Sniff your way to love (or at least a date)
Forget Tinder, can you pull without the help of technology and on sheer smell alone?
Well, according to organisers of Australasia's first pheromone party you can: this hot dating trend in the UK and US debuted at Auckland's 1885 bar last night.
The process is simple. You wear a shirt to bed for three nights in a row, seal it in a zip-lock bag to capture your natural aroma and at the party toss it on either the male or female table.
Then you start sniffing.
For the 100-or-so people at New Zealand's first pheromone party, the scene is a dimly-lit room, with candles and bowls of "sense cleansing" coffee beans. A person dressed as a giant nose mingles with the crowd - though people are murmuring that it looks like another, less appropriate, body part.
The bags are on tables. Some approach the bags tentatively, inhaling slightly. Others shove the plastic into their faces, taking it all in. The eager ones take the shirts out; give them a good stroke and a hearty huff. One lady warns me of a wet shirt down the end of the male table. Ew.
When you find one that takes your sensory fancy, you get snapped holding it, with the assigned number facing the camera. No one knows what number you are (I'm 71) so there isn't any pressure to interact. The pictures are then loaded onto a big screen so you can see who digs your scent and decide if you want to approach them.
It sounds bizarre but science backs it up (well, one experiment). In 1995 a scientist (Claus Wedekind) asked female college students to sniff shirts that had been worn by males for two nights without deodorant or soap. The students then rated them on the attractiveness of each scent.
As it turned out, they all preferred men with different MHC genes (related to disease resistance) to their own. Our noses can predict the health of our babies and, if we fully trust this experiment, two pheromone matches will make for some offspring with super immune systems. Building on this idea, Brooklyn-based artist Judith Prays created the concept of pheromone parties in 2010.
But, science and history aside, what actually happens once fully grown, fully boozed adults start sniffing shirts?
My unsuspecting wing-woman for the night is a friend, Kathleen.
After being assigned our numbers we add our bags to the pile of dirty shirts (some crumpled, some folded, one vacuum-sealed) and bee-line to the walls to get a look at our potential suitors.
The MC announces that the smelling can now start and people quickly walk over. A young woman named Holly is next to me and we get sniffing. She's here for a fun night out.
Already one shirt is creating a stir: number 111. His number keeps popping up on the screen. We ask one another: "Have you met 111 in person? Have you smelt his shirt?"
Every time I go to smell it, it's not on the table as it's always being held up for a photo. When I finally get a whiff it smells like powder with a scent I associate with manliness (no one can describe what makes a smell "manly" but we concede there's a hint of BO).
Holly quickly finds the mystery man and waves me over. He's bewildered by all the attention, "Yes, I'm number 111," he says wearily.
Why does he smell so great? Was there cheating?
"I didn't cheat... but in the mornings I have work so I do spray myself before I go to bed," he trailed off. Pathetic.
A girl nearby says, "I'm looking for the guys that obviously haven't cheated - shirts that smell like a real person. Because if they are going to use tricks before you've even gone on a date then they are probably going to be liars and bad in a relationship."
Neither my number nor Kathleen's has come up on screen. We decide to check out the competition over at the women's table and quickly realise how straight-orientated the event is - people are confused why women would want to sniff other women's stinky shirts. Later the event manager says gay-friendly parties are in the pipeline.
At the women's table the shirts all smell flowery and musky - perfume. We are scandalised.
Kathleen folds under the pressure and spritzes some perfume on her shirt: "I took the garbage out in it and did chores. I didn't realise people would be putting perfume on the shirts."
At this party, traditional quirks that usually might let me down (messy hair, nervous giggles, terrible puns) play second fiddle to pure physical science.
Could my attraction to arrogant writers and soulful musicians suddenly clear? Would my brain reset and get rid of all these built-up ideas of what kind of "type" I had and bring it down to the unfiltered whiff of biology. Like a blind-folded food test I couldn't judge on brand or looks but on what a single sense alone tells me.
There is something heartbreakingly vulnerable about putting your smell on the line. On a date you can wear make-up, act confident and hide your real personality, but having people sniff what is basically your pyjamas is intimate - an activity usually left for post-sex cuddles.
The point of pheromone dating is to cut the whole superficial element of courting, but is it really that deep?
Instead we all find new ways to judge our lovers-to-be, we become defensive, trying to explain why our numbers haven't popped up on the screen - the other women must have worn perfume, soaked their shirt in rose petals, sacrificed their hearts to Venus. The other men must have washed their shirt beforehand.
I get picked twice - sort of. The first man is significantly older than me and, to be honest, looks a bit weird. He'd previously asked me "how is the smell?" when I was hiding by the door at the start of the night.
My other match hasn't actually smelt me but flirts the old-fashioned way: at a bar over some vodka shots. He pulls out 10 photos of him posing with various numbers. His name is Billy, he's 21-years-old and a teacher and he has game - clearly going for a lucky-gamble approach.
"So what number are you?" he asks.
I decide to get an honest opinion; I'm starting to feel sorry for past boyfriends having to endure my apparently horrible odour. He picks the shirt up. Is that a grimace, or an air of intrigue?
"It smells clean and new. Not like perfume. Did you even wear it?" he says.
To make things official he grabs the shirt and takes a photo, as his friend chastises him for not doing it the proper way.
We pose for a photo and he awkwardly kisses my cheek for 30 seconds as the camera stops working.
I never end up sniffing his shirt. It could have been true love. Or maybe he's the owner of the one that smelt like a week-old pickled sandwich.
It gets more drunken after 9pm. Photos on the screen have gone from people holding up bags in favour of people pashing. A curly-haired woman tells me how one match said she smelt of flowers but also, disappointingly, sour cream.
A 6-foot tall man is standing by the shirts, alone and with an air of disappointment.
What does he think of the smells up for grabs?
"They all smell of perfume," he says with disdain.
"It's the smell of desperation."
Regardless, this was never about sniffing out the Cinderella shoe match of true love. The event provides an icebreaker, free drinks and, more importantly, a room full of adventurous young singles up for a chat.
And any lonely Aucklander will tell you that's much better than 50 online matches on Tinder.
- Find Someone plan to host more pheromone parties in the future, although there are no concrete plans yet.