a fantasy of what it would be like to be together in meatspace, and then you were together and it was both really great and, well…meatier…than it was in her head. Online friendship, even close, intimate friendship, is not the same as hosting someone in your space for multiple days. A hotel will give you the chance to balance intimacy with privacy and take a lot of pressure off of both of you.

2) Clean yourself right before sex as a matter of routine, even if you’ve already showered that day. That way everyone can relax and hopefully smell-chat can be limited to, “Here, let me wash up real quick.” It doesn’t have to be dramatic or a big deal if you just do it as a matter of course. And if you decide now that you’ll just do it every time, it won’t be hanging over you all the time.

Bodies are leaky and sex will inevitably get messy if you’re any good at it, which it sounds like you are. But now that you know your partner prefers starting with a clean slate, spending ten minutes to take a washcloth to the nooks and crannies doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request. If it helps, I’m pretty sure Prince would take the ten minutes. For a Minnesota girl who says exactly what she wants in bed? He’d take all the time in the world.


[1] Loosely, was I okay with stinky cheeses and if so did I want a cheese (that tastes or smells) like a vagina, like feet, or like death? I found the proffered samples delicious-amazing, delicious-good, and not for amateurs in that order. Team Vagina-Feet all the way.

[2] To read more about the science, see:

Hardy, Caitlin et al. “Olfactory acuity is associated with mood and function in a pilot study of stable bipolar disorder patients.” Bipolar disorders vol. 14,1 (2012): 109-17. doi:10.1111/j.1399-5618.2012.00986.x

Arrondo, Gonzalo et al. “Hedonic and disgust taste perception in borderline personality disorder and depression.” The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science vol. 207,1 (2015): 79-80. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.114.150433

[3] Phantosmia (Olfactory Hallucinations), The Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/24799-phantosmia, March 7, 2023