I am crouching with a tall paper bag over my head, with holes cut out for eyes, nose and mouth, while sniffing a stranger’s hairy armpit. All the faces around me are equally obscured by paper bags, and each is inhaling the scent of underarms; we look for all the world like a very niche branch of the Ku Klux Klan.
This is not a gathering of white supremacists or strange fetishists, but an ultra–modern speed-dating night called Romancing the Armpit, and I am here to find love. Aged 35, never married, and alone for nearly two years, I am far from an anomaly: there are now more single British women than ever before. The official figures show that 43 per cent of women under the age of 50 have never been married, more than twice the proportion a generation ago, and there are more women living alone now in their thirties than in any previous era.
It’s not there are no men available —that would be statistically improbable — but that women want to find Mr Right, rather than merely Mr All Right, and in the era of Tinder, casual hookups and what Vanity Fair has called the ‘dating apocalypse’, that’s harder than it sounds. And so, refusing to give up on the pursuit of romantic happiness, we are prepared to try increasingly unconventional methods of finding true love. Unorthodox events to have sprung up in the past few years include Shhh Dating (silent speed dating), Playdate London (an arts and crafts-based dating night) and Killing Kittens (a masked ball).
Hence I’m feeling claustrophobic in a paper bag in a darkened room trying to reassure myself there is at least science behind this charade. The theory is that we can sniff out the right partner by assessing him purely on the pheromones secreted in his sweat. Body odour is influenced by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules, which are genetically determined and linked to our immune systems. Numerous studies have shown that we judge potential sexual partners as more attractive if their MHC composition is different from our own. Still, the evening is downright odd.
Encouraged by the articulate organisers to style my underarms prior to the event, I have ‘vajazzled’ them with glitter. I wanted to use green to dazzle potential suitors, but was worried my pits might look mouldy, and that I would have to keep saying to my dating compatriots, ‘All that glisters is not mould.’ I eventually decided on gold glitter instead, and unfortunately now look as though I have ginger armpit hair — incongruous on an Asian woman.
Before the sniffing starts, I sip a strong sweet complimentary cocktail through my mouth-hole, and ask a man nearby why he’s chosen to attend. Embarrassingly, I can barely make out what he’s saying through the paper bag, because there are no holes for ears and the music is too loud. During a pause in the bassline, I discern that he works in marketing — then, bizarrely, he confesses: ‘I just had a look at your boobs!’ Deciding he probably isn’t a keeper, I scuttle off and hide in a corner.
I am relieved when all participants are given a number, a scorecard and a paper cup, and the night begins. To my surprise, everyone has to sniff everyone else’s underarms, both men and women. Though we were encouraged to go deodorant-free — and some men here have clearly taken this to the extreme — I needed the glitter to adhere to something, so have used peach-fragranced perfume oil. I wish one particular man had used it too, instead of opting for body odour with a hint of curry.
Sniffing strangers’ underarms is bizarrely intimate, and quite disconcerting. After the singularly pungent whiff mentioned above, I feel nervous about getting too close. Thankfully, most of the armpits smell like deodorant, soap or nothing at all. Sadly, I realise I don’t fancy any of the men, pheromones or no pheromones — I tend to favour introverts, and most of the men here seem very outgoing and confident.
After the first sniffing session, we are allowed to remove our paper bags and have a 15-minute interval. Most people seem relieved; a few had already started lifting their bags up for air. During the break, some extrovert daters elevate their arms and strike a pose for a photographer, who takes a ‘candid armpit portrait’. Others beautify their underarms at a station full of glitter gels and sprays, or sample what claims to be the world’s sexiest perfume, but many merely opt for another potent cocktail.
It is while sipping my drink that I meet someone lovely. Actually, two people, alas neither of them men. They are fellow female daters in their mid-thirties, both professionals. They admit that they don’t fancy any of the men either. We sample the sexiest fragrance: ‘If sex smelt like that, I’d do it a lot more!’ says one of the women. They confess that they signed up for the night while drunk. ‘And at least if we don’t click with anyone, we get to spend time with each other.’
Once I’ve met them, the night becomes far more enjoyable. Still chatting, we queue up together for the second round of armpit-sniffing. I relax so much that I fail to spot the dater with the pungent armpit, and duly inhale his noxious smell again, which almost makes me retch. After this round, the night is over; I swap details with the two women, invite them to a comedy night I’m playing at, and say my goodbyes. ‘We might not have met a man,’ one says sweetly, ‘but we’ve made a new friend.’
As I walk back on my own in the rain, I reflect that, as thirtysomething women grow older, the chances of us settling down decrease so exponentially that — no matter how outré and fantastical the dating scene may become — making new friendships is far more likely than falling in love.
Ariane Sherine is a musical comedian and comedy writer. She discusses dating with Cosmo Landesman on this week’s Spectator podcast