Sex, scents and pheromones

At L.A.'s hottest new party, singles hook up by sniffing slept-in T-shirts. Is it science or speed dating?

Published May 19, 2012 7:01PM (EDT)

  (Adam Kleifield/<a href=''>Snap Yourself!</a>)
(Adam Kleifield/Snap Yourself!)

Before leaving for the party, I almost forgot to pull my T-shirt out of the freezer.

A small white cotton T-shirt. I'd bought it four days earlier at Fashion for Eva on Sunset Boulevard, slept in it for three nights in a row, and stored it in a Ziploc bag in my freezer during the day. Those were the instructions for attending the pheromone party at the Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood -- part singles soirée, part science experiment, part hipster cornucopia.

Here's how it works: Participants imprint their odor on cotton T-shirts and then bring them to the party. Upon registering and shelling out $30, they place their shirts in plastic bags with numbered Post-its – pink for women, blue for men. The bags are placed on a table in the party area in the courtyard out back, where guests can leisurely (or voraciously, as was sometimes the case) sniff shirts in between trips to the bar for an absinthe cocktail. When you find a shirt you like, you stand in line to get your picture taken with the prized numbered shirt. The photographs are projected on a slideshow throughout the night at the bar and on the big screen inside the movie theater.

When you spot the man or woman of your dreams holding up your  T-shirt and smiling for the camera, you can find them in the crowd and strike up a conversation.

Judith Prays, the 25-year-old filmmaker and rapper who launched the first pheromone party in New York City, conceived of the event as a new twist on speed dating, with pop science thrown in. The idea is that if a T-shirt's odor arouses you, you'll be sexually (and maybe emotionally?) compatible with its wearer. But they have to find you attractive based on looks -- and come find you. And maybe when you meet them, you'll find you were horribly mistaken; their shirt smelled heavenly, but in person they remind you of Strong Bad's alter ego. It's been described as half underwear fetish party, half "It’s Just Lunch!” I'd say it's a little more like "The Lion King" meets "Elimidate."

To my disappointment, only three men posed with my shirt. This, even in a party whose gender balance tipped copiously, wonderfully, toward male. The law of numbers says I should have had better luck with all those dudes milling around. But it was certainly validating to look at the slide show and see those guys holding up my T-shirt in a bag and smiling. For a moment, I thought, “Yes! It's official! I have been deemed attractive to the opposite sex! Science has proven it.”

But I was not nearly as popular as No. 134.

“I want to find out who she is! I've seen at least six guys pose with her shirt!” I said to a few of the ladies around me as we took turns stuffing our noses into the Ziploc bags.

“She has got to be ovulating!” a black-haired woman declared.

When I asked the women what they found attractive about their desired shirts, they seemed frustrated that all of them just smelled like laundry. The black-haired woman noted, “But you can tell which guys cook. We nicknamed one of the bags Dirty Pasta. And this one smells like Splash Mountain!”

While most people waited in the increasingly long line for photos, clutching their favorite shirts to their chests, one man posed empty-handed and flashed a cocky smile to the camera.

“This doesn't work for women towards men!” he fumed theatrically. “It's men who are attracted to the pheromones of an ovulating female. Women are attracted to visuals, so I'm just posing by myself so all the girls can see how hot I am.”

“You are pretty hot,” I interjected. My flirt mechanism only has one setting: Forward.

“Don't encourage me! Don't call me hot if I'm bragging about it. What's the matter with you?”

I went into this party wondering what kind of guys I'd be attracted to just on the basis of pheromone smell. Could I clear away all the flotsam in my heart – the fetishes for big noses and curly hair that I've had since high school, or my habit of falling for cocky artists and writers? What if I could reset and recalibrate my attraction patterns and strip them down to pure physical science? It would be like a blind taste test for coffee. Without being preconditioned for brand recognition, I'd be able to go only on what my senses were telling me. Maybe I'd find that my animal instincts really wanted a broomstick-thin MGMT fan with a pedo mustache. Maybe all this time my heart's been searching for a  Norwegian, a massive wall of a man, instead of the compact, kind-eyed Jewish boys I always (always!) fall in love with.

But as I jostled through the pack of absinthe-soaked singles and made my way, time and again, to the shirt-sniffing table, it became hard to disentangle the physical from the mental and emotional. I didn't know what I was looking for, err, smelling for, as I opened random bags taped with blue numbered Post-it notes. Some bags smelled clean and almost floral. Others smelled like plastic. Others, like cotton. The aromas ranged from pungent to sweet, sweaty to metallic to chemical, spicy to yeasty. But none of my judgments on which bags smelled pleasant were based on smell alone. Did I like this shirt because its delicate pheromones were sending signals to my adrenal system? Or was it the sweet scent of Downy April Fresh that reminded me of the lazy Saturday mornings of my childhood? Was my norepinephrine working the magic here, or was it just my limbic-based memory? Cartesian duality, don't fail me now! And then there was the bag whose scent gave me a twinge of nostalgia for an old flame. Should I pick it up because I'd been attracted to him? Or should I put it down because it didn't work out? And was I actually getting excited about specific pheromones here, or only the generic and intoxicating odor of organic cotton mingling with male sweat, which I'd been physically primed and socially conditioned to feel thrilled by ever since girlhood?

I spotted a cute guy who had posed with my shirt and tapped him on the shoulder. He was skinny and wore a flannel shirt. “Hi,” I said. “I saw you holding my shirt. I'm Lauren. I'm No. 630.”

