THE ORGANISERS knew she had cheated right away. “You smell clean,” was the only response from Aditi Bedi, the 22-year-old who was hosting the party at her Gurgaon penthouse that evening. The girl tried to reason with Bedi, to explain that spending three days without taking a shower was an unreasonable requirement. Wouldn’t two days do the trick? “No. It takes 72 hours for the cloth to soak in your skin’s secretions,” replied Bedi. The other two brains behind the pheromone party held last month, Gauri and Arjun Verma, nodded their agreement. All three college friends were determined to turn away anyone who didn’t follow the rules. There was no room here for people who insisted on personal hygiene.
“Pheromone-based dating is already quite popular in Los Angeles, New York and Dubai. I attended one held by Stories in London two years ago. At the time I had just started college and didn’t have enough friends to throw one myself in India. But the idea has always remained at the back of my mind. I thought it was a cool and rational way to make a match. Gauri, Arjun and I finally decided that we’ll hold one for our graduation party,” explains Bedi. The trio started planning the party at the beginning of the year, researching olfactory science, attending smell parties abroad so that they could catch any imposters right away and figuring out how other such meet-ups have been organised in the past. “The rules we eventually came up were pretty straightforward. We invited friends who didn’t know one another. Then we told them to wear the same t-shirt for three days. During this time, they could not bathe, apply any cosmetics, creams, soaps or perfumes. They had to wear the t-shirt all the time; no taking it off at night or to go to work. However, they could wear a jacket on top of the t-shirt. Nothing underneath, though—the cloth has to be in constant contact with your skin,” adds Bedi.
The results now lay on Bedi’s oakwood dining table—18 Ziploc bags containing 18 smelly t-shirts. Male bags were marked with a black sticker. The nine women at the party now lined up in front of these and one by one sniffed their way through the pile of soiled clothes. Some sniffers closed their eyes, as though savouring the aroma of sweat, dead cells and sebum. Others simply scrunched their noses, giggled and quickly moved onto the next bag. After half an hour of ‘smelling time’, every girl picked out a bag they liked best. “They will now offer their own bags to the man whose scent they prefer. If the man is also aroused by their smell, then it’s a match. If not, then it’s back to the sniffing board,” says Bedi, as nine girls walked upto the odour-generators that got their hearts racing.
Smell dating services require members to wear the same t-shirt for three days. No showers are allowed during this time
One couple hit it off right away. Mayank Chopra, 22, and Neha Singh, 21, decided they just couldn’t get enough of each other’s fragrance. “At first, all the bags smelt the same—dirty and putrid. I thought I was going to throw up and wanted to yell at Aditi for making the girls go first. Then I came across Manav’s bag. I think it was the sixth one. It smelt… sexy, almost arousing. I’m not sure how else to describe it. Now that I have met him and spent some time together, I think there is definitely chemistry here and I am looking forward to going on a few dates with him. I am excited to find that he feels the same way about me as well,” says Singh. I take a whiff of Chopra’s bag. It doesn’t smell any different to me from any of the other bags. “That’s because the chemicals in this lot of secretions don’t excite your brain’s smell centre. Smell dating isn’t as much about love as it is about a biological response. The premise is that if you are that deeply attracted to someone, your relationship is bound to go well,” says Bedi.
Why humans are attracted to a particular odour is indeed linked to our biological needs and goals. This was first demonstrated in 1995 by a Swiss researcher, Claus Wedekind, in what is informally now known as the ‘smelly t-shirt study’. He asked a group of female participants to smell t-shirts worn by male students and then pick out the ones they liked best. The study noted that the girls all preferred men with a set of ‘MHC genes’—which play a role in immunity—that were different from their own. “MHC genes are related to disease resistance,” says Wedekind, an associate professor of biology at the University of Lausanne. It seemed that women were subconsciously picking out mates who could help their future offspring build better immunity. According to the study, ‘The odours of MHC-dissimilar men remind the test women more often of their own actual or former mates than do the odours of MHC- similar men.’ In other words, if someone smells really bad, it’s probably just your brain telling you that this person’s genes aren’t going to give you a particularly robust baby.
