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Can You Find True Love By Sniffing a T-Shirt?

At L.A.'s hottest new party, singles hook up by sniffing slept-in T-shirts. Is it science or speed dating?

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“Well, it means, on some level, I want to have sex with you.”

Best pickup line ever? Or bestest pickup line ever?

“So here’s a question for you,” he continued. “Why did you come over to me when you saw me holding your shirt?”

“Oh. Well, I thought you were cute.”

The guy explained that he was a scientist who studied primates, so he knew what was behind this whole pheromone business.

“It’s all about health and immunity,” he explained. “Your pheromones are attracted to mine because we have compatible immunities. For instance, maybe my ancestors were immune to the black plague. And yours were immune to malaria.”

“So our children will be super-immune!” Yes. Let’s reproduce right now and travel to India and medieval Europe all we want!

“I’m going to do an experiment with you,” he said. He then picked out three shirts from the table, one of which was his, and invited me to smell all three and tell him which one I liked the best. If I really did find him attractive, I would easily pick his shirt out of the lineup. I sat on a bench beneath the twinkly lights and sniffed each bag. One smelled like nothing. One smelled a little medicinal. “Ugh, this one is rank,” I said, sniffing the third bag. Bad move. It was his. I failed the shell game. I was Goldilocks in reverse. The third shirt was just ripe.

To be fair, the guy hadn’t followed the rules at all. Having just learned about the party an hour before it started, he’d flipped a U-turn on Fairfax, whipped off his undershirt, and stuffed it in a bag upon arriving at the Silent Movie Theatre. It didn’t smell like three nights of faint, showered, body odor. It smelled like a locker room.

He tried to think of an explanation for why I would find his face attractive but not his sweaty T-shirt. “Maybe you’re out of sync with your pheromones,” he offered.

I wasn’t banking on finding true love at the pheromone party, even though people reportedly hooked up in droves and began long-term relationships at the inaugural pheromone party in New York City. But I was intrigued by the idea that we can reduce our desires to their basest level. Many of us have heard of the experiment where women are asked to smell a lineup of white cotton shirts, and then it turns out that the shirts they found the most pleasing belonged to the men they found the most handsome, with the most symmetrical faces. Maybe women are attracted to strong jawlines and symmetrical faces because we’re still susceptible to all the evolutionary cues that tell us, “I will father strong, resilient babies with you, and then I will help you take care of them.” Maybe men are attracted to the scent of a woman with robust ovaries who will produce dozens of offspring that carry their genetic code. Maybe on some level, we women are just acting in an updated play that our cavewomen ancestors performed. We might think we want a funny, sensitive guy who likes Lisa Cholodenko movies, cooks Thai food and reads the Rumpus, but what we really want is nothing more than a muscular display of an excellent Y chromosome.

This scenario could certainly make the dating slog easier – just marry whoever smells the best! But it leaves entire swaths of humanity out of the equation. It erases all sorts of sexual orientations, fetishes, non-normalized gender identities, disabilities, races, and histories both personal and cultural. Aside from the fact that most of what we’ve been taught about “how we were in caveman times” is based on racialized and gendered mythology, the fact is, we are not just cellphone-toting incarnations of our ape ancestors. We aren’t born with preloaded instincts to hunt, gather and sleep together exactly as we did in the Stone Age. We are born with brains primed to learn and adapt to social patterns with lightning speed. Which means that what we find attractive, and how we categorize our objects of desire, are not based on a template unaltered from our paleolithic past, but on what we absorb, engage with, and construct, and what is constructed for us. This is not to say that our drives are purely cultural – we have hormones too. But culture is not like clothing. You can’t strip it off to reveal the “true” drives underneath.

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