Can you really track down love by sniffing strangers’ dirty clothes and choosing which whiff gets you going? Our dating expert Charly Lester sticks her nose in to find out
On Valentine’s Day this year, the website Useless Press announced ‘Smell Dating‘. News sites around the world went crazy, branding it ‘the world’s first smell dating app’, but the concept was actually a social experiment. More aptly dubbed the “first mail odor [sic] dating site” the project required 100 New Yorkers to take part. The concept itself was simple: pay $25 and receive a t-shirt. Wear that shirt for three days, without showering or using deodorant, perfume or aftershave. Post the t-shirt back to the organisers, and then receive ten more shirts belonging to other people. Sniff each t-shirt in turn, and then work out which one you are most attracted to.
Despite all the excitement, this isn’t a new concept. Pheromones – the chemical information we, and all animals, broadcast to our immediate environment – have long been understood to signal hormone levels, fertility, desire and sexual readiness. These molecular messengers are released in our sweat, saliva and urine. Our ability to perceive pheromones subconsciously is an important part of human survival. Even newborn babies can identify their mother’s breast milk thanks to pheromones.
When it comes to sexual attraction, pheromones can be powerful catalysts. A ‘good’ kiss or ‘bad’ kiss can be determined by the pheromones in the other person’s saliva, telling our body whether he or she is a viable mate. The perfume industry uses pheromone compounds in scents to ensure they appeal to the opposite sex. And most people can think of examples where they have been attracted to the natural smell of their partner.
In 2010 the artist Judith Prays came up with the concept of Pheromone Parties – singles parties where attendees bring t-shirts which they have slept in for the past three nights. The shirts are placed in numbered bags and attendees sniff those belonging to the opposite sex, before picking their favourite bag and having a photograph taken with it. These photos are broadcast during the party and people can seek out anyone who chooses their shirt and get chatting.
The idea has since spread all over the world, so to find out what was causing all the olfactory fuss, I attended one of the parties in London a few years ago. I found that one of the most interesting things was actually working out how people were ‘cheating’ the system; one guy had clearly wrapped his shirt around a bar of chocolate for three days, while other bags simply smelled of perfume or aftershave – unlikely scents for human pores to emit naturally.
A similar activity is also used as part of the Scientists for Love events in Montreal, which Collectively reported on late last year.
So, what’s new about Smell Dating? Interestingly, unlike most other romantic matching services, Useless Press is neither interested in daters’ sex nor sexual orientation, meaning that attendees have no idea if the t-shirts they receive belong to people of their preferred gender or orientation (if, by the way, the ratios of most dating events I’ve been to are anything to go with, I would suggest at least seven out of every ten t-shirts will belong to straight females).
“While I’m sure most of my female friends smell great, that doesn’t mean I want to have sex with them”
Suggesting that pheromone recognition is stronger than our own gender identification and perceived sexual preference is a bold move. It also requires us to accurately differentiate between finding a scent pleasant and finding it sexually arousing. While I’m sure most of my female friends smell great, that doesn’t mean I want to have sex with them.
Personally, my take on scent-matching is that even when you’re given gender-specific options, it’s not a reliable mechanism of partner choice. There are too many other factors that affect our physical and emotional attraction to a partner. However, I do believe it’s a clever physiological failsafe, designed to discourage us from unhealthy matches. So, next time you find yourself wrinkling your nose at the smell of someone else’s body odour, take a second to remind yourself it’s just your body’s clever way of telling you not to procreate with that person. Perhaps the nostrils are a far more effective window to the soul than the eyes will ever be.
Read more about Charly Lester’s adventures in dating on her blog, 30 Dates.