The Man Who Did Not Sweat

In an effort to prove that he did not sexually assault a 17-year-old in the 1990s, Prince Andrew offered a bizarre medical explanation.

Prince Andrew
Toby Melville / Reuters

Updated at 9:37 p.m. ET on November 18, 2019.

Prince Andrew, Duke of York, had a long friendship with the deceased sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and his girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell. Over the course of a decade, he stayed at their homes in New York and Palm Beach, traveled on Epstein’s private jet, and partied with the pair. According to Virginia Roberts Giuffre, the prince was also involved in Epstein’s crimes. Giuffre has alleged that Epstein and Maxwell forced her to have sex with Prince Andrew multiple times, beginning when she was 17.

Buckingham Palace has issued statements denying the allegations. But the prince had not spoken for himself until Saturday, when the BBC’s Emily Maitlis interviewed him in the State Room of the palace. In among the oddest details to focus on challenging, Prince Andrew contested Giuffre’s claim that, while she and the prince were allegedly dancing at a London nightclub, he was sweaty.

Emily Maitlis: She was very specific about that night. She described dancing with you.

Prince Andrew: No.

Maitlis: And you profusely sweating, and that she went on to have a bath possibly.

Andrew: There’s a slight problem with the sweating, because I have a peculiar medical condition, which is that I don’t sweat, or I didn’t sweat at the time, and that was—was it—yes, I didn’t sweat at the time—

In case the dubiousness of this claim is not already evident from its context, nested in a sea of dubious claims: This is a dubious claim.

There are people who cannot sweat, or who sweat very little. The Times notes that Andrew’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II, has been known to appear not sweaty in hot circumstances. Such a propensity to appear cool and collected while everyone else is flushed and damp has been attributed to the enviably high-status throughout history, but the medical condition of not producing sweat, anhidrosis, is extremely undesirable. The function is vitally important as a way to cool the body and prevent heat stroke. Covering the skin in liquid makes it able to transmit heat into the adjacent air much more rapidly than when it’s dry, as is noticeable to anyone who’s gotten out of a pool and found no towel.

Nerve damage or burns can cause a person to lose the ability to sweat in part of her body. The effect is similar to the temporary action of antiperspirants. But to have no ability to sweat from any part of one’s body is a sign of significant dysfunction of the nervous system—a rare genetic condition.

Though anhidrosis can be genetic, the queen is not known to have any such condition. Either way, anhidrosis is not consistent with the account Prince Andrew gave during the interview: “Because I had suffered what I would describe as an overdose of adrenaline in the Falklands War when I was shot at, and I simply—it was almost impossible for me to sweat. And it’s only because I have done a number of things in the recent past that I am starting to be able to do that again. So I’m afraid to say that there’s a medical condition that says that I didn’t do it.”

Anhidrosis is rarely temporary. The most charitably plausible explanation for the prince’s intended meaning is this: Adrenaline bursts can cause us to sweat. When the “fight or flight” response kicks in while thinking about public speaking, for example, many of us know this as a panic attack. People who become accustomed to working in high-pressure situations, such as on a battlefield, may develop a tolerance to the effects of adrenaline surges. A general sense of imperturbability could hypothetically translate into other high-pressure situations. After a deeply traumatic event, everything else can feel low-stakes. Or, at an extreme end, this is the phenomenon described in people known as sociopaths: A tendency to not worry or panic becomes an outright inability to do so.

Many of Prince Andrew’s assertions in the BBC interview are difficult to empirically challenge. For example, he said that a photo of him with Giuffre that evening could have been doctored because he wasn’t wearing a suit and has never been upstairs at Epstein’s house—and, for that matter, that he doesn’t “recollect that photograph ever being taken.” But the assertions do hint at Prince Andrew’s ease in a precarious position. As Maitlis put it in The Times this morning: “In person he is courteous, affable and eager to please. There is no question that he shies away from, no issue with which he refuses to engage.”

A temporary inability to sweat would defy medical precedent. A long-standing detachment from the consequences of one’s actions would not.