I Tried to Find Love by Sniffing Strangers' T-Shirts at a Pheromone Party

By Gavin Haynes

All photos by Nicholas Pomeroy unless stated otherwise

When I tell people I’m going to a pheromone party I am told the following nugget: “Pheromones? Oh, a friend of mine, before she goes on dates, she rubs her vaginal juices behind the backs of her knees as a sort of cologne.”

That’s real pheromones, right there. Like Baz Luhrman’s sunscreen, the benefits of vaginal juices are at least obvious. The theory is obvious. Squirt your wazzoo behind your knees. Boys like wazzoo. They smell it. Boom. Boys move unconsciously towards you as their Cro-Magnon brains are short-circuited by so-much heady wazzoo aroma.

On the other hand, the pheromones in which we’re invited to believe at a pheromone party stand on more dicey science. Invented by Los Angeles artist Judith Prays last year, the entire party concept takes its entire authority from one experiment.

In 1995, Claus Wedekind, a scientist, whom you can imagine wearing a white coat much like the ones used by scientists in washing powder ads, got a group of female college students to smell T-shirts that had been worn by male students for two nights without deodorant, cologne or scented soaps, and rate them for attractiveness of scent.

Then science happened, and it turned out that the girls all preferred men with dissimilar MHC genes to their own. MHC genes are related to disease resistance. Unconsciously, it seemed the women were picking prospective mates who could help their future-babies ward off malaria, dengue fever, polio, or typhoid. They were Panini-swopsie-ing disease immunity.

Prays’ party concept—brought tonight to a bar in East London—was an obvious monetization of that experiment in a world so jaded and desperate for novelty dating that it has gone from Tinder to Smeeting to 3nder to Happn in the span of 12 months. London—essentially a holding pen for several million tragically single 21-35 year olds desperately scanning the paper for something wacky to do now that hipster bingo is dead—is the perfect breeding ground for it.

The process is simple enough. Get everyone to wear a T-shirt to bed for three nights in a row immediately before the big event. They stick it in a bag. Put all the bags on a table, labelled pink (for girls) or blue (for boys) and with a number that is unique to the owner. Then get everyone to sniff the bags.

If someone likes one of the bags, they take a picture of themselves with it and put it up on the big projector screens on the wall of the room, allowing the bag owner to come forward and announce themselves to you, casually breaking some ice by talking about the merits or demerits of the smell in the bag. "A cheeky hint of Lynx, a peppery note of shaving foam, plus a rather sharp aftertaste of failed ambition and charbroiled loneliness." That sort of thing. Except more flirty.

My last, ill-fated attempt at novelty dating. Photo by Chloe Orefice

As VICE’s expert in terrible novelty dating concepts, I decided I'd have to go and check it out. I still have needs, after all. Chiefly, I still need to find a real human female to lie next to in my crappy ex-authority flat above the Lord Nelson pub in Mudchute. Beyond that, I need to prove to myself that single young women will still take me seriously despite my past of turning up to dates with goths and a man who celebrates Christmas every single day.

Sadly, Mr Christmas couldn’t be with me for my new dating experiment—something about "having to celebrate Christmas." Then, even Arno the Goth sends me a text message saying I should "have a good night" but he can't make it because he is doing "goth things with goth people."

So it’s a bit last-minute by the time I nail down part-time filmmaker Oz and full-time squatter Paul. Neither man has done the "three nights in bed" drill, so we need to find something else to attract people towards them.

So I went to a sex shop and bought some human pheromones. Then I went to the pet shop next door for some dog pheromones (pictured above). “A lactating bitch naturally produce [sic] an appeasing pheromone,” the blurb goes. “This provides reassurance to the pupppies [sic]... research has proven that a synthetic analogue of the dog appeasing pheromone provides reassurance and comfort to dogs of all ages.” At least dog pheromones definitely work, I figure. Dogs are only 50 million years of evolution away from people. How much difference could it really make?

The human pheromones—MOJO Pro—do not come with much pre-amble. They state, quite plainly: “Attract Women. Contains powerful human pheromone.” That’s good of course, because we wouldn’t want to piss around with weak and flimsy human pheromones.

Only the best will do, and there’s no point pissing around with the dosage, either. Paul's Spacemen 3 shirt is drowned in MOJO PRO.

And Oz’s T-shirt gets enough dog pheromones to calm an entire kennel at a cosmetics testing lab.

Me? As the only man who has religiously worn a T-shirt to bed and put it in a freezer bag each night, I am what science would call "the control."

Without wanting to give too much away, you could write up our findings in your peer-reviewed scientific journal a lot like this:

Experiment: Attempt to decide whether phermones are bullshit.
Conclusion: Dog pheromones aren’t bullshit.

