Love Potion No. 10 : The Search for Instant Sex Appeal, or Seduction in a Can.

Art Levine is a contributing editor of Spy and the Washington Monthly.

DO YOU WANT TO ATTRACT women and drive them wild?”

The direct-mail letter had appeared in my mailbox, and I was intrigued. As a single guy, I could always use a little help with my love life. I read on. Underneath the bold lettering for “ATTRACTANT 10,” the product being touted, was the word “PHEROMONE” and a drawing of two cat-like female eyes staring at me, promising a sure route to sexual success. I’d seen a bit of information over the years about pheromones--chemicals we supposedly secrete that attract the opposite sex like moths to a flame--but I didn’t know I could order them from home about as easily as a Domino’s pizza.

“Do you want to have women surround you like bees surround pollen? Even if you are unattractive or ugly?” the letter continued. Hey, I said to myself, there’s no reason to get insulting. I’m considered reasonably attractive, but still, I’m hardly a hunk. So I was riveted by its claim:



My curiosity was piqued. I read on. “A seat in a dentists (sic) waiting room was sprayed with pheromones. Women who came into the room began to use that seat and congregate around it.” Was there anything, I wondered, to this pheromone stuff? It worked for moths and for pigs; so since I take my dates to better restaurants than they do, why wouldn’t it work for me?

The promotional letter cited success stories: “I am pleased to say that I was groped and fondled INTIMATELY at a disco by a female,” one unnamed enthusiast said. While wearing Attractant 10, it seemed, I would find myself propositioned at any time: “A very casual lady friend suddenly seduced me,” another satisfied customer quoted in the flyer said. “She shocked me as this was out of character for her.” All told, I learned, Attractant 10 provided “instant sex appeal” for a mere $28--with a money-back guarantee.

Attractant 10’s British-based manufacturer says the company grosses more than $2 million annually selling raw materials or filled spray bottles; one American distributor sells as many as 35,000 units a year. And it’s not alone on the market. More than a dozen different products making similar claims have been sold by direct mail or through magazines since the early 1980s.

Such products often use, I discovered, synthesized pheromones based on those originally found in male boars. Curiously, some of these chemicals have also been found in humans. But would they have the same effects on humans? I was about to find out.

When my package arrived from the Attractant 10 company, I ripped it open and examined my aphrodisiac stash. The instructions said only two or three sprays on my clothing were needed. The company even included a pamphlet, “How to Seduce Girls,” which was, presumably, meant to serve as a backup to the powers of pheromones.

But before using Attractant 10, I wanted to learn more about it. My research led me to Samuel Kram, a direct-mail specialist who, until recently, has been distributing Attractant 10. About the claims in his promotional letter, he conceded: “I sort of hyped it a bit.” (A bit? His letter said, “WORKS INSTANTLY!--Even if the man is short, fat, bald, old or unattractive . . . .”)


To prove that his product works, Kram sent me a dozen customer testimonials and reprints of genuine-looking studies in scientific journals. The letters seemed authentic, though allegedly to protect the writers’ privacy, Kram had tried to black out their addresses so that they couldn’t be contacted.

The only address I could decipher belonged to Mac Butler, a data processor in South Windam, Me., whom I telephoned to learn more about his experiences. Butler was eager to get more Attractant 10 because the first bottle “worked great.” A 40-year-old divorced, retired Navy man, Butler told me he noticed something unusual about the fragrance while riding in an elevator. A woman he did not know gave him an intense stare and asked, “What are you wearing?” Butler interpreted her question to mean that she was sexually transfixed by him, rather than indicating that his cologne smelled odd.

Butler also told me that a light dab of the stuff increased his successful pickup percentage--at bars, parties and elsewhere--by about 40%. And, he reported, if he puts some on before making love, “it does act like a stimulant” on his female companions. Although Butler sounded as though he might do well enough without extra help, I was inspired by his success.

I was even more impressed by a letter from a fellow named Jack. He was desperate for a bottle of the stuff after learning of a friend’s experiences with the potent fragrance. Women were said to have followed his friend around, making physical advances toward him in public. What was his secret? He said to Jack: “About two months ago I couldn’t get laid if my life depended on it.” Then Jack’s friend acquired a container of Attractant 10 and went to a bar. “Within five minutes,” he told Jack, “I had three women next to me, all asking me to buy them drinks.” After that, Jack said, his friend became the town’s Don Juan, and Jack was hoping to follow in his footsteps. “Can’t wait forever,” he signed his letter, adding: “P.S.: Counting the minutes.”

