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Photo by Mike Pearl via Wikimedia Commons
This Valentines Day, if you must read one sentence about aphrodisiacs, please let it be this one: Don’t buy any so-called aphrodisiacs, and instead save your money for a nice dinner. That’s the FDA’s longstanding position, and the Mayo Clinic’s, but they’re obviously going to be boring and conservative about risks you might take. I’m much less conservative, but I agree with them completely.
The internet is a perfect machine designed to trick people into buying fake aphrodisiacs, and it’s been that way for decades. Imagine this was your first day here. If you were like most people, within seconds you would be aroused by the internet’s limitless free titillation, made insecure by a completely unfiltered flow of targeted advertising, and bombarded by deceptive spam messages offering a quick solution to your problem.
In many ways, the internet has made good on its promise to provide us with just the answers to things instantly, as with this amazing Google feature that automatically harvests information from reliable sources, and presents it in the search engine results page — my vote for Best thing Humanity has Ever Accomplished:
But when the answer to the question is murky, the usefulness of this information harvesting peters out:
I don’t know about you, but this leaves me feeling like it’s 1997 again, and the internet is still a wild frontier of conjecture and advertising packaged as fact.
Because that’s my real name at the top of this page, your trust in my research into the subject of aphrodisiacs can hinge on my journalistic integrity, and not any actual medical training, but know that I do have unique expertise of a kind: As recovering writer of web “content,” I can tell you — abashedly — that every tenth article we’re assigned is about a pill, herb, tonic, food, or you-don’t-want-to-know with supposed sex benefits, and we are supposed to make the stuff sound like it works. Once we scan our own work for typos, there is no next person checking our work for clinical accuracy. It just goes out into the world full of our unchecked hunches, and Googled “facts.”
Wonder-drugs, not aphrodisiacs
First of all, you already know there are some treatments that help people with sexual problems every day:
- For men, there are the three stooges (how I wanted to type a pun in place of “stooges,” but you’ll have to use your imagination): Viagra, Cialis, Levitra, three of the most popular pharmaceuticals on the planet. When abused by those who do not need them, these drugs produce the long-sought-after aphrodisiac effects that the ancients pined for, and when used properly, the aged become amorous once more. Better living through science!
- For women, there’s been clinical research showing that testosterone therapy is effective in treating loss of sexual appetite, and some doctors prescribe it, while others don’t think the potential side effects are worth it.
- Men with conditions like hypogonadism that cause impotence take testosterone as well. Steroids are connected in an unclear way to increased testosterone, and ostensibly increased sex drive, but as the D.A.R.E. program made clear to us all, they can also lead to impotence in the long term.
- For years, there have been whispers of a highly effective aerosol spray that works on men and women, but it seems to have cardiac side effects that are keeping it away from human trials.
These, and very few other medically sound findings are the facts we have about bringing about sexual arousal in humans, chemically.
What about those sketchy pills for men?
Don’t buy any aphrodisiacs from a gas station or a spam email, no matter how funny the name is. The secret to their legality is their perceived inefficacy. Packagers tell the authorities they’re full of “all natural” ingredients, and the authorities allow them to be stocked as harmless placebos, