Washington - As I walked into a party on a recent Thursday night, I was self-conscious in a way I'd never been before: What if no one likes the way I smell?
It's summer in Washington, DC, so no one smells all that great. But this night was different from your average gathering of sweaty bodies. I was about to enter a pheromone party, where strangers would be inhaling my scent via a T-shirt I'd been wearing.
It's a fun if strange experiment. Singles are meeting in lots of odd ways these days. Perhaps sampling each other's DNA the way you might go wine-tasting makes more sense than swiping through photos on a dating app.
"It's a lovely experience to not visually judge someone - to smell someone before you see them," said Amy Morse, who organised the pheromone party with Pakke, a new DC arts organisation she co-founded.
Pheromone parties have taken place in New York, London and Los Angeles and I've long wanted to attend one. As soon as I'd signed up, instructions arrived: I was to sleep in the same clean, white T-shirt for four nights to capture my pheromones. Then I'd bring my shirt to the party, sealed in a zip-top bag.
Pheromones are chemicals that mammals secrete from our cheeks, hands, neck, scalps, armpits and other more intimate spots. Scientists have studied whether, by sniffing someone's sweaty T-shirt (and the pheromones contained therein), we might be able to detect a good genetic match.
However, the science of pheromone-based attraction is far from certain. Additionally, hormonal birth control can disrupt a woman's scent and ability to sniff out a partner.
Pheromones aside, the room's odour print was overwhelming. One of the partygoers who's a kombucha brewer was serving samples of a maca-cacao concoction in mini-mason jars. (Both ingredients are aphrodisiacs, he told me.)
Another had a large group queuing up for her gin cocktail with Icelandic black lava salt on the glass's rim and garnished with a sage leaf, which she would slap loudly to release its oils before placing it your drink. Oh, and give her the wrist of your drinking hand, so she can swab a line of lavender oil to reduce nervous tension and enhance blood circulation.
I ran into several people I know but have not sniffed up close: a guy friend I've known since our teens; a first date from years ago; a friend's ex who's wandering around with his shirt off (he spilled salsa on it, he says); and a guy who recognised me from the week prior when I was drinking alone after getting stood up for a first date. "I didn't bring a T-shirt," this last man says before reading his poetry to the crowd of 20- to 40-somethings, "but you can come smell me."
That's right, partygoers were also encouraged to inhale pheromones straight from the source. A projection screen lowered and Sadaf Lotfalian, a clinical psychologist in training, gave a lecture on the science of pheromones and instructed us to ask for consent before going up to someone and sniffing behind their ears.
Lotfalian did meet one man whose aroma she inhaled directly. "Our connection was instant," she said, and not based on scent alone. They ended up in a deep conversation about why Lotfalian sometimes shies away from love and her fears around it. They've seen each other three times since the party.