Beyond X & Y

Beyond X & Y: Pheromones

Wanna see my vomeronasal organ?

November 23, 2020
The letters "se" and "xy" moving toward each other horizontally, pressing together, and then separating as "s" and "x" move upward and "e" and "y" move downward out of frame
Gender and sex beyond X & Y. [Credit: Niko McCarty | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

In college I heard about these things called pheromone parties where for, like, five days leading up to the party, guests don’t shower and wear the same shirt every day. Then, they come to the party all cleaned up and they bring their stinky shirt, and everyone sniffs the other shirts until they find one that most appeals to them, and you find the person who the shirt belongs to and let the evening run its course.

I’ve never been to a pheromone party, nor have I gone five days without showering or changing my shirt. I’m not sure if I want to go to one, and I’m not totally sure how to discern which stinky, sweaty shirt is most “appealing.” But pheromones seem cool because they make attraction out to be something primal and instinctive. No overthinking, just a gut feeling that this person’s stink is the best stink. Therefore, mate.

The (often changed) scientific definition of a pheromone is a hormone secreted by the body to be received by another member of the same species. It’s thought that the first pheromone identified was bombykol in female silkworm moths in 1959. Most animals, including humans, have a vomeronasal organ, also known as a Jacobson’s Organ, in their nose. In humans it connects to the hypothalamus in the brain, and has pheromone receptor cells. Many pheromones can’t be consciously detected by scent, and not all of them induce sexual arousal.

There are four main types of pheromones:

Releaser: Linked to sexual attraction, these pheromones usually elicit an immediate response from another individual.

Primer: These are slower-acting hormones, and might play a role in menstruation, puberty and reproduction.

Signaler: This is a person’s smell. It’s for a mother to identify her baby by scent. 

Modulator: Usually found in sweat, these pheromones modify or synchronize bodily functions.

In the scientific community it’s disputed whether human pheromones are veritable aphrodisiacs. There’s no strong evidence that they influence behavior. That’s also to say that a single, definitive molecule has not yet been identified as a human pheromone responsible for sexual arousal. 

There have been some studies of the two steroids androstadienone (found in semen) and estratetraenol (found in females’ urine), both thought to be pheromones, with varying results. Some researchers deem them not even worth pursuing while others have found they have an undeniable effect on others.

So the next time you go on a first date, you can save a lot of time and money by just asking to sniff their armpits.


P.S. I feel like I shouldn’t have to tell you, but if you see someone selling human pheromone with the promise that it’ll attract other people to you, don’t buy it, it does not work that way.


About the Author

Elana Spivack

Elana Spivack is a science writer in New York City. When not on deadline, she enjoys salsa dancing, bike riding and befriending bodega cats.


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