A lot of things about modern dating are undignified: The humiliation of drunkenly swiping right on a coworker on Tinder. Getting lost on your way to your new squeeze's shared bathroom during a crucial time. Being ghosted by someone shortly after sending an award-winning naked selfie. But all of these things are as nothing compared to the sweaty shame of sticking your nose into a total stranger's armpit, and inhaling their musk. It's literally the pits.
On a Wednesday evening in late April I descend the stairs of a central London cocktail bar to take part in what is billed as the world's first armpit sniffing dating night. Romancing the Armpit is run by Bompas and Parr, a London-based duo who describe themselves variously as "architectural foodsmiths" and conceptual artists, and until recently were better known for creating the world's first giant boob bouncy castle. Olfactory-based dating is growing in popularity, with companies such as Smell Dating offering the "first mail odour dating service" to people willing to pay $25 and spend three days straight wearing the same T-shirt in the hope of finding someone to grow old with.
Once inside, I get talking to Sam Bompas, who is at pains to emphasize the science behind armpit sniffing. Bompas is incredibly posh, extremely nice, and has very tall hair. He's wearing camouflage pants and a string vest and has the media training you'd expect of a tennis star that's just failed a drugs test and is facing a vital press conference. He says things like "good armpit access" and "consensual armpit sniffing," a lot.
"We know that pheromones play a powerful role in the laws of attraction, by targeting your histocompatibility complex," Bompas explains, referring to the tissue compatibility that allows individuals to receive organs or skin grafts from donors. He adds that people use body odor as a way of subconsciously identifying what sort of genetic traits would be passed onto their future offspring. "It's all about having healthy kids and immune systems that work well together—so there's a definite educational component to tonight."
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I ask him how the armpit sniffing will work in practice. He tells me that everyone will smell everyone else, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, before—for reasons unclear to me—we finish the night with a ("consensual") game called Tug the Sausage, in which people will eat a foot-long sausage out of someone else's mouth. When you've spent a night inhaling the fug of sweaty strangers, eating food out of another person's maw just seems like another pointless social taboo to overcome.
By this point some of the 30 or so guests are arriving (tickets, priced at £10, sold out in four hours), so it's time to start. We're given a paper bag with eye and mouth holes cut out of it, and a chilli-infused cocktail which is designed to induce sweat. Although delicious, it is difficult to drink, what with the paper bag and all.
"I'm hoping to find the sweatiest girl possible, I definitely feel like people wash too much nowadays," Alex, 23, tells me. At least, I that's what I think he said. The paper bag muffles things a lot. His flatmate John, 23, agrees. "I can shower once every two days when I'm on holiday because I'm not stressing so much."
Both agree that dating nowadays is tough. "With the whole progression of the internet, there so many options now that there's an apathy to it," Alex explains. "You don't put as much effort into it because it's kind of lame to. It's a bit like Netflix—you binge on a show and then discard it. There's no necessity for commitment in our generation. Why would you commit to someone when there's endless possibilities?"
Everyone I interview seems genuinely motivated by a desire to meet someone offline and is hopeful that the science behind smell-based dating might be legit. When I ask Tara, 30, and Bobs, 27, what they think about the London dating scene, the paper-bagged chorus that comes back is: "[It's] really hard work!" Bobs tells me: "I thought today would be a fun and a bit different. I'm not a fan of this bag, though."
Pleasantries over, we swivel our bagged heads obediently in the direction of Bompas, who gives us a potted introduction to the science of smell, before splitting us off into groups. We're handed a scorecard, a paper cup with the bottom cut out (to smell through), a pencil and a numbered sticker to wear. It's time to get sniffing.
Like a low-budget version of Eyes Wide Shut or Shia LaBeouf at a film premiere, we shuffle down the opposing line wielding our paper cups. Being British, we're all super-awkward about the whole thing. I stoop to inhale my first armpit and… It's pretty fine, actually. Mostly, people smell okay. There's a few instances where I get smacked in the face by a full-frontal stench of stale gym kit, but the majority smell exactly how you'd expect a room full of sedentary office workers in an expensive cocktail bar: totally fine.
Despite the fact that I'm straight, I overwhelmingly rate women more highly than men on my scorecard, for the simple reason that they smell nicer. I see a woman to my right mark "clean man nice" on her scorecard after sniffing a stranger: another writes "warm black forest." After I've sniffed everyone in the line, it's time for them to sniff me. At this point I become inexplicably needy and start asking total strangers for validation that I don't smell bad. "That was okay, wasn't it?" I question a woman in a tank top. I tell people that I put on extra deodorant that morning. "You'd tell me if it was bad, right?" I ask panickedly in the direction of another random paper bag. The paper bag nods in assent or disagreement—I don't know.
After the armpit sniffing we're finally allowed to remove our paper bags. People look pretty normal, although there's no one there I'd want to have sex with. I get talking to Alasdair, 53, who heard about the event on Meetup. I'm pathetically grateful not to be suffocating inside the paper bag anymore, so I find myself enthusiastically nodding as he explains why he doesn't wear deodorant.
"I've stopped dating guys who don't smell because they're too clean. People shouldn't cover up their natural smell so much with deodorant. If you change your clothes often and wash once a day, you don't need to cover up your natural smell with deodorant."
I wander over to an armpit grooming station, where we're encouraged to trick out our armpits with glitter before posing for an "armpit selfie" in a photo area. A nice man shines a light into my armpit while I splay my arm out against a wall for the professional photographer. It feels about as dignified as a smear test. I question what any of us are doing paying money to be here, when London's sagging 19th century transport infrastructure means there are plenty of armpits you can sniff on the Tube for free.
It's well after 9 PM now, and the combination of the paper bag and the sensory overload that comes from sniffing 30 separate armpits have conspired to give me a raging headache. It's time to call it a night, even if it means I miss my chance to play Tug the Sausage. I emerge into the fresh air and decide that, whatever the science may say, I'm going to go back to a dating method that's been shown to have proven effectiveness according to my own empirical research: the old side-eye in a club.