The Scent of True Love

Pheromone parties say daters can find their match from the smell of a t-shirt, but the science is a little more complicated.

The 2006 film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a story of, well, murder. But it’s also a story about love.

The movie follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an 18th-century French orphan with a superhuman sense of smell, as he attempts to recreate a mythical perfect perfume—one that, according to legend, will transport all who smell it into a state of paradise. Convinced that the missing ingredient is the scent of a woman, our hero embarks on a killing spree, capturing and bottling the essence of each of his lovely young victims.

Fast-forward a little bit. Grenouille’s succeeded in perfecting his magic perfume, but he’s also been caught and sentenced to death for his crimes. On the morning of his execution, he applies a drop of his creation—and at the very moment he’s about to die, the angry mob before him catches a whiff and morphs into an adoring crowd. Surrounded by throngs of odor-addled devotees, he has a jarring realization: Scent can make him powerful, but it cannot bring him the love he has always lacked.

Then he douses himself in the perfume, and the crowd eats him.

Now let’s fast-forward a few centuries.

When Mark Iverson attended his first pheromone party in Santa Monica in 2012, he wasn’t interested in murder. He was, however, interested in love. He was also interested, just as importantly, in the power of scent.

Iverson, a filmmaker, is neither fictional nor French, and he possesses only an ordinary human’s sense of smell. But he was intrigued by the premise of the event: Participants had been instructed to sleep in a white t-shirt for three nights (“I chose the one with the least pit stains,” he says), put it in a plastic bag and bring it to the party at O’Brien’s Irish Pub. There, the bags would be numbered and color-coded—blue for men, pink for women—and guests could sniff as many as they liked, posing for photos with the ones whose scents they found attractive. The pictures would be projected onto a wall of the bar; if the owner of a t-shirt liked the look of the person who chose it, they could go strike up a conversation.

Single and frustrated by the typical avenues for meeting women, Iverson says, he was ready to turn his romantic fate over to a process that seemed to be guided by something more concrete than guesswork.

“Online dating, it kind of feels like luck,” he explains. “Maybe they seem great in their profile, but they’re not in person. Or you meet someone at a mixer, and it can be awkward."

"But with this, I really liked the idea—it was like, ‘Okay, you’re trying to come at this from science.’”

Fellow partygoer Tegan Artho-Bentz, who attended the same event in Santa Monica, agrees: “The science of it just blew my mind,” she says. “I feel like we kind of divorce the physical and the mental, and it was nice to incorporate that back in.”

It was an appealing idea to performance artist Judith Prays, too. The creator of pheromone parties, Prays says she was inspired in the summer of 2009 after she found herself on a date with—and attracted to—a man who fell far outside the bounds of her usual type.

“What struck me about this date is I never would have chosen him on paper, or in this case, on OkCupid/Craigslist/JDate,” she writes in an email. “But in real life there was something there, and I thought maybe it was smell.” Prays threw the first pheromone party in 2010 in the studio of a Brooklyn design firm (guests RSVP’d by sending in photos of their armpits) and followed up with parties in Santa Monica and Los Angeles; more recently, people as far away as New Zealand and the United Kingdom have gathered to mingle and inhale the smell of other singles, sniffing their way towards love.

In the broadest sense, pheromones are chemicals that influence the bodies or behavior of other members of the same species. Sex attractants, a specific subset of pheromone, have been documented all over the animal kingdom: Certain species of female moths send chemical signals into the air when they’re ready to mate, for example, while male boars woo sows in heat with the scent of a substance in their saliva.

So, okay. Bugs do it. Pigs do it. But do we do it?

Research says: Sort of, maybe. The science is still a little murky. At any rate, we’re a bit more subtle about it.  

“I don’t want to say there are no [human] sex attractants, because that has yet to be demonstrated,” explains biologist Charles Wysocki, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia (Prays had contacted him before the first pheromone party to ask how to collect body odor). But, he adds, “There is no good evidence for sex attractant releaser pheromones in the biomedical literature.”

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Cari Romm writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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