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Another TikTok Trend Not Based on Science: Vabbing

Vabbing, which is precisely what it sounds like, relies on humans having pheromones that no study has ever conclusively proven to exist.

Vabbing, as the name perhaps suggests, involves the dabbing of vaginal secretions onto so-called pulse points of the body—wrists, neck, inside the elbows—just as you would a fragrance. The practice purportedly makes you irresistible to a would-be partner. The craze took over TikTok for a while and received coverage across the internet. Proponents cite pheromones and deep-rooted biologic responses and fall back on its low-risk, no-cost character as reasons it's harmless even if it weren't effective—but it definitely is, according to them. Let's see what science has to say.

For starters, although often sold as such, vabbing is not an entirely risk-free practice. Anytime any item or body part is inserted into a vagina, there is some risk of infection. Washing hands very thoroughly before can mitigate this risk, but particularly for people with long fingernails, there is potential for introducing bacteria to the vagina. On the other hand, there's also risk associated with transmitting bacteria, yeast or STIs from a vagina onto the vab-point and, from there, to anything that skin touches. It's true, for the vast majority of vabbers, these issues will probably never arise. But billing the practice as entirely harmless is not quite truthful.

In my opinion, the vabbing takes that focus on the health risks, from the balanced to the sensational, miss the main issue with this trend: it's scientifically bankrupt. The proponents of vabbing base their reported success on pheromones, forgoing the unfortunate fact that we have no evidence that human pheromones exist. And it's not for a lack of trying to find them!

Numerous studies dating back to at least the 1970s have attempted to find experimental evidence of pheromones in people. Given how we fit into the animal kingdom, which abounds with pheromones, it's a reasonable idea. For example, male house mice have several pheromones that can elicit aggression from other males and attract and accelerate the puberty of young females. But despite many studies and who knows how many research dollars, to quote Dr Tristram D. Wyatt of the University of Oxford, we still "do not yet know if humans have pheromones."

Some studies have found positive effects when exposing people to certain chemicals, often androstadienone and estratetraenol. Unfortunately, many of these studies suffer from severe methodological flaws and biases. To quote Dr Wyatt again: "There is simply no peer-reviewed, bioassay evidence... that any of these four molecules is a human pheromone. Calling the molecules ‘putative human pheromones', as many authors do, does not avoid the problem: they have never been shown to be human pheromones, ‘putative’ or otherwise."

One recent study that was quite methodologically rigorous was performed at the University of Western Australia and published in 2017. In part 1, 46 heterosexual participants indicated the gender (male or female) of five gender-neutral facial morphs. In part 2, 94 participants rated photographs of opposite-sex faces for attractiveness and probable sexual unfaithfulness. Each task was completed twice on subsequent days, one day being exposed to a control scent (clove oil) and the other a putative pheromone, androstadienone or estratetraenol, with the smell masked with clove oil.

As the authors wrote, "exposure to the putative pheromones had no effect on either attractiveness or unfaithfulness ratings. These results are consistent with those of other experimental studies and reviews that suggest [androstadienone] and [estratetraenol] are unlikely to be human pheromones."

Dr Wyatt argues that the current methodological issues with human pheromone research are such that even if they do exist, we won't find them using our current methods; "It may be that we will find that there are no pheromones in humans. But we can be sure that we shall never find anything if we follow the current path. We need to start again."

It is far from scientifically impossible that humans exhibit pheromones. Indeed, a very good argument that it's probable we do can even be made. But what is scientific nonsense are all factual claims by people, usually chasing a sale or internet clout, that pheromones definitely exist in people or instructions on how to harness them.

How, then, can you explain the success reported by vabbing enthusiasts? Mike Hall explains it eloquently, writing for The Skeptic. He sees four possibilities. First is "the file drawer effect. Women who vab and then go out clubbing and don’t pull perhaps aren’t as likely to make a TikTok video about it. That will skew reports into the positive." The second is "confirmation bias. Women who vab and then go out clubbing are going to attribute any romantic or sexual success to the vab, because that’s what they’re expecting to happen. Even if those successes would have come anyway." Thirdly, it could be "a sexual placebo effect. Women who vab and then go out clubbing are going to feel more confident in themselves, they are going to feel more attractive, feel more irresistible, and that additional confidence might be what is resulting in an increase in their romantic and sexual success." And finally, as he writes, "there could be a scent thing going on" without it being pheromone-based.

The practice of vabbing also raises some issues of consent or at least politeness. I, for one, would not want to hug someone or shake their hand if I knew this was their perfume of choice. Scent-free policies have been an important accessibility feature for a long time now; I wonder if this specific fragrance falls under those guidelines.


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