My date, Hannes, had just been swimming in the East River and I could smell him over the cafe table. This made sense, as it had been his scent that first attracted me several weeks earlier.
I’d chosen him as one of my Smell Dating matches, an online matchmaking project that combines the internet’s ability to judge multiple people at once with a physical object (a smelly T-shirt) packed full of pheromones.
Billed as “the first mail odor dating service”, Smell Dating hopes to connect people based on what body odor they find attractive. For $25, you’re sent a T-shirt to wear for three days – no perfume or deodorant allowed. You then send it off and receive samples to sniff in exchange. You choose which scent you like the best, and if both your nostrils agree the other smells great, you’ll be matched via email. No information about age, gender or sexual orientation is known beforehand.
“Generally the people who smell better to you are genetically different to you,” explained Tega Brain, a 33-year-old artist from Brooklyn who created the project with New York University researcher Sam Lavigne.
Research on pheromones is still ongoing, but Brain explains that our interest in someone else’s smell is based on the compatibility of your immune systems (sexy!).
“We sort of joke, maybe high contemporary divorce rates are due to deodorant and not being in tune to smell,” she added.
For three days I wore the same white V-neck T-shirt both day and night in an effort to “embrace the musky possibilities”, as Smell Dating encourages. Luckily it was a relatively cool weekend and I deliberately avoided exercise, but I was working on a big story and anxiously sweated over it (and then worried how that would affect my scent).
By the end of the weekend, my T-shirt had a definite pong to it. I wrapped it up in its bag and shipped it off. A week later, I received 10 different bits of T-shirt to sniff. The samples all come from the armpit region. Brain called it the “most data-rich” area.
Some smelled so strongly of rancid body odor that I gagged. Another smelled like bubblegum. One had the fragrance of laundry mixed with sweat; another like they’d just gone on a hike outdoors.
“One of the things about smell, it was so clear to me who I liked and didn’t … it releases you from having to do that [normal internet dating] analysis,” said Brain.
After my scent experience, I filled out the online form with my top picks and awaited my results.
I got four matches: with a German artist, a sex columnist, an artist who once did an exhibit with human breast milk cheese and an origami artist. Two men, two women. Interestingly, I found that I matched with those I’d ranked as “maybe” rather than a definite “yes”.
The German artist, Hannes, and I met for a Friday afternoon coffee, engaging in interesting chats about how he lives on a boat in New York City and goes swimming in the East River, which is so notoriously filthy that there’s a skit in Seinfeld about it. He showed me a virtual reality meditation app he’d created. He wasn’t a match for me personally – although I did think he was handsome and smelled good, so the initial physical reaction was accurate – but I’ve just done an email introduction with another friend of mine who I think he’d get along great with.
“Smell dating is fully supportive of secondary matchmaking,” laughed Brain, when I told her about my date. They’re planning to run another New York and North America round of Smell Dating soon, and another for a museum exhibition in Shanghai, China.
Brain herself joined in, going on a date just last week with one of her matches. “It was very strange getting an email saying ‘you smell nice’,” she admitted. She doesn’t think she’ll see him again.