“Oh wow, you're No. 630? You were a hit with my whole group of friends. Yeah, everyone at our table liked you. Hey, John!” he said, calling his friend over. “This is No. 630.”

“Hi, I'm Lauren,” I said, offering my hand.

“You're No. 630?! Oh cool!”

I felt like a celebrity. I asked the guys what it was exactly that had made my shirt a such a hit. Out of writer's curiosity of course.

“It smelled like girl,” they chorused.

“Well,” elaborated my flannel suitor, “It smelled like waking up in the morning, you know, comfortable, but excited too ... and roses.”

“So ... what does it mean that you liked my shirt? Like, when you sniff these shirts, what are you looking for? And what do you conclude when you find one that you like?”

“Well, it means, on some level, I want to have sex with you.”

Best pickup line ever? Or bestest pickup line ever?

“So here's a question for you,” he continued. “Why did you come over to me when you saw me holding your shirt?”

“Oh. Well, I thought you were cute.”

The guy explained that he was a scientist who studied primates, so he knew what was behind this whole pheromone business.

“It's all about health and immunity,” he explained. “Your pheromones are attracted to mine because we have compatible immunities. For instance, maybe my ancestors were immune to the black plague. And yours were immune to malaria.”

“So our children will be super-immune!” Yes. Let's reproduce right now and travel to India and medieval Europe all we want!

“I'm going to do an experiment with you,” he said. He then picked out three shirts from the table, one of which was his, and invited me to smell all three and tell him which one I liked the best. If I really did find him attractive, I would easily pick his shirt out of the lineup. I sat on a bench beneath the twinkly lights and sniffed each bag. One smelled like nothing. One smelled a little medicinal. “Ugh, this one is rank,” I said, sniffing the third bag. Bad move. It was his. I failed the shell game. I was Goldilocks in reverse. The third shirt was just ripe.

To be fair, the guy hadn't followed the rules at all. Having just learned about the party an hour before it started, he'd flipped a U-turn on Fairfax, whipped off his undershirt, and stuffed it in a bag upon arriving at the Silent Movie Theatre. It didn't smell like three nights of faint, showered, body odor. It smelled like a locker room.

He tried to think of an explanation for why I would find his face attractive but not his sweaty T-shirt. “Maybe you're out of sync with your pheromones,” he offered.

I wasn't banking on finding true love at the pheromone party, even though people reportedly hooked up in droves and began long-term relationships at the inaugural pheromone party in New York City. But I was intrigued by the idea that we can reduce our desires to their basest level. Many of us have heard of the experiment where women are asked to smell a lineup of white cotton shirts, and then it turns out that the shirts they found the most pleasing belonged to the men they found the most handsome, with the most symmetrical faces. Maybe women are attracted to strong jawlines and symmetrical faces because we're still susceptible to all the evolutionary cues that tell us, “I will father strong, resilient babies with you, and then I will help you take care of them.” Maybe men are attracted to the scent of a woman with robust ovaries who will produce dozens of offspring that carry their genetic code. Maybe on some level, we women are just acting in an updated play that our cavewomen ancestors performed. We might think we want a funny, sensitive guy who likes Lisa Cholodenko movies, cooks Thai food and reads the Rumpus, but what we really want is nothing more than a muscular display of an excellent Y chromosome.

This scenario could certainly make the dating slog easier – just marry whoever smells the best! But it leaves entire swaths of humanity out of the equation. It erases all sorts of sexual orientations, fetishes, non-normalized gender identities, disabilities, races, and histories both personal and cultural. Aside from the fact that most of what we've been taught about “how we were in caveman times” is based on racialized and gendered mythology, the fact is, we are not just cellphone-toting incarnations of our ape ancestors. We aren't born with preloaded instincts to hunt, gather and sleep together exactly as we did in the Stone Age. We are born with brains primed to learn and adapt to social patterns with lightning speed. Which means that what we find attractive, and how we categorize our objects of desire, are not based on a template unaltered from our paleolithic past, but on what we absorb, engage with, and construct, and what is constructed for us. This is not to say that our drives are purely cultural – we have hormones too. But culture is not like clothing. You can't strip it off to reveal the “true” drives underneath.

Of course, heteronormative evolutionary psych propaganda is not exactly what the pheromone party people have in mind. Participants are, after all, encouraged to sniff pink bags and blue bags – “It's OK to experiment!” said the chalkboard above the T-shirt table. It certainly would have been edgier and made for a more transgressive evening if the bags weren't gender-coded at all. Of course, no rule said you could flirt only with those who posed with your shirt-sniffed armpits, before running off into the biological determinist sunset to raise strapping caveman babies and hunt mastodon.

And at the end of the day, it was a courtyard full of single people. The air was buzzing with puckish promise, setup or no setup. Of course, introducing yourself as the mystery girl from Bag No. 630 makes for a great icebreaker. But I also managed to have some engaging conversations with a fellow East Coast transplant while waiting at the bar. We traded teenage nostalgia stories about the hippie crystal thrift stores in Newark, Del. I also met writers, filmmakers and the guy wearing a fez. I'd chalk this up to my ineffable charm and gregariousness, but when I spotted a gentleman I found particularly handsome (the arrogant theatrical one from earlier), my smooth introduction was, “Hi!” as he rushed by me with a clear look of disinterest. Sigh. Maybe I should have worn perfume.

By Lauren Eggert-Crowe

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