JD and I stood in his kitchen, huffing each other’s shirts. He inhaled deeply, his nose stuffed into my balled-up cotton t-shirt. He exhaled.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think it’s smelly enough.”
This was terrible news. We were two days into preparations for tonight’s Pheromone Party—a social art project/dating mixer hosted by Long Beach-born artist Judith Prays. We’d been dutifully sleeping in these shirts for the past two night and now there are only a few hours left until we would head to LA theater Cinefamily and deposit our sweaty shirts into Ziploc bags tagged with numbers. Then, with booze in our hands and hope in our hearts, we would smell strangers’ t-shirts and take photos with the ones we find ourselves attracted to.
“My entire dating life, I dated intellectually,” says Prays, who came up with the project after an “existential crisis” brought on by too many dead-end dates with guys who she found intellectually charming but lacking in physical spark. ”Nothing ever lasted more than two months. Then I went on a date with a guy who I wasn’t really interested in at all. We had nothing to talk about, but then at the end of the night he kissed me and the kiss was amazing. We wound up dating for two years. It was my best relationship ever. I loved the way he smelled.”
The Pheromone Party is a reaction to the impersonalness of dating these days. Going straight to the pits, so to speak, cuts through all the self-concious crafting of our online and public identities.
“I was sick of the digital world,” says Prays. “I thought, I need something physical.” In other words: It doesn’t matter how pretty your profile photo is or how great your music taste is—your sweat can’t lie.
Or can it? JD and I found ourselves embarrassingly concerned that no one would fall in love with our t-shirts and were willing to swing the odds in our favor in any way possible. Is pungent better than subtle? Should I have gone running in mine? Fearing scent contamination, I refused to store my shirt in a Whole Foods tote bag.
Before the event, we met up for drinks with Amanda—who had been wearing her shirt nonstop for two days—and Kate, who hastily stuffed her shirt into her bra to enhance the scent. Kate’s shirt was a bright red American Apparel v-neck. My white cotton Fruit of the Loom looked bland in comparison. I wouldn’t date my shirt.
The party itself took place on the packed back patio of Cinefamily. Over 100 shirt-sniffers squeezed between tiki torches and an open bar serving absinthe (trouble) to snag shirts off two long tables. A long line snaked out from a photographer’s setup, where photos of people holding their favorite shirts were then instantly projected onto a movie screen. The photos, like the shirts, revealed a mixed bag. In some shots, people laughed at the silliness of the whole endeavor. But in many, the expressions showed a mix of optimism and self-deprication, as if running through their minds was the thought, “Oh, #112. She’ll never go for me.”
I grabbed a bag off a table at random, took a whiff, and was instantly repulsed. That’s a surprise—I think of myself as a person who likes most people. But I had to sniff my way through eight shirts before I found one I liked. Number 142. I waited in line and, when the photographer focused on my face, discovered the same expression I’d seen on other’s faces. “142 is too good for me. So spicy and wholesome, he’s probably all squared away.”
As predicted, Kate’s red shirt was in high demand, making several rounds past the photographer’s lens. But now, instead of pressure, I felt at ease, relaxing into an idea of our genetic fate. The shirt-smelling was a kitschy ice breaker, sure, but it also straddled the interesting line between fate and impulse. In its absurd way, the whole t-shirt smelling process made it clear that’s there’s not just “the one” for us—many people pique our hormonal interest.
My friends and I struck up conversation with a couple people amid the crowd, but nothing stuck. No one picked my shirt or JD’s, but we both found excuses for that. The were contaminated, the wrong color, not smelly enough. Prays, the artist, had more strange connections than us all: Her well-slept shirt was picked out of the lot by both an ex-boyfriend and she chose a shirt that turned out to belong to a long-ago high school crush who’d turned up to the party.
The next morning, shaking off a hangover, I walked to the coffee shop and found myself looking at the regular suspects in a new light. “Yeah, the barista is cute,” I thought, “But what’s he smell like?”
Maybe you’re just the person I’m looking for!
I’m looking to interview a bunch of people in diverse types of relationships for my book Modern Lovers. I’m trying to track down people who identify with any of the situations listed here.
All interviews will be anonymous, unless you feel okay with having your name in the book.
• Childless by choice, either in long term relationship or not?
• In an non-monogamous dating relationship or open marriage?
• Someone who doesn’t identify as either straight or gay, but feels ambiguous for some reason?
• A queer senior (over 55) or queer teen?
• A queer person who identifies with a religion that generally does not accept LGBT folk?
• An atheist who’s married?
• A feminist of any gender who thinks a lot about navigating gender norms in dating?
• In a long-term relationship but never gotten married?
• Someone who’s been divorced and who can speak to why it was the right decision?
• Someone who identifies as asexual or has decided not to have sex for a rather long period of time?
• A rad dad or hip mama? In other words, a parent who gives a lot of thought to raising your kids in an open minded and anti-authoritarian way?
• A swinger—either some who participate in an organized swinging group, like a club, or just someone who swaps partners or brings in a threesome partner with some regularity?
I’m interested in talking to you about the day-to-day of these relationships: What’s hard? What’s easy? How did you get started? How do you communicate and make decisions? The idea is to develop role models and share the nitty-gritty details of these lifestyles with people who are interested by likely ignorant of the logistics.
If you identify with one of these groups and are up for helping others learn about your life, email me at mirk.sarah[at]gmail.com to set up a time to talk! Don’t worry, I’m friendly. And I’ll even buy you coffee!
I live in Portland, Oregon, but will be traveling to LA, SF, and NYC this spring, so if you live in any of those places, we can likely meet up in person. If you live in any of those places and are up for talking, drop me a line! If you live somewhere else or an in-person interview doesn’t work, I’d love to talk over the phone.