Sniffing Out A Date: What’s It Like At A Pheromone Party?
The Debrief: Wear a t-shirt for three nights, get it good and sweaty, ask a room full of women to smell it. What can go wrong?
I’m in a crowded bar in Hackney watching a group of women smell my T-shirt. The first girl takes a whiff, curls out her lower lip and raises her eyebrows. Is that a slight grimace? Or a face of intrigue? She takes another, deeper sniff this time, and immediately wafts her hand in front of her face as though she’s trying to stop a bus from backing into her. It’s a grimace.
She hands my kangaroo print tee over to a friend – a petit girl with an asymmetric bob and kind, welcoming eyes. ‘Ewww,’ her friend says, tossing my garment back on the table like a bag of dog shit. This is not going well.
When I first heard that Europe’s inaugural Pheromone Party was happening in London, I knew I had to go. Actually, that’s not entirely true. When I first heard about the pheromone parties, I lifted my t-shirt up to my face and took a lungful of my scent before trying to work out if I was turned on by my own smell. It got weird.
Pheromone parties are a big deal in LA, where they’ve been a mainstay fixture on the singles scene since 2010. Originally conceived by Judith Prays, who ‘noticed online dating was consistently leading to short lived relationships’, the parties are modelled on the sweaty T-shirt experiment first conducted in 1996 by Swiss biologist Claus Wedekind.
Wedekind asked a group of male students to wear the same T-shirt to bed for two nights. He then asked a group of female students to smell the T-shirts and mark which ones they found attractive. Wedekind discovered that the female students were attracted to the men who smelt different from them.
After spitballing a few ideas with fellow singles, Prays ‘ended up landing on smell as a winning indicator’ and pondered the idea of choosing potential dates based on smell. Thus pheromone parties were born.
The idea is simple enough: daters sleep in a T-shirt for three nights to capture their ‘odour print’; bring the T-shirt to the event in a zip-seal freezer bag; sniff other people’s T-shirts (marked with a pink or blue Post-it note for females and males, respectively); find a smell they like and a potential match (indicated by a specific number); and get a photo taken with their chosen date-pick, which is subsequently projected on the wall for all to see.
But what’s the science behind all this? I turned to Odette Toilette, a fragrance fanatic and expert on scents – and one of many side-shows at the party – for the answer.
‘“Pheromones” are pretty contentious – especially the idea that you can put on a pheromone scent and then be attacked by women. Not gonna happen. But we do know that humans emit some kind of chemo-signal that can be detected via someone’s body scent – and which can (also) be interpreted as attractive or bloody awful by a potential mate.’
So how do they work? ‘It has been found that those with a mutual strong-like of each other’s smell, have different immune system profiles. So if they have babies, they’ll be better able to fend off infection and disease. That’s the theory!’
From the sidelines, everyone seems oblivious of the science, but that doesn’t stop them from getting stuck in. The techniques of sniffing out a potential date vary wildly: some surreptitiously sniffing the opening of the zip-seal bags as though they’re trying to authenticate a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape; while others grab the whole garment and bury their faces in a sea of white cloth. An hour gone and it’s a feeding frenzy, an orgy of smells – and I want in!
36. Your number is up. I go for the top of the bag first, but all I smell is plastic and the IPA ale on my breath. I grab the T-shirt, yank it free and have a good sniff… but nada. I can’t smell anything and I don’t feel a thing. ‘It’s a washout,’ I think. ‘Another gimmick night to make money out of the throbbing population of single urbanites.’
I nonchalantly pick up number 64. Zip back the lock, pull out the white top, and take a sniff. OK. That’s weird. I get a kick. One of those tingling kicks you get that start in unflattering places and end up somewhere behind the eyes. My brain immediately creates a narrative – it’s a spring morning, I’m lying in bed, my face buried in the hollow of the shoulder of a faceless girl. I’m falling for the scent of a woman I don’t even know!
It’s photo time. I pose. Several times but it’s weird holding up a stranger’s pyjamas while seemingly having your mug shot taken. I’m worried I come across as a bit of a smug twat. Or a serial killer. When I see my shot projected on the wall, I’m relieved. Just a smug twat.
As the evening progresses, I must sniff about 60 or so tops (23, clean worktop; 57, action figure plastic; 92, cake mixture; 116, gravy) and have my photo taken with three (not the gravy one).
It’s an odd sensation, digging someone’s pheromones. It’s not something you expect to happen and when it does – in your day-to-day life – it’s usually by accident, reaching over your partner for a teaspoon or curled up together as the credits to Breaking Bad roll and you get a waft of ‘girl’ as she puts up her hair in a bun. It’s a carnal and private experience normally taking place in somebody else’s personal space – not smack bang in the middle of a pub.
As I grab a beer at the bar I bump into Judy Nadel, the UK organiser. ‘I wanted a night that was experimental and fun – something that’s not so intense,’ she tells me. ‘Having to smell strangers’ T-shirts takes people out their comfort zone and makes for a great ice breaker.’
She’s right. Sniffing someone’s pyjamas, perhaps unsurprisingly, feels incredibly intimate, but when presented like this – in a fun and frivolous environment – it really seems to work. There’s no pressure to even engage with the opposite sex like there is at, say, speed dating events, and as a result, people seem more easy-going and inclined to chat.
Around 10, people start to pair off. For some, you can see that the smell doesn’t live up to the face, but for most, they seem happy to chat and get to know someone new, if not entirely unfamiliar. I even catch one brazen chap offering to sell his new found friend a pair of his pants.
The night is drawing to a close and still no sign of my kangaroo print tee on the big screen. I start to shuffle about the place like a lost tramp. And then, out the corner of my eye I catch a photo up on the wall – a Cleopatra-lookalike is holding up my T-shirt! I try to hide my excitement, stopping myself just short of high-fiving the barman.
I catch sight of her in the crowd, neck the rest of my beer and make my way over. ‘Hi,’ I say. ‘You like my smell.’
The next Pheromones Party is on 15th July, at Stories on Broadway Market. Tickets here.
Follow Gareth on Twitter @garethmay
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