Ladybeard co-founder and Dazed Beauty Contributing Editor Kitty Drake examines the UK knicker selling industry and asks why buyers attach so much emotion to their scent
John*, a consultant in his early twenties, is trying to tell me why he has a thing for G-strings. He’s been buying used underwear online for the last year and he has very specific tastes: the smaller the better. He doesn’t care about colour, or material, but he is absolutely opposed to full coverage and so briefs are out of the question. John has interrupted his holiday in Spain to explain this to me – we’re speaking on Whatsapp audio and he sounds young, and extremely polite. “For me it’s about style. If a seller doesn’t have a certain pair I want then I won’t buy.” He tells me he doesn’t try to imagine what the woman he buys from might look like. It doesn’t matter to him. This is more intimate, and more complicated than that. It’s about the beauty of the pants, their smell, and what an object can come to represent.
Knicker sniffing in the UK is big business. If you’re thinking about selling yours: the competition is fierce. I’m trying it myself right now and it’s difficult to keep up. The hashtag wornpanties has more than 40,000 Instagram posts, and if you key in the search-term ‘pants’ on Craigslist reams of ads will appear; the wording ranging from the precise (“selling wife’s used underwear”) to the deliberately vague (“pants and socks for sale £40”). On Twitter, where nudity policies are more relaxed, accounts like Panty Queen Kaylee and Panties By Grace rack up tens of thousands of followers.
Some buyers choose to wear the used pants they buy, but most just smell them while they masturbate. One man describes the scent to me as “transcendent”, another puts it more plainly: “it’s kind of like you’re cumming every time you inhale.” What’s striking though, is that for every single person I speak to, the exchange of knickers sounds more romantic than strictly sexual. The ideal, as one buyer puts it via email, is for the pair of pants to embody the woman’s personality: “The excitement is getting the aroma of that person on this secret item that they’ve chosen to give to you.”
For Rob, a landscape gardener in his late thirties, it’s even more intimate: “It’s a sensory thing, isn’t it?” he says over the phone. “You know like when you have a boyfriend or girlfriend and you can smell them on the pillow? It’s similar to that.” For Rob, too, it doesn’t matter so much what the woman who he buys from looks like. “Often I have no idea what they look like,” he says, “or if they send a pic whether it’s really them.” I point out after the interview by text that this sounds a bit like when you fall in love with someone: you stop thinking about, or even being able to properly visualise, what they look like, but your sense of the way they smell and feel is heightened. “Yeah I guess it is,” he replies, shyer now we’re not on the phone. “It’s a hormone thing.”
In a world where women are conditioned to find our own genitals inherently repulsive – if you have a vagina, you probably grew up spraying it with deodorant after PE. It comes as a bit of a shock, then, that the smell inside our pants might get people off precisely because it’s 100% au natural. Buyers usually ask for three days wear (one man asks me for eight), and according to Amanda Luterman, a psychotherapist specialising in sexuality, the fragrance is erotic because it taps into a primal human urge. It’s attractive because it’s fleshy, not sanitised. “It’s not supposed to smell like the clean, perfumed skin of an arm, or an elbow,” she tells me. “It’s the smell of that which is normally hidden from the world. It’s the inside of another person. Smell is the most evocative sense, and to breathe in the scent of another person’s vulva is a distinctly powerful experience of presence with that person.”
Buyers often have favourite styles, usually associated with archetypes of female sexuality: one man I speak to loves black and red lace, which he links back to the fact that every single Ann Summers advert ever features black and red lace (“It’s like it’s been hardwired into our brains”). But beyond the look of the pants, or the looks of the woman who is selling them – the pants are important because they are a means of closeness, not just physical but emotional. One man messages to ask me for a shiny pair, but when I end up posting a pair of size 18 Marks and Spencer cotton briefs he writes to thank me. “These are much better than any shiny pair you could have sent because they presumably represent you and your choice. Very nice.”
As a new seller, at first I found this presumed relationship unnerving. But there’s also something strangely nice about it. To buy and sell knickers two people have to meet online and make themselves vulnerable to one another. The process is exposing, but the pleasure of it is that the pants become a connection, each pair a blank canvas for your fantasy about the other person. In the physicality of touching and smelling the material it’s like that fantasy comes true. There’s a feeling of online community, and the people I speak to are funny, and self-aware, and able to be honest about something frighteningly intimate. Coming together over the internet – bound together by a panty – you reveal yourselves to one another in a curious way.
When I go to interview Carl, the boss of a big transport company, he tells me he’s been married for 20 years, but it hasn’t been good for the last four. We meet in a Costa and he arrives carefully dressed, a little late. When he picks up his coffee mug I can see his hands are shaking. Afterwards, he emails me to say sorry he wasn’t on time. He almost bottled it. He’s been buying knickers for nearly two decades but today was the first time he’d spoken to anyone about it out loud. Fetishes can be embarrassing, isolating. Rob tells me about the time his fiancé found out about it – the relationship ended soon afterwards. Alan, one of the last men I interview, tells me that his mother caught him with a pair of pants once, and it was awful. But he kept buying. He likes the conversations that can come out of it. As time goes on, I find I do too.
The ever-expanding knicker business could be an unexpected consequence of a post-free porn society. When everyone can access explicit videos in seconds, the interest in buying used knickers online feels like a throwback to something tangible, less lonely. One man in his late fifties, speaking to me via email, describes the thrill of getting hold of a pair of pants as like that of buying an old fashioned porno mag. “It’s physical, isn’t it? And it’s about discovery. When you watch those videos it’s all fictitious. It’s like a machine.” John, who at 22 has basically grown up saturated by online porn, talks about pants like an antidote. When I ask him what it feels like when he smells a pair, he compares it to the intensity of meeting someone in person. “You know when you go to a party and you make a connection with someone romantically? It’s that excitement.”
Even the most professional sellers seem to be in it for more than the money. Veteran panty vendor Dani, of hothousewivesdirtyknickers.com, says the pleasure of concealment can work both ways. “I definitely get a kick out of it. I’ve been with my husband 20 years and he doesn’t know. I have a secret phone that I hide in the cupboard of the downstairs loo. I do actually enjoy it. I just went to the post office now – this one guy in America orders once a month, hundred quid. And I just talk to him on Whatsapp and stick a pair of knickers up my fanny!” I’m speaking to Dani on her secret phone. Her excitement about panties is infectious. She sells to women and men (interestingly, women are generally less interested in the whole chat bit), and makes up to £400 a week. How does her husband not notice that much money coming in? “Well, he’s away a lot. Also I’ve got very expensive hair.” She laughs for a long time. “I spend a lot of money on hair.”
Strange for something that seems, from the outside, almost silly – or sleazy in a kind of frilly, innocuous way – dipping into the world of panty selling you get the feeling there’s a lot at stake. You take the risk because life, like sex, is often mechanical and lonely and boring – and a pair of pants can lift you out of the mundane. The beautiful thing about this fetish, and perhaps all fetishes, is that something as everyday as your dirty pants can hold such significance for another human. Alan talks about pants as ‘souvenirs’. A certain pair will bring back a day or a moment to him, making the experience somehow more vivid. It makes me think about the rituals we all have to try and find meaning. And about the significance of objects. I ask him whether he thinks an aesthetic object can in some way save us. “Yeah,” he says, probably humouring me. “Particularly if it’s a really nice pair of pants.”
Incidentally, I’m still selling. Email me at email@example.com.