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Pheromone parties smell fishy

Remember the pheromone parties craze of 2012? Me neither, don’t worry about it. What happened was that all of a sudden the media went gaga over the improbable and slightly gross fad of matchmaking events based on the sense of smell – or something like it. The news was everywhere for a while, then it disappeared from the radars only to briefly resurface here and there. The parties however went on: I recently received an invitation myself, so I thought this was the time to set the story straight once and for all.
Let’s start from the basics: ‘pheromone’ is the English bastardization of an actual Greek (and scientific) word meaning airborne hormones. They are a common way to communicate in the animal kingdom, the most common examples being between insects or non-herding more evolved species. Typically, a fertile female releases the hormone telling she’s ready to mate, so that the males can sniff it in the air and follow it to the source. Other notable examples are pheromones signifying a potential prey is poisonous or scared, or that an individual is  pregnant and needs care.

This biological truth has been forcibly twisted and bent by marketers into a story where humans are pheromone-sensitive as well as other species, hence “pheromone colognes” which supposedly attract the opposite sex getting it “in heat” without even knowing why. A variation of this are the parties in question, where people should hook up with their ideal partner on the base of his or her subliminal scent. This probably involves (non-existent) individually-tailored pheromones, but let’s not delve into this.
Participants attend bringing a Ziploc-bagged t-shirt they wore for three nights. Every bag is given a number and goes on a table where people can smell the contents freely. If you find a scent you like, you get your picture holding the numbered bag so that it can be projected on a wall. The owner will get in touch with you right there or via Facebook, where the photos are immediately posted.

There is just a couple of problems with this. First: pheromones don’t work like that. It is true that humans release them, but in infinitesimal quantity which simply cannot be perceived – not consciously, nor subliminally. Also, the only thing you can smell in a worn shirt is sweat. Which is fine and dandy: many people are aroused by it – but its odor is the result of bacterial secretions, not pheromones, and it largely depends on what you eat, your ethnic group of origin and your sense of personal hygiene. Mystery hormones really don’t play a role there.
So why pheromone perfumes actually appear to work? If you are the kind of insecure person who can use such a product, even a little belief in its effects will give your self-confidence a much needed boost and you will appear bolder and more appealing to others. It’s as simple as that. But what about the parties? They are great for misophiles, no doubt about it. Besides that, something smells fishy about them.

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Since 2005 Stephen Gough, known as ‘the naked rambler’ insists on trekking around Great Britain in the nude to protest the vague laws about nudism. He was repeatedly imprisoned for disorderly conduct, yet he immediately undresses as soon as he is released, just to be arrested again.



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