I walked into a party on a recent Thursday night, I was self-conscious
in a way I'd never been before: What if no one likes the way I smell?
summer in Washington, D.C., so no one smells all that great. But this
night was different from your average gathering of sweaty bodies. I was
about to enter a pheromone party, where strangers would be inhaling my
scent via a T-shirt I'd been wearing.
a fun if strange experiment. Singles are meeting in lots of odd ways
these days. Perhaps sampling each other's DNA the way you might go
wine-tasting makes more sense than swiping through photos on a dating
a lovely experience to not visually judge someone - to smell someone
before you see them," said Amy Morse, who organized the pheromone party
with Pakke, a new D.C. arts organization she co-founded.
parties have taken place in New York, London and Los Angeles and I've
long wanted to attend one. As soon as I'd signed up, instructions
arrived: I was to sleep in the same clean, white T-shirt for four nights
to capture my pheromones. Then I'd bring my shirt to the party, sealed
in a zip-top bag.
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are chemicals that mammals secrete from our cheeks, hands, neck, scalps,
armpits and other more intimate spots. Scientists have studied whether,
by sniffing someone's sweaty T-shirt (and the pheromones contained
therein), we might be able to detect a good genetic match. However, the
science of pheromone-based attraction is far from certain. Additionally,
hormonal birth control can disrupt a woman's scent and ability to sniff
out a partner.
was late in starting the experiment, so I wore my shirt for two nights
plus the day leading up to the party - meaning that I tainted my "odor
print," as it's called, with hints of deodorant, office aroma and
whatever is embedded in a bus seat. (I would later learn that most
people had deviated from the instructions in varying ways. We're humans,
not lab rats.)
inside, I pulled a number out of a basket (No. 1!), labeled my zip-top
bag accordingly and put it on a table with the other shirts. One of the
event's organizers took my Polaroid picture, which I placed on a wall
next to a Post-it note where I would mark the numbers of the shirts
whose scents I found pleasing.
aside, the room's odor print was overwhelming. One of the partygoers
who's a kombucha brewer was serving samples of a maca-cacao concoction
in mini-mason jars. (Both ingredients are aphrodisiacs, he told me.)
Another had a large group queuing up for her gin cocktail with Icelandic
black lava salt on the glass's rim and garnished with a sage leaf, which
she would slap loudly to release its oils before placing it your drink.
Oh, and give her the wrist of your drinking hand, so she can swab a line
of lavender oil to reduce nervous tension and enhance blood circulation.
you've lived in Washington long enough, any gathering of young
professionals can feel like walking into your neighborhood bar. I ran
into several people I know but have not sniffed up close: a guy friend
I've known since our teens; a first date from years ago; a friend's ex
who's wandering around with his shirt off (he spilled salsa on it, he
says); and a guy who recognized me from the week prior when I was
drinking alone after getting stood up for a first date. "I didn't bring
a T-shirt," this last man says before reading his poetry to the crowd of
20- to 40-somethings, "but you can come smell me."
right, partygoers were also encouraged to inhale pheromones straight
from the source. A projection screen lowered and Sadaf Lotfalian, a
clinical psychologist in training, gave a lecture on the science of
pheromones and instructed us to ask for consent before going up to
someone and sniffing behind their ears.
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told us she once broke up with someone because she didn't like his
scent. Later, she told me that this man "seemed perfect on paper," and
emotionally, they "connected very deeply." But that smell ... and it
wasn't a hygiene issue. "He's very popular among the ladies, so I felt
kind of isolated in how repelled I was," she recalled. When she sampled
the T-shirts, most of them smelled neutral to her, she said. The aromas
she was drawn to sparked feelings of comfort and familiarity, while a
few others "felt a little distant or unsafe."
did meet one man whose aroma she inhaled directly. "Our connection was
instant," she said, and not based on scent alone. They ended up in a
deep conversation about why Lotfalian sometimes shies away from love and
her fears around it. They've seen each other three times since the
I looked at my own sniffing notes from the T-shirts - cotton and
cigarettes; chocolate; BO; lavender; summer camp; Doritos - I realized I
paid more attention to what a shirt smelled like than how that aroma
made me feel. Another partygoer wrote that his favorites smelled like
"pottery class," "at the club!" and "Jolly Ranchers." Even so, other
than the body odor, those smells often were hard to recognize and
articulate. I realized that what we smell often takes a back seat to
whatever we're seeing or hearing, and the gathering was a bit of sensory
overload. It is exhausting to be tuned in to all your senses
concurrently. And also awakening.
feel "so visceral and subconscious," Morse said to me the day after the
party. Smelling someone - by their ear or their face - is one of the
first things she does when she's getting close to a new romantic
"a different take on mating," she said of the pheromone party. She's
over the bar scene and is trying to find new ways to meet people. "The
way in which we choose mates right now is haphazard. Choosing someone
based on whether they're successful or tall? That seems ridiculous. Why
is it more ridiculous based on the way they smell?"
than seek out the men whose smells I liked (some were pleasing but none
were incredibly intoxicating to me), I was more interested in finding
the ones who'd marked down my number. I located one, tapped him on the
shoulder and announced myself as No. 1.
1? I love No. 1!" he replied. There was only one other shirt aside from
mine, he said, that made him think: Yes, this one. This scent.
strangers' shirts reminded him of being curled up with a lover in bed
the next morning after a night spent together, once any artificial
scents had faded. "That's what these shirts reminded me of - that raw
sense of a person," he said.
bad he already had someone to share those intimate moments with: My most
enthusiastic scent-mate has a girlfriend.
does he like the way she smells?, I asked.
really," he replied. "Yesterday she had so much perfume on that I
sneezed when she got in the car."
wonder if that night nudged him to suggest she sport her eau de naturale