When I first heard about pheromone parties, the idea intrigued me. “You sleep in a shirt for three nights, then you put that shirt in a bag and bring it to a party,” my friend said. “At the party, you sniff other people’s shirts to see which you like.”
Did I think that smelling a strange man’s dirty laundry would unleash heretofore hidden feelings of desire? No. But I did think fondly of an ex’s scent and the way I would bury my nostrils in his shirts whenever he left them around — almost as if the aroma itself had super powers. I think I was still caught up in that memory, in fact, when I agreed to go along.
Because this conversation didn’t occur until the day before the event, I had already screwed up the important part of the equation — namely sleeping in the shirt for three nights. “It’s okay,” said the friend who invited me — who happened to be covering the party for the website where he works (inadvertently causing us both to end up on The Colbert Report). “Just sleep in it tonight. You should be fine.”
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And I would have been. Except that I came home so late that night that I completely forgot to sleep in it at all. I remembered with a start when I woke up in the morning and threw the shirt on, reasoning that I had an entire day to imbue it with the scent of me.
I showed up that evening with the female friend I’d brought along as wing woman and handed my shirt (which I’d zipped into a plastic sandwich bag) over at check-in. I watched a woman write a big black 132 on the outside of the bag and was told that I needed to remember that this was my number. And then, before I knew it, I was busted — caught in the act of handing my shirt over to be smelled by the throngs — when a guy from my grammar school greeted me from behind. He seemed cavalier, as if we saw each other every day at parties where we were going to smell clothes, even though we run into each other about every five years and smelling things is never a part of the equation.
“Do you think they’ll let me in if I don’t have a shirt?” he asked me. Apparently, I — and not the woman gathering the shirts — looked like some sort of expert on the matter. I told him I imagined they would, though it did, in fact, seem like a crucial element — arguably the only crucial element — to the night.
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Once inside, I got so caught up in talking to the friend I’d brought with me that I sort of forgot where we were. By the time we looked up, the party was in full swing: the plastic bags containing the shirts were spread out on various tables, and hip (or at least interesting-looking) 20, 30 and 40-something men and women were eagerly sticking their noses into them. We gamely joined in.
There was something bizarrely communal about the act of lifting these bags to our faces and taking a whiff. “Oh try this one, it’s great,” I’d say to a guy behind me if I smelled a shirt and then realized after the fact that it was pink and thus a girl’s. But the truth is, the shirts I smelled all had a similar odor: nothingness. Or detergent. Every now and again, a shirt would be rank — like the guy had rinsed it in garlic and bear droppings. But mostly they just smelled like clean shirts. I began to doubt that these men had really submitted their shirts to the three-night slumber. Maybe I just had a bad sense of smell? I don’t know for sure, but my friend and I certainly laughed a lot.
Everyone else, meanwhile, seemed to be handling this activity with the utmost seriousness. “Good God, I wish I could smell HER,” my grammar school mate said as he wandered up to me looking dazed. He nodded his head in the direction of a nerdy-cute girl near the entrance. “Do you think I could ask her if I could sniff her neck?”
I told him that if there were ever an environment where such a question could be perceived as normal, we were in it. I even offered to help engineer such a situation, imagining myself saying to her, “This guy I once played with in the playground thinks you look like you smell nice. Mind if he finds out?” But he shook his head and wandered off to smell more shirts.
The gist of the event was this: once you found a shirt or two that smelled good to you, you were supposed to go have your photo taken with it, and then those photos were displayed on a screen that we could all see. You could take pictures with as many shirts as you wanted and when you saw someone photographed with your shirt number, you were free to walk up and introduce yourself — or not.
My friend and I became fixated on the screen, more intent on taking Instagram photos of it (which we then tweeted) than we were on whether or not our shirts were selected. But after a little while, we couldn’t ignore the fact that our shirts were actually doing well: mine was actually semi-confiscated by a guy who seemed intent on not letting anyone else at it. We never made it up to the photographer ourselves; when all the shirts smelled the same to me, it seemed like any choice I made would have been completely arbitrary.
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When my friend and I were ready to go, we located her shirt but then saw that mine had been confiscated yet again (what can I say? Not sleeping in it was clearly the way to go). I approached the man I saw clutching it, who was waiting in the photo line; he had a beard and a sort of magician vibe to him. “Excuse me,” I said. “That’s my friend’s shirt.” I pointed in the general direction of a crowd of women. “She asked me to get it for her.”
He eyed me warily. The “my friend” excuse never works, but a stranger can’t really outright accuse you of lying. After a moment he said, “I think the shirt is the price of entry.” He really wasn’t willing to let the sucker go.
I considered my shirt: a white James Perse t-shirt I had no interest in donating to this man so he could take a photo with it.
“She really needs it,” I told him with some finality. We stared at each other for a beat. Was he punishing me for lying to him? Did he want to sleep in the shirt himself? Finally I said, “Look, why don’t I take the shirt and you keep the bag? Take a picture with it and then, when she goes to the website for the party tomorrow, she’ll see you did that.” I had heard other people mentioning that they were going to the site the next day to see how their shirts had done and was proud of how easily I incorporated that information into my story.
He nodded and handed me my shirt and I made my way toward the exit. As I was leaving, I couldn’t help but notice a great many people chatting each other up and engaging in animated conversations. I didn’t necessarily see anyone I wanted to be chatting up, but I nevertheless decided that the event had been a great success. Not because I think that sniffing someone’s dirty t-shirt can make you want to date him or her, but because, to some degree, we’re all a little shy or awkward or self-conscious or embarrassed when it comes to dating. So anything that gets us in the mood and interacting — even if it’s in a way that some would deem utterly disgusting — is only good.
I just hope the magician’s not still holding out for my “friend.”
(For more information on pheromone parties, click here.)
Anna David is the author of the new Kindle Single Animal Attraction, which is about how her relationship with her cats impacts her relationships with men. She’s also the author of the novels Party Girl (HarperCollins, 2007) and Bought (HarperCollins, 2009) and the memoir Falling for Me (HarperCollins, 2011). She conceived of and edited the anthology Reality Matters (HarperCollins, 2010), is the Executive Editor of addiction and recovery website The Fix, and has written for The New York Times, The LA Times, Vanity Fair, Cosmo, People, Premiere, Us Weekly, Details, Playboy, Redbook, Self, and Women’s Health, among many other publications. She appears on NBC, Fox News, CNN, and other networks discussing either relationships or addiction. Her next book, which she’s writing on the actor Tom Sizemore, will be released in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.