Our bags deposited on the table, it’s time to make a few withdrawals. I stick my head in a few girls’ T-shirts and go blubble-blubble-blubble. It immediately becomes clear that women can be classed into three basic categories: fabric softener, perfume and nothing at all. Like Plato, I now believe this to be the irreducible essence of femininity. There is The Madonna (fabric softener), The Whore (perfume), and the rest are invisible (nothing at all).

People stand around nervously in small groups talking about the dynamics of pheromone parties. It’s like that moment in any season of Big Brother where the housemates enter the house and then sit around talking about the nature of the experiment they comprise in pompously knowing tones.

There’s already a buzz developing about number 64. Her bag has been pulled up on the screens at least five times within the hour. She must be dripping in pheromones. The pheromone game clearly pays for people who don't have to resort to buying theirs from pet shops.

I talk to a man in heavily rimmed glasses (note: it's not the guy in the picture above). “If I did this, I’d do it with underwear,” he says. He goes on to say that he "gets lots of compliments" when he receives blowjobs, because he "always eats pineapple beforehand." This man should be put down humanely. But if you will allow people to sniff T-shirts, don’t be too surprised if the saddle-loving community turns up, too.

Soon, I get told the latest rumor by an excitable couple. “Have you heard? Some guys got a dog and they put it in a T-shirt and now the dog’s T-shirt—it’s ON THAT TABLE.”

For Paul’s part, he’s showing worrying signs of genuine keenness. He pulls up a raft of bags he has his eye on. It feels like he really hopes there can be someone for him here. I want to point out that these people are here engaging in this blatant Time Out-ery because they are the vanguard of gentrification, whereas he—a pink-haired anarcho-punk who lives in a squat and was recently had up by the cops for freecycling food from the bins outside Iceland—is simply not on the same page when it comes to food trucks and Muji. Still, let him have his fun.

Oz, meanwhile, has already found a woman who enjoys his dog pheromones. She poses with his number. 154. He tracks her down. “It was a sort of a metallic scent,” she says. “No, not calming, actually. Very energizing.” They flirt as best as can be managed, but it’s evident within 90 seconds that there is as much chemistry as between a dog and a lamppost.

It gets more drunken. By 10 PM, two people have put coffee beans, Oyster cards, flowers, roll-ons and various shades of smelly crap into their bags. It seems to amuse them. In fact, they seem entirely taken with themselves and their mad japes. At least they’ve pulled.

As for me? Well, I’d love to tell you someone sniffed my T-shirt and decided then and there that I had bangability in spades. But no one did. Not a single human female can bring herself to be pictured holding T-shirt 105, in which I dreamed all of those dreams, night after night, of not being alone any more. Even Paul does no better with his crappy human pheromones. Some good they were. The poor lamb’s heartbroken.

Oz, on the other hand, is utterly awash in dog-loving women. Four different girls get tracked down and exchange a few words about the powerful sex-cocaine inside his Ziploc. It’s “like a double-espresso." It’s “lemon pie." It’s “like the sun beating on your face on a hot summer’s day.” Blah blah fucking blah. Get a room.

Eventually, we track down Legendary Number 64. She is young, attractive and works at an art auction house. The system works. I subtly sniff her for disease immunity. God, I could get some proper cholera defense out of her. My family have always just rolled-over to cholera. Well, not anymore.

I end up entertaining a woman all in black, who says she is here because she has "always been fascinated by smells." But a rumor swept the table that there was a dog T-shirt in a bag with "a number in the 50s.' So various people have been posing with her 50-something numbered bag as a joke. She isn’t taking it so well.

The room breaks down into a handful of pairs who look like they would’ve won any genetic lottery you’d staged tonight. Around the rim, a scum of dejected men stand on their own trying not to look like they're standing on their own. Between them, impassive women in party frocks have given up the flirting to huddle together in twos or threes. And then there's me. Totally alone.

A miasma of rejection descends over the remaining odds and sods in the bar, of which—horrifyingly—I quickly realize I am a part of. The gin is really starting to turn in on itself. I sniff my way through the T-shirt table yet again. Surely Cinderella’s still in here somewhere? “I will marry the girl who fits this T-shirt,” I mutter, to odd glances.

Round and round I sniff. Round and round. She’s here, my Time Out-loving bride. Oh yes. I’ve gone bag mad. I’ve got baggin’ fever. I decide number 45 is the bag for me. Fuck the woman attached to it. It’s too late for that. The bag alone is more than enough. It’s a cheeky little bag, actually. A naughty little strumpet, a filthy tease and a dreadful flirt, smelling of summer fruits Febreze, which sends my Cro-Magnon cortex into overdrive. I spend some time in the street with it, hyper-ventilating in a crude simulation of necking. Some choose life. But who needs life when you’ve got a bag that some anonymous woman has put a T-shirt in instead?

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