I have come, as the rest of them have, to smell the shirts. It is, admittedly, a bizarre thing: I’d slept in a white T-shirt for a few nights, put it in a Ziploc bag and handed it off to three smiling women sitting at an entry table inside the Bootleg theater in the heart of hip east Los Angeles. But such are the rules at pheromone parties.
The latest dating craze to hit the US, it’s based on the idea that the perfect mate can be detected not through personality surveys or matchmakers but by smelling the pheromones – or biochemicals – on their shirts.
I first heard about these parties from my friend Rex last winter when I was visiting New York. I’m convinced that everyone has a friend like Rex: he’s the one who’s always the first to hear of anything, especially if it’s bizarre and has some connection to the internet. (The internet connection, in this case, is that photos of guests holding the shirts they most liked appear online the day after each event and shirt owners are encouraged to get in touch.) When Rex mentioned these parties, his closest friends, including me, laughed at the ludicrousness of people actually believing that something as disgusting as smelling one another’s clothes could result in romance. After we finished laughing, I asked when the next party was.
When it comes to dating, I’m a willing guinea pig. During my journalism career I’ve done everything from speed dating to dog walking, even bringing a ‘conversation starting’ towel out to the beach, all in the name of meeting men. In reality, I’m quite happy being single and actually believe that romance happens when you’re not looking for it. My main interest, frankly, is in having an experience I wouldn’t get otherwise. If I had to pick a motto, ‘Will do anything for the story’ would certainly be a primary contender.
So I didn’t exactly walk into the Bootleg actually thinking I might fall in love—or even lust. But I do anticipate a fun crowd. As a 34-year-old male partygoer says to me early on in the evening, ‘You have to be somewhat bold to wear a T-shirt for three nights, bring it in here and then have other people smell it.’
It only takes a minute to figure out how the event works: upon entry, we each hand over our slept-in shirts, which are given individual numbers and then laid out on a table in the main room.
We are then let loose to sniff and mingle. Whenever you find a shirt you like the smell of, you have your picture taken with the bag containing it. This picture is then projected onto the wall so that shirt owners can introduce themselves to their fans if they feel like it.
The Bootleg crowd appear to be primarily 20- and 30-something hipsters; the majority of the guys seem to be wearing glasses, along with creative facial hair and button-down check shirts, while the women are mostly sundress-clad. They also appeared to be a bit shy.
I’d already sniffed my own shirt and determined that, even after three nights of slumber, it still smelt far more like washing powder than anything unpleasant. I’m along the first to march up to the table and sample one of the other garments.
‘Well? How is it?’ asks a bespectacled young man wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that reads I’m The Jew Mel Gibson Warned You About.
I sniff again. ‘It smells,’ I say definitively, ‘like nothing.’
It is, alas, true. If a man’s pheromones re on it, they smell like a distinct combination of cotton, detergent and plastic bag. I hold the shirt out to my bespectacled friend, whose name is Will. He gives it a sniff. ‘Like nothing,’ he confirms.
Soon enough, other people start smelling. I also discover that not all the shirts are as unscented as my first selection. Some smell downright fishy—literally. Or like odd combinations of fishiness and general body odor. It occurs to me that I’ve really only liked a man’s smell when I’ve already liked him.
Other party guests seem optimistic about what the night might bring. ‘Anyone who would come to a party like this thinks outside of the box,’ observes Tara, 26. But, she adds, ‘I think pheromones are somewhat subconscious. You don’t really notice when you’re smelling them—you just have a connection with somebody.’
The pheromone party concept is the brainchild of Atlanta website developer Judith Prays. She came up with the idea after realizing that she had been ‘obsessed’ with the smell of an ex-boyfriend. ‘The inspiration was personal experience but it’s backed by science,’ she says. ‘Pheromones are the chemical triggers of sexual attraction in mammals; if you are attracted to someone’s pheromones, it is an indicator that you two will have healthy offspring.’
Prays’ first pheromone party, which took place in Brooklyn, New York, involved 40 people, 12 of whom hooked up. The second event, in LA in April this year, attracted 120 guests. I am here for party number four.
Sadly, during the night, I can’t find one shirt that smells any better than another. Then, suddenly, my shirt attracts an admirer. A photo of a man – a pale, brown-haired, brown-eyed guy with a day’s beard growth – clutching a plastic bag marked with my number, 52, flashes up on the screen.
I find him in the crowd, learn that his name is Jon and that he is a 29-year-old installation artist. Why had he picked my shirt?
‘Well, it was a little sweet,’ he answers. ‘It also smelt a bit like my friend’s house growing up. Your shirt had a very homey smell.’ I am quite flattered.
Jon is, in the end, my shirt’s only fan. But other participants have more complicated situations. When three University of California graduates, Nicole, Jessica and Angela, decide they like the same shirt, this seems to entirely befuddle its owner, 23-year-old file law clerk Luke. ‘Seeing the picture with all three of them holding my shirt displayed on the wall was pretty shocking,’ he admits as the three petite brunettes surround him. He lowers his voice. ‘I don’t really know what to do now.’
Whether unions are being made because people like the smell of each other’s shirts or because the idea behind the party attracted an adventurous crowd, unions are definitely being made. As Justin Timberlake’s ‘Sexy Back’ pumps in the background, guys and girls laugh and flirt over beers and Red Bulls.
Still, some questions remained unanswered. Not only is there no definitive decision on the effectiveness of pheromones as an attraction predictor, but also some guests never actually reveal themselves. ‘I think everyone agreed that number 69 smelt the best but no number 69 introduced herself to anyone,’ Will told me near the end of the party. (He swears his fixation with that shirt has nothing to do with the sexual innuendo of the number and I will attest to the fact that it smelt, rather delightfully, like cotton candy mixed with scented candles.) ‘I’m thinking that shirt might have been a plant—a dummy shirt,’ Will concludes. ‘Because if we’re talking about something smelling good, that was the Holy Grail.’