Though my intentions were never cannibalistic, I have, at least a few times, wanted to take a bite out of someone I loved. Just a chomp — like that of a puppy or a bipolar cat. I’m not alone: “Oh please don’t go,” the Wild Things said to Max, “We’ll eat you up—we love you so.” Clingy, yes, but not aggressive. Affectionate.
Such compulsions never helped me to be empathetic toward the vampiric urges of Twilight’s Edward Cullen. His were twisted: he was in love with a woman whose blood he wanted to drink.
Though food versus romance is a choice that anyone who’s ever been drunk has had to make, Edward’s violent dichotomy never made any sense to me. His love interest, Bella, smells so good — better than the average human — that Edward struggles to not kill her for dinner. But he loves her! Were her pheromones that intense? (I didn’t know if humans even had pheromones. I’d just heard rumors around the Internet.) It wasn’t until I began meddling in the messy world of scent, seduction and pheromones, however, that it became a little more clear.
First: what are pheromones? I had no real idea, so I asked Dr. Haiqing Zhao, a professor of biology at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who told me that the term is loosely defined and may differ among those who study them. For this purpose, let’s talk about pheromones as they relate to heterosexual attraction. Pheromones are chemical signal molecules that help members of the same species communicate: “Hey, I’m a male mouse. You’re a female mouse. Let’s gruyere it on.” They elicit innate, stereotyped behavior, and quantity helps. This means that the same male mouse will cause all female mice to respond similarly (“Cool, yea, let’s hook up!) regardless of his bad pick up line, and the male with the most pheromones will get the chicks.
Men, please note: This does not work the same for you.
Also note: Websites claiming to sell human pheromone molecules to seem more attractive might as well be selling you water. The science isn’t there.
However, pheromones have been found in every part of the animal kingdom according to Dr. Tristram Wyatt, zoologist and senior research associate at the University of Oxford who specializes in the evolution of pheromones and animal behavior. The problem is that they’re harder to prove in humans.
When we think of pheromones, we think of smell. Many animals sense pheromones through their vomeronasal organs. It’s like a second nose. We human beings do not have a vomeronasal organ. We just have the boring, olfactory-sensing kind of nose — which is why many scientists believed we could not possibly be receptive to pheromones. However, mice detect many pheromones with their “regular” nose, so it’s possible we do, too.
It’s also been shown that human babies respond to the scentless pheromones of nursing mothers by suckling. Any mother’s pheromones will do, proving that A) babies are not loyal and B) humans can respond to pheromones. These ones are just not sex-related.
But I’m going to complicate things. If we do smell sex pheromones through our olfactory organ, it’s very hard to rule out all the other factors going on in our nose as it relates to attraction. Smells attract us, too.
Which brings us to pheromone parties. Have you heard of them? I had not. Wyatt told me about them during our conversation. The gist is that you sleep in the same shirt for three nights, then put it in a plastic bag that is color-coded to connote male or female. You bring it to the party where the bag is numbered. Only you know your number. It’s like sexual coat check! All the numbered shirt bags go on the table, and then, throughout the night, guests are encouraged to sniff at their leisure. If a shirt smells attractive to you, you take a photo holding the numbered bag and if the stinker sees and thinks you’re cute, then guess what, it’s a potential match.
Calling them “pheromone parties” is a bit of a misnomer – personal preference doesn’t factor into a response to pheromones; if you’ve got ‘em, your species wants you. (And again, it’s about quantity. Whoever had the most would get all the votes.) Preference does factor into smell, though.
Wyatt explained that what could be going on here is a detection in immunological differences, since your immune system affects the way you smell. Mammals tend to prefer mates with a different scent than their own, because the combination of two immune systems means offspring will be more resistant to disease. A Swiss university demonstrated this immunological scent preference in humans as well, but according to Wyatt, the results have been hard to replicate. Still, it’s a theory.
The other thing that could be going on at these parties is that people detect smells associated with positive memories.
I emailed the woman who created Pheromone Parties. Her name is Judith Prays and she’s an artist living in LA. According to Prays, “People at the parties hate perfume/cologne/artificial smells. They come here for the real thing.” But perfumes and colognes can be attractive, too. I used to date a guy years ago whose cologne smelled so amazing that to this day, when I catch a whiff of it, I’m thrown off guard. I was with a male friend at a bar who dropped our conversation to chase after a girl who he didn’t see but he “had to find out who smelled so good.”
That’s because we learn to like certain smells. “Humans are social animals,” Dr. Zhao told me. “So much of our behavior is influenced by social content.” Tristram Wyatt speaks to the influence culture has on our olfactory preferences in his Ted Talk when describing the British’s fondness for blue Stilton cheese. “Liking it is incomprehensible to people from other countries,” he jokes. It’s an acquired taste. So are certain perfumes. Think about about what your grandma wears — you may have a nostalgic fondness for it, but it’s likely not what’s popular among your peers.
I spoke with Le Labo co-founder Eddie Roschi about perfume and attraction. He doesn’t care about “what’s popular.” He and his partner develop luxury perfumes for themselves and hope that there will be people who agree with their creative point of view. However, “Once those perfumes are out there and a woman becomes your client,” he said, “then the perfume does not belong to you any more. She appropriates that scent and it becomes part of her personal story, how she projects herself. It’s at that point the perfume becomes sexual.”
We spoke about how perfume has the ability to transform its wearer in the same way a new dress might — the energy she gives off, the confidence she exudes. These factors can attract someone to you. Because smell is so linked to memory, it affects the receptiveness of others to your perfume, too. What might be enticing to one person because it evokes happy memories of childhood or a past love could do nothing for another.
Kilian Hennessy, founder of the new high end perfume company By Kilian, brought up similar sentiments. Both men also asked me the same thing when I mentioned my friend who chased that great-smelling woman: What happened when he found her?
Nothing. No attraction.
“Perfume is attractive because people think it’s beautiful, it works in their aesthetic sensibility,” said Roschi. “But that’s not sufficient to make a connection between two human beings.”
Of course, this doesn’t stop perfumers from bottling desire. (Hennessy makes a scent called, “Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi.”) We’re humans. We want to be desirable. But we should take comfort in the fact that despite what “the Internet” may have promised about synthetic pheromones to improve your romantic life or anything of similar ilk, love potions do not exist.
More than one person I spoke with brought up “The Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” by Patrick Süskind. Hennessy gave me the shortened version: It’s the story of man born without his own smell who becomes obsessed with capturing that of female virgins. He kills them and bottles their essence, thus creating the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world.
And how does it end? The elixir this murderer created was so powerful, made him smell so attractive, that unlike one stoic Edward Cullen with otherworldly self-control, the townspeople couldn’t help themselves: They gobbled him up.