DR MANOJ Sharma, a psychiatrist with NIMHANS in Bengaluru explains the psychology of pheromones. “Smell and how we perceive it is largely subjective. In the same way in which two people might not like the taste of the same dish or the colour of the same dress, it is common to come across scents that bring about different reactions in different people,” says Sharma. “Pheromones are powerful triggers for our brain. Even as evolved mammals, we haven’t completely lost touch with our baser senses. A part of our brain is still tuned to picking a mate who is going to be the best for our progeny.” Pheromones are strongest near genitals, armpits and areas where the pulse is closest to the skin, such as wrists, necks and behind the knees. Studies also indicate that certain chemicals in our hair and urine are also pheromones. Simply by sniffing these, we can actually derive a conclusion about the person in front.
Pheromones don’t just tell us who will be a reproductive jackpot, they also give an indication of sexual mood and orientation
But pheromones don’t just tell us which mate will be a reproductive jackpot, they also give us an indication of sexual mood and orientation. A study reported in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Dr Ivanka Savic and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm looked at what scent tells us about sexual compatibility. Heterosexual and homosexual men were each given sweat samples and asked to identify their favourite. Gay men immediately picked the smell of other gay men, while the heterosexuals preferred the scent of women. Another study, Human Tears Contain a Chemosignal by Noam Sobel, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, observed the effect that the smell of tears has on sexual attraction. It noted that when men smelled a woman’s tears, their testosterone levels and sexual arousal automatically dipped. “Sex is off the table when a person is crying. Our bodies pick up a variety of different cues and hints from pheromones. A few hundred years ago, it was normal for women to rub their vaginal juices onto their knees and wrists because this scent was far stronger and titillating than any chemical concocted in a factory,” says Dr Tanya Kapoor, a child psychologist based in Delhi.
Whatever the reason for our pheromone preferences, the success of smell dating shows that many are ready to take a different route to love. There might have been a time when few would have considered using filthy garments to get laid. But after swiping right to find love on Tinder, meeting friends without benefits on Smeeter, dating kinky singles on 3nder and rediscovering long-lost flames on Happn, smell dating seems to be an inevitable result of our growing dependence on novelty dating. “People are desperate to meet new people. Traditional routes are vanishing with parents taking a backseat, neighbourhoods disappearing and friends leaving the city and often even the country, in search of work or education. Young girls and boys are ready to take up just about any avenue that promises them love—the more eccentric and weird, the better,” says Dr Kapoor. “Sometimes you just want to try different types of dating for fun. And you never know, sometimes casual dating might even turn into something serious. Smell dating might not have worked out for me, but it was worth a shot,” says Nandini Bhasin, who had attended Bedi’s party.
The potential for offbeat and unique courtship is so great now that it has even led to the setting up of the world’s first mail odour dating service. Smell.Dating, founded by Tega Brain, hopes to become an alternative to relationship apps such as Tinder and Grindr. Instead of hobbies and looks, Smell.Dating fixes people up based purely on their scent. All members have to do is sign up, send in a stinky shirt and then wait for the service to find the perfect match.
“At first I thought it was some kind of joke or hoax. Besides, no matter how good a person smells, I’d still be interested in knowing about their background, desires, hobbies and work. But then I suppose after trying so many other dating services, I figured why not give this one a shot as well. I was surprised by the result because I did end up falling in love,” says Navjot Singh, a 28-year-old US-based banker and one of smell dating’s success stories. “The sexual magnetism between us is simply electric. It’s like a heat wave that follows us around wherever we go. And we have so many interests in common as well. For example, we both love sports, animated movies and Italian food. Maybe it is pure coincidence but somehow I find myself drawn to both her smell and her personality. I feel that it’s a match made in genetic heaven.”
(Some names have been changed)