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Smell you later? Pheromone parties raise questions on attraction

Konstantin Bakhurin (left) and Martina Desalvo smelled shirts at a pheromone party in Los Angeles last month. The get-togethers require guests to submit a slept-in T-shirt that will be sniffed by other participants. Mark J. Terrill/AP

Have you been invited to a pheromone party yet? The singles get-togethers -- a recent hit in Los Angeles and New York and bound to reach Boston -- involve making a blind love connection by smelling slept-in T-shirts provided by other party goers of the opposite sex. Attendees pick a person to approach based on the appeal of their scent, a premise based on scientific studies suggesting that we’re more drawn to the smell of genetically dissimilar mates.

How much stock, though, do we really put in smell when we fall head over heels for a person? “They call it love at first sight, not love at first smell for a reason,” said Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love. “I don’t think smell draws you to another person from across crowded room but when you do fall in love with them, their smell -- and everything else about them -- can be an aphrodisiac.”


Scientists know very little about pheromones, chemicals we release in sweat and other fluids that provide cues about our state of fertility or attractiveness to others. They’ve shown that pheromones can sync the menstrual cycles of women who live together and that a woman’s scent changes when she’s ovulating, which can drive up testosterone levels in men who get a whiff.

More than a decade ago, Swiss researcher Claude Wedekind demonstrated that adults preferred the scent of T-shirts in those who had a higher degree of genetic variation from them in a component of the immune system called major histocompatibility complex.

“But those studies were only measuring sex appeal, and mate choice is much more than that,” said Fisher, who helped conduct brain imaging studies of couples who remained in passionate love after more than a decade of marriage. “Someone could smell good, but then they smile, and you see they’re missing some teeth or when they speak, they don’t have an appealing accent.”


We tend to be attracted to someone who has our same level of looks, similar sense of humor, and shared religious, educational, and socioeconomic background. In other words, aside from immune system differences, we’re usually drawn to those similar to ourselves.

But Fisher doesn’t think the pheromone parties are necessarily a waste of time since they provide an element of novelty for those bored with online dating sites. Doing anything fun and new raises the level of the “excitement” brain chemical dopamine making it easier, she said, to fall in love (or at least in like) with a stranger. “It’s a gimmick,” she said, “but sometimes gimmicks work.”

Also, the party’s match-making design has an escape hatch. Once attendees find a t-shirt to their liking, they can submit to being photographed holding the shirt. Their potential mate can then check them out visually before deciding whether to move in closer for a little sniff.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.