Pheromones are chemicals secreted by certain animals which result in a direct effect on hormone levels or behavioural changes in other members of the same species. Their complicated molecular structure enables these chemicals to carry large amounts of information to the recipient. The best known and studied example is the pheromone produced by sexually receptive silkworms, called “bombykol”: female silkworm moths attract male mates by releasing the pheromone from a gland in their stomachs, which is then detected by tiny receptors at the tips of the male’s antennae. The male can detect this pheromone from as far as several kilometres away, and uses the chemical signal to find its way to the female.

Whether or not chemicals such as these affect, or even exist in humans, has been under debate by the scientific community for some time. Despite the fact that very few properly controlled scientific studies have ever been published, many fragrance companies have grasped excitedly at the possibility of human pheromones. Online companies which claim to use human pheromones as an ingredient advertise results such as ‘powerful and instantaneous sexual attraction’ or the creation of an ‘aura of social ability’; results which would certainly be appealing to anyone looking to ‘get lucky’.  However, these bold assertions are never backed up by scientific fact –that’s advertising for you.

But what if human pheromones do exist, and play a part in sexual attraction? By wearing pheromones are people manipulating others into doing things they otherwise wouldn’t? One brand of pheromone products, Pherazone, has already anticipated this debate by including a (rather comical) warning in conjunction with their advert: “Of course, you should use this product ethically as women will have trouble resisting the increased attraction and chemistry created.”

It seems wrong for science to affect the natural formation of human affection and the development of relationships. Pheromones appear to be a ‘trick’, a subtle lie to attract attention which wouldn’t naturally be given. But then many women wear push up bras, body slimming underwear and make up, and the world of enhancements isn’t limited to the feminine: men too are not adverse to applying some concealer, styling their hair or pulling a David Beckham by putting a sock down their pants… Is this not the same thing, manipulating appearance in order to provoke a sexual response? It is just that the ethics of many of these practices remains largely unquestioned because they are so widespread. At a greater extreme people opt for cosmetic surgery, creating an image of themselves which is more artifice than reality.

But the point is that human beings are far more complicated than animals: we need something more than a great smell to maintain attraction. Communication isn’t limited to chemicals, and a higher bond of personality and shared morality is surely as important as chemistry. Colognes and wonderbras do not remove free will.

Hilary Boden

Image:  The Welsh Poppy on Flickr