IT WAS TIME FOR A FIELD TEST. Isprayed the strong-smelling, musky stuff on the collar of my fresh polo shirt and headed for a popular Washington bar and restaurant called The Front Page, located in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. I glided around the bar, eyeing the young women with their short skirts and bright smiles, waiting for them to turn their attention to me. If the pheromones were powerful enough to draw women to a dentist’s chair, wouldn’t they draw them to a presentable member of the opposite sex? Apparently not. I soon realized that I was 15 to 20 years older than the college-age kids in the bar, and that my chemical signals were competing with young men in shorts and turned-around baseball caps. Discouraged, I left to seek an older crowd.

I found it at a swank Georgetown nightclub known for its Art Deco interior. The women there were closer to my own age, although I had to compete with obviously rich businessmen and divorced lobbyists in hand-tailored suits. But they didn’t scare me off--because I had Attractant 10.


The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” played in the background as I headed toward two blondes in slinky dresses. I put on a broad smile and said: “So, do you like this place?” They burst out laughing, shook their heads and resumed talking to each other. The ads had said I’d be surrounded by women within minutes. Maybe the pheromones took a little longer to work with me.

Finally, I found a woman who did respond--or at least let me sit down next to her. After chatting with her for a while, I asked her to dance. She turned me down. So did another attractive woman. In this one club alone, I was batting 0-for-4, a far cry from the promised results. I had to remind myself that, over the years, women had actually gone out with me, sometimes even fallen in love with me--a witty, charming, good looking SWM who likes literature and moonlit strolls on the beach. What did I do wrong?

I turned to the experts for help. Charles J. Wysocki, a psychobiologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, helped explain the science of pheromones. Based on evidence to date, he says: “It’s not at all true that humans have a sex (appeal) pheromone,” although someone may yet uncover one. I was crestfallen.

The problem is that the boar or musk deer pheromones in today’s sprays appeal only to the females of those species. Pheromones, after all, are defined as secretions that trigger a response from another animal of the same species. And there’s no reliable scientific evidence that the substances contained in Attractant 10 or similar products contain any human pheromones.

The lower orders of animals, I learned, get to have all the fun. Female moths emit a sex attracter so powerful that it draws horny male moths from more than a mile away--and when it’s placed on cardboard, it spurs the males to try to hump the cardboard. Unfortunately, nothing resembling that substance has been found in humans.

For centuries, laymen and scientists have been searching for aphrodisiacs. And most of these seekers shared one trait in common: They were men. Of course, women want to lure the opposite sex, too, but there’s a difference: They focus on making themselves attractive to men or worrying about how to enhance their relationships. So whether women turn to dieting, exercise, plastic surgery or self-help courses, at least what they’re doing requires some work and can lead to genuine change. Not so for the males; we want instant gratification--without any effort. If we had our way, many of us would secretly prefer to skip the flowers, expensive dinners and theater tickets and jump right into bed with the woman we want. Pheromones held out the promise that any man could do just that, and, best of all, without having to be rich, handsome or even interesting.


MY HOPES SOARED ANEW WHEN I stumbled across a small item in Fortune that appeared under the headline “Finally, a Good Aphrodisiac?” I devoured the news about the pioneering research of Erox, a small Menlo Park-based firm that claimed to have isolated at least 20 human pheromones. The “feel-good” pheromones they’ve discovered make women feel “warm, sensual, available, relaxed” and leave men feeling “very secure and confident,” the firm’s founder, Dr. David L. Berliner, an anatomist turned venture capitalist, told Fortune. The cologne they planned to sell wasn’t to be available until spring, but I couldn’t wait. As a serious-minded journalist, I wanted to learn more about their research, and, by the way, maybe get a sample or two.

Erox differs from other fragrance firms that claim to offer pheromones. For one thing, Erox doesn’t run ads showing sex kittens in lace underwear touting an “Incredible Sexual Discovery!” The company has conducted careful research, has an impressive board of advisers and has avoided sweeping claims for its products, disavowing any press hype. “No way is what we’ve found an aphrodisiac,” says David Dolberg, the firm’s patent counsel and spokesman. “The influence of a pheromone is more subtle.”

That was good enough for me to book a flight to the company’s Salt Lake City labs. On the way, I read more about how Berliner made his discoveries.

It happened by accident. In the mid-’50s, as an anatomist studying human skin cells at the University of Utah, Berliner noticed a strange phenomenon; he and his co-workers, normally a grouchy lot, became friendlier when he left the vials of skin-cell extracts open. They even played cards together during their lunch breaks. Then, when he put the flasks away, his co-workers returned to their normal serious selves. He hadn’t heard about pheromones then, so he didn’t know how to pursue the research. He knew enough, though, to freeze and save the skin extracts. Meanwhile, he went about becoming a millionaire through his development of tiny, spongy spheres to hold drugs and cosmetics.

In 1989, he returned to his flasks and isolated the active chemicals. He suspected that he might have discovered human pheromones, but he didn’t know how these substances worked or what the human mechanism was that responded to them. Lower animals detect pheromones through the obscure vomeronasal organ (VNO) located in the nose, which accounts for the widespread myth that they’re detected by a sense of smell.

