Picking a mate based on their pheromones might make for resilient offspring, but you have to create them first.
The author with the t-shirt she picked based on smell. Image: Tom Medwell
I am standing sniffing a bag of someone’s dirty laundry, in public, for all to see. Around me, 140 people frantically do the same. I am in the midst of a pheromone dating party: supposedly, science and dating combined. This is, apparently, the future of dating.
Pheromone dating is a trend that originated in LA and has recently hit the UK. This one takes place at the painfully cool Stories Bar in East London. The organiser, Judy Nadal, explains to me that it started through the desire to do something different, to bring people together with something fun and original to talk about. And original it certainly is.
The concept is simple: Bring along a slept-in T-shirt and quite literally hang out your dirty washing for all to see. Eager daters (70 men, 70 women) take it in turns to open the numbered bags and sniff the contents. If you find one that smells alluring, you hold it up for a cheerful snap which is then projected onto a screen. Then it’s a matter of casually waiting for the number on said bag to materialize in human form and reveal themselves to you.
The theory is that various animals are attracted to potentially viable partners by their smell, and the same may be true for humans. We subconsciously pick up on pheromones, chemicals secreted in sweat, which could affect our response to the person emitting them. Some studies suggest, for instance, that an attraction to someone's pheromones could indicate reproductive suitability (though quite what role, if any, pheromones play in human sexual attraction is controversial).
Image: Pheromone Parties
One idea holds that the body odours correspond to a person's set of genes called the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC), which plays a role in the immune system. Evolutionary theory suggests that finding a mate with a complementary immune system would increase offspring’s resilience and thus increase their chance of surviving.
Although the mechanism is not yet fully understood, the famous "t-shirt test" on which this night was based—and which was used in a 2002 study that investigated how attracted people were to t-shirts slept in by members of the opposite sex—did appear to suggest that males were attracted to the scent of females with a dissimilar and therefore complementary MHC. The results were, however, inconclusive for females. Interestingly, another study found that women taking the oral contraceptive pill actually chose males with a similar and therefore non complementary immune system. Highly disadvantageous!
Proven or otherwise, I'm into anything with some sort of science behind it, and so it was that I found myself creepily sniffing men’s shirts on a Tuesday evening. In any case, choosing a potential date based on actual chemistry seems a lot more reliable than an accidental left swipe when you meant right.
There are nevertheless some flaws in the system. I slyly put back my first pick when on closer inspection I realised it was sized XS. What can I say, I'm that shallow. And I was also rather confusingly approached by three different men all claiming to be man 112 (the owner of bag I was snapped with). I guess if we were playing by survival of the fittest, anything goes.
The author with one of her matches. Image: Tom Medwell
But it was fun; people happily sniffed and chatted away and a few cocktails down I was quite into the swing of it. That was until my number came up and I met the guy who had picked my shirt. Was he my dream man? Did I have a desperate desire to procreate with him? If I’m honest, far from it. He wasn't my type at all. I may have been able to give our offspring a wonderfully resilient immune system, but we’d have to create them first. I felt a bit betrayed by my own genes.
Still, maybe it's working for some; there were apparently 200 girls on the waiting list for this pheromone party.
As for me, I did finally locate the real man 112, and he turned out to be surprisingly good looking (my genes redeemed themselves at this point slightly). I even liked him more when he admitted he cheated by scenting his t-shirt with chocolate. However, things quickly took a downhill turn when he revealed he was 10 years my junior. He asked how young was too young, and if we’re speaking genetics I guess he had a point.
But when he then asked me if I really believed in the whole evolution, man from monkey thing… As someone with a background in evolutionary genetics, I realized perhaps it wasn't meant to be.