Eau de Vagina

A Novel Investigation into Human Pheromones (Part 1)

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A comment before we get into it

This research can be criticized for two reasons:

  1. The topic is weird, sexual, and maybe gross, depending on your sensitivities.
  2. The experiment does not meet the gold standards of academia. 

I can’t disagree with you on the first one – you got me there. But on the second point, please note that this research serves a different purpose than academic research. It should be judged within the context of feasibility, how the results might be applied, and the best available preexisting knowledge.

Cosimo’s approach to science is about balancing a dedication to rigor with the courage to proceed and experiment. We can and should apply scientific truth-seeking methods to more unexplored questions, even in the absence of ideal conditions, with transparency in how we communicate results. 

With that in mind…

WTF is vabbing?

Vabbing = vaginal + dabbing. 

Ladies, picture this: You're getting ready for a night out, and instead of reaching for your perfume bottle, you decide to harness the raw, primal power of your own body. With a quick dab of your vaginal fluid behind your ears and on your wrists, you step out into the world, radiating an aura of sexual allure.

This seduction method was trending on TikTok around 2022 but it’s been around well before that. Anecdotes abound of women being showered with male attention when they put on their special perfume. “Proceed with caution — because it works,” one TikToker warned. “I swear, if you vab, you will attract people, like a date, a one-night stand or you’ll just get free drinks all night.”

Depending on your sensitivities, you may find this absolutely disgusting. Plenty of people online certainly do. I saw more videos and articles responding to how gross vabbing is than I did about people actually trying it. 

But a dedicated cohort of vabbers swear by it. What if there is really something to it? It wouldn’t be that hard to improve upon these influencers’ casual n=1 experiments. 

Is it possible that our bodily secretions actually send signals to others?

Do humans even have pheromones?

The existence of human pheromones is still up for debate. But basically, for now, the evidence in the scientific literature is weak. 

This assessment partly depends on how you define pheromones. The fact that humans have odors which might relate to various biological functions and can affect others is well-supported (e.g. menstruation or immune function). But if we define them more specifically as messenger substances between individuals of the same species that “release a specific reaction—for example, a definite behavior or a developmental process” (Karlson and Luscher, 1959), then scientists haven’t really found anything that fits the bill.

Some research has suggested that people are more attracted to others with a differing HLA genotype from themselves (antigens that affect body odor) as a way to avoid mating with those that we are genetically related to, but these findings have not replicated (Halvicek, Winternitz, & Roberts, 2020). Two specific steroids, androstadienone and estratetraenol, were commonly suspected to signal human sexual attraction, but recent evidence does not support their validity as pheromones (Wyatt, 2020). See Wyatt’s review for an in-depth assessment of the issues with current human pheromone research.

In summary, the existence of human pheromones remains unproven.

How we tested it

We wanted our test to be representative of real life use and close to how vabbing would be actually applied. So rather than, say, exposing participants to isolated substances and having them view images of faces, we had real women hugging and conversing with real men. But we still did it in a lab setting so that we could make measurements and control for a few conditions.

The study was advertised as a “Cognitive Enhancement via Hugging Trial.” Appropriately, we held it on Valentine’s Day. 

We had 20 participants (19 male and 1 female), all of whom gave their informed consent for a study involving unexpected sensory stimuli (e.g. hugging, smells, etc) which could not be disclosed. 

We had two female experimenters who interacted with 10 participants each. For each experimenter, half of the interactions were without vab (control) and the second half were with vab. 

In each interaction, the female experimenter stood in a marked spot in the room. The participant entered and gave her a timed, 10-second hug. Then he stepped apart and answered a series of cognitive questions which she read from a script. The whole thing took about 3 minutes.

There was a hidden ruler against the floor which we used to secretly measure the distance at which the man stood from the woman – this was the main outcome of interest, which was inspired by a study called Oxytocin Modulates Social Distance between Males and Females. We also measured the participant's heart rate before and after the hug, his responses to the cognitive questions, and his response times.

For more details about the experiment design, see “Was the study good enough?” below.


Participants stood 4.4 inches closer on average to the female experimenter if she had applied the vab (p=0.1041).

This p-value means that, if it were true that the vabbing actually does nothing, there would be only a 10.41% chance of getting these results.

Heart rates increased 1.2 bpm after the 10-second hug in the control group, and increased 9.0 bpm in the vab group (p=0.0596). Even with high variability in the change in heart rate, there is a large effect and the difference has a small p-value.

Cognitive test performance and response times were not affected by vabbing, which is not particularly surprising. This doesn't necessarily mean that cognitive function is not affected by vabbing, but the effect is probably either small or nonexistent.

An alternative analysis for statistics nerds

Although they are a useful tool, it doesn’t always make sense to focus on p-values. The failures of doing so in science are well-documented. “By itself, a p value does not provide a good measure of evidence regarding a model or hypothesis,” said the American Statistical Association in a statement that they issued on the matter (Wasserstein & Lazar, 2016).

But what alternatives exist? Two that have been proposed are Cohen’s d (an indicator of the effect size) and Bayes Factor (quantifies the relative evidence of each hypothesis) (Halsey, 2019).

In this case, the Cohen’s d are -0.58 and 0.73 for social distance and change in heart rate respectively. These are large effect sizes! A value greater than 0.5 means that the difference between the means is greater than half a standard deviation.

On the other hand, the Bayes Factors are 1.43 and 1.97 respectively. This is not considered to be particularly strong evidence. It means that the alternative hypotheses (there is an effect) are 1.43x and 1.97x more likely than the null hypotheses (there is no effect). However, it still indicates a preference towards there being some effect.

Was the study good enough?

Sample size: We had 20 participants and 2 female experimenters. This is an improvement over the existing anecdotal social media evidence (which cannot be easily aggregated since people have different protocols). Our sample size was enough to see interesting differences in social distance and heart rate, but a larger sample size would give more confidence in the results.

Blinding: The participants thought the experiment was about how hugging affects cognition. They didn’t know about the vabbing. They didn’t know that social distance was being measured. The female experimenters knew about the treatments since they had to apply their own vaginal fluid. 

Controlling for scent: To ensure no overlap of scent, the 10 control group interactions were done first, followed by the 10 vab interactions. To ensure a sufficient dose, vabbing was reapplied between each vab interaction. 

Controlling for female’s subconscious signaling: The hugs were timed to be 10 seconds. Female experimenters stood in one spot and read from a script during the whole interaction.

The best existing evidence points to vabbing’s efficacy

We observed that participants stood closer to women when they had vabbed, and that their heart rates increased more after hugging.

According to this research, which is the most rigorous study on vabbing ever undertaken and hence the best available scientific evidence, there is something about vabbing that actually creates an effect on men.

Our study has its limitations, including a relatively small sample size and imperfect proxy measures of attraction. Ultimately, whether vabbing is a genuine chemosignal or merely a cultural curiosity remains to be seen. However, by embracing flexible approaches to scientific inquiry, we move one step closer to understanding the complexities of human nature and the subtle signals that shape our interactions.

After the successful execution of this trial, we had a follow-up question: Is there a male equivalent?

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