Berliner put together a research team based at the University of Utah to discover if there was an active, functioning human VNO--and whether it responded to the chemicals he found. The team explored the VNO and, with a specially designed electrode-tipped tube, recorded the electrical responses emitted when the organ was exposed to Berliner’s chemicals--but not when it was exposed to placebo substances. Surprisingly, one putative pheromone synthesized in the lab prompted a strong reaction from men, but not from women, while a different one had the opposite effect. “Bingo!” Berliner recalls thinking when he learned about that differing response. “I’ve got something amazing here.”


Other scientists, without access to Erox’s yet unpatented findings, haven’t confirmed them yet. Nor has the Erox team proven the theory that the VNO is linked to the brain’s hypothalamus, site of our primitive drives such as sex, hunger and fear.

I couldn’t care less about anatomical questions. I wanted to know how these substances would make me feel and what results they would help me obtain. I could have used some pheremones when I arrived exhausted at the University of Utah labs, but getting samples from these folks wouldn’t be easy. I soon found myself in a small office talking to a man who clearly didn’t need any pheromones to feel self-confident or attract women: the president of Erox.

Pierre de Champfleury--a tall, tanned, handsome Frenchman in a hand-tailored Yves St. Laurent suit--had left his post in 1991 as head of YSL’s fragrance division in Paris to head up this new company. “The fragrance industry is looking for innovation,” he said. “So the potential for this is considerable.” If I looked like him, I thought, I wouldn’t need to beg for pheromones.

“Is there any chance I might be able to get a sample of one of the pheromones?” I asked as casually as I could.

“No, not until the product comes out,” he said.

The two leading Erox researchers on the campus, British chemist Clive Jennings-White and neurophysiologist Dr. Luis Monti-Bloch, were low-keyed scientists who viewed their work with seriousness. Jennings-White was young and soft-spoken, with glasses, long hair, an earring and the sort of thin, blue polyester shirt favored by nerds worldwide. His mustachioed senior colleague, Monti-Bloch, was a walking encyclopedia of dry facts about the VNO. By focusing so closely on scientific details, they seemed to overlook their basic mission: to create chemicals that made it easier for one to have what singer James Brown called “a funky good time.” Despite their commitment to scientific integrity, they were frequently importuned by university colleagues, and even their own wives, with requests for samples. “We just say no,” Jennings-White said. “I made it clear to my wife that it’s not a possibility to use this for a trivial or non-scientific use.”

I bided my time and watched a lengthy slide presentation on the scientists’ discoveries. At the end, chief researcher Monti-Bloch intoned in his Uruguayan accent: “We have shown that the VNO is a functioning receptor organ”--and that there are substances that have gender-specific effects on it. Great, I thought, but where are the damn pheromones?


Finally, Monti-Bloch and Jennings-White took me down the hallway to the room they sometimes refer to as the “happy room.” Jennings-White, I’d noticed, smiled suspiciously often. Still, he insisted, “It’s not like there’s a roomful of people sniffing this stuff all day long.” In fact, in one part of the small lab room was a “fume hood” with a thick glass window that kept Jennings-White from being exposed to the pheromones while working with them. Vials, flasks and bottles were everywhere. From a cabinet, he took out a large glass dish filled with a white substance. I asked: “What’s that powder?”

“Human pheromones,” he said, carrying it past me to put it behind the protective glass screen of the fume hood. There, inches away from me, was what I’d been seeking.

“If I put it on my hand, would it have an effect on my VNO?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“So why can’t you put some on my hand?” I asked, adopting a just-between-friends tone. He laughed and shook his head, and Monti-Bloch said: “You’re not allowed.”

But before I left the lab, Jennings-White offered me some hope. “Just by being in this room, am I getting any pheromones?” I asked plaintively.

“Oh sure,” he said, noting that when he unwrapped the aluminum foil covering the glass dish with the pheromones, I might have accidentally absorbed some of them.

LATER THAT NIGHT, I WENT out to singles bars in Salt Lake City. I wasn’t particularly confident but thought I should test the products in the sexually repressive capital of Mormonism. With the Attractant 10 I’d brought with me on the trip and whatever I’d absorbed in the lab, I had my best shot.


I was looking for prospects at a club called Port O’ Call when I noticed two attractive brunettes talking with each other. A tall man with muscular arms and blond hair down his back asked one of them to dance, and soon the two were cradling each other closely, his face buried in her neck. I then invited her friend to dance. Once on the floor, I asked: “Did they meet before tonight, before an hour ago?”

“No,” she said, keeping a proper distance from me as we danced to “Like a Rolling Stone.” By now, the other couple were all over each other, his hands caressing her body.

“It’s chemistry, I guess,” she said.