Dry T-Shirt Contest: I Sniffed Armpit Stains at a Pseudoscientific Singles 'Pheromone Party'
Last week, I bought a new white t-shirt, slept in it for three consecutive nights, sealed it in a Ziploc bag, then paid $30 to let several dozen men bury their faces in it and sniff my scent. One of these men was wearing a fez.
Welcome to the first public "Pheromone Party," a new social framework for facilitating contact between single people. The event—half underwear fetish party, half "It’s Just Lunch!"—leans on the pseudoscientific record to suggest that wafting the odor of strangers’ armpits could help you figure out whether you ought to have sex with them. "I always smell my lovers, so it just doesn’t seem strange to me at all," says Judith Prays, the 25-year-old filmmaker, web developer, and rapper (rap name: Jangle Jangle) who conceived of the event. "A lot of people get weirded out by it."
Is it so weird? All you do is luxuriate in an unwashed t-shirt for a few nights, "capture your odor print," bag it, then hand it off to an event administrator, who assigns your bag a number and a gender code ("pink for girl, blue for boy") and tosses it in a pile, where the evening’s guests are invited to "smell the bags at their leisure." If you catch wind of a smell that speaks to you, a photographer snaps your photo with the bag, then shoots the image over to a running slideshow of bag-sniffers that’s projected on the wall throughout the party. If you see someone holding your bag you’d like to talk to, you then … just talk to them.
"It’s about the science, but it’s also a pretext for conversation," Prays admits.
And if you’re the type of person who has chosen to spend a Thursday night paying to smell other people’s dirty laundry as an excuse to speak to them, you could probably use a little help in the socialization department. Take me, for example: My friends and I spent the hours leading up to the party self-consciously sniffing each others’ shirt bags, worrying that no boys would bond with our Beefy-T's, and furiously examining the junk science of self-appointed pheromone "experts" (select studies have shown that human underarm secretions could affect the female menstrual cycle, trigger brain activity, change moods, and even "raise the octane" of your novelty sexual aftershave).
Then we arrived, and waded into an absinthe-fueled pack of bag-sniffing dudes. The crowd was overwhelmingly male. Many were crowded around a mountain of plastic bags, pawing for a stray female bag, sniffing it deeply, then discarding it or clinging to it for dear life and filing dutifully into the lengthy photo line. One guy told me that he'd caught a whiff of his ideal bag, but couldn't wrestle it out of the hands of the other man who'd already claimed it. Another man grabbed a stray bag and passed it around in ridicule. "It's been smelled so many times, you have to dig to the bottom to get anything," he told me, sticking it toward my face. "It smells like patchouli."
Meanwhile, the women in attendance picked through the massive pile of man bags, presenting their favorite scents to their friends and wondering whether the one immaculately folded t-shirt was basically cheating. It was as if Hanes and Ziploc had been commissioned to enact a horrible pantomime of the traditional sexual economy. (Though you could smell whichever bag you wanted, this was predominantly a hetero affair). One observer described it as a "dry T-shirt contest."
Yeah, I sniffed a few. Most of them smelled like shirts, or else bags. A couple of them smelled like bed snacks. Old Spice was well-represented. And then I smelled him. Just kidding! When I located Prays at the party, I told her I didn't find myself sexually attracted to any of the bags. "Let me ask you a question," she responded. "How open are you, sexually?"
Not very. Isn't that why we were all there? Because it's easier for us to get close to a bag than it is a real live person—like the sweet guy in line in front of us, or the dude who looked kind of like House, M.D., or the aforementioned man with the fez? At the end of the party, when everyone was finally drunk and conversing freely, one woman nestled her face deep into a man’s pit. "He smells so goooood," she cooed into his leather jacket. "Smell him!" she commanded the women around her. "Smell him!" Did we have to? We had already figured out how to talk to him like a real person.