Sniff me hard, babe

Do bottled sex pheromones work?


Mary Roach
August 27, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Scientists who study sex-attractant pheromones are rarely left wanting for cocktail party conversation. They get to drop lines like "So we smeared synthesized rhesus monkey copulins on the chests of 62 married women to see how their husbands would react," and "You can get a male hamster to mount a clay model of a hamster if you treat it with vaginal secretions."

Eventually, at one of those cocktail parties, someone is bound to say, "You know, you'd be a millionaire if you bottled that stuff and sold it for a hundred bucks a pop."

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This is pretty much what happened to Winnifred B. Cutler. Cutler has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She did post-doctoral work at Stanford and worked for years with pheromone experts at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. These days, she's a millionaire with ads in the back of Esquire that say, "INCREASE your SEX APPEAL," "unscented cologne aftershave additive FOR MEN," "Please send me ____ vials of 10X for men @ 99.50." Cutler also makes a pheromone perfume additive for women, a bottle of which is sitting on my desk. But before we get to that, a little background.

Human pheromones do exist and, in fact, Cutler was involved in their discovery. In 1986, she and Monell researcher George Preti published a paper showing that extract from male underarms has a regulating effect on women's menstrual cycles. The suspect was androstenone, a substance that happens to function as a sex pheromone in wild pigs, as the active ingredient. In boars, a whiff of androstenone causes the female to, as they say, assume the position. Male boars are apparently chock-a-block with sex pheromone. "Rubbing either the male's urine or the male's seminal fluid on the female's snout was similarly effective," wrote Cutler in a recent review paper. Extrapolating to humans presents a puzzling scenario, however, as seminal fluid on a snout suggests the conclusion of a sexual activity, rather than the beginning. In other words, you would be eliciting the mating stance at a time when it can be of no use other than to get the female up and perhaps out of bed to fetch a snack.

Regardless, researchers over the years have been unable to resist testing androstenone on unwitting women and men. In one study, androstenone smeared on the door of a restroom stall caused men to avoid that stall (the "male repulsion effect"), suggesting that the pheromone might function as a territory marker. Around the same time, researchers in England doused a dental office waiting room chair with an aerosolized androstenone product called Boar Mate to see if women would be attracted to that seat. Significantly more women used the seat when it was treated. I asked Cutler's Monell co-author, George Preti, what it all means -- if I look like a dental waiting-room chair, I'll be more attractive to women?

Preti believes neither study was properly controlled. In the first study, for example, the researchers would have had to spray another toilet stall door with something that smells exactly the same as androstenone but isn't a pheromone, to preclude the possibility that the repelled men were simply reacting to the smell of the substance, not its efficacy as a chemical communicator.

What, then, led Cutler to believe that human pheromones might work as sex attractants? She told me that in the course of one study -- a study co-authored with George Preti -- she noticed that women with female armpit secretions applied to their upper lips experienced an increase in their level of sexual activity. This led her to surmise that something in the armpit secretions was perhaps acting as an attractant on the men in these women's lives.

"That's one of the things we parted company over," says Preti. "There was no proof to suggest the effects she was talking about." Cutler went ahead anyway and cooked up a synthesized pheromone, the very same one that she now sells at $600 an ounce. She tested it on a small group of men who added it to their aftershave or cologne and kept track of how often they were dating and having sex. She reports in the February 1998 Archives of Sexual Behavior that significantly more pheromone than placebo users reported having sex more often while using 10X. Preti and others published a critique in the following issue, questioning Cutler's statistics and methodology. (Not to mention the eyebrow-raising nature of a clinical trial of a product being conducted by that product's creator and marketer. It would be akin to the makers of Boar Mate sponsoring the waiting room chair study, and God knows the makers of Boar Mate might be tempted to find new uses -- nay, any use -- for aerosolized wild pig sex pheromone.)

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For my part, I was impressed with Cutler's product. For if there exists a substance that can counteract the repellent effects of cologne or aftershave, it is powerful stuff indeed. And I do not speak from personal taste alone. In a study conducted by Al Hirsch, director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, the smell of men's cologne reduced vaginal blood flow by 1 percent. (The smell that most aroused the female subjects, by the way, was a mixture of Good & Plenty candy and cucumber, which caused an average increase in vaginal blood flow of 13 percent. Whether the size of the cucumber made a difference was not mentioned.)

I bought a vial of Cutler's 10-13 Athena Pheromone -- this one's for women -- and tried it out for a week. I didn't notice my husband behaving any differently, or any of the men I work around. I did notice that on the first day, strangers I encountered seemed to be looking at me more than usual, and then I realized that I was looking so hard for a reaction in them that I was making more eye contact than usual and that they, in turn, were making more eye contact with me, though no one engaged me in conversation or seemed to want to use my toilet stall, if you know what I mean.

I don't doubt that some people have had success with Cutler's pheromones. In my opinion, if you believe that something makes you more attractive -- be that something Pheromone 10-13 or Chanel No. 5 or Boar Mate -- then you will be more attractive. (Interesting footnote: Of all the aromas to which Al Hirsch exposed his male subjects, every one caused an increase in penile blood flow.) I just don't -- in the case of my bottle of pheromones -- happen to believe. Pheromones have, however, made me much more interesting to talk to at cocktail parties, and that is good enough for me.


Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

MORE FROM Mary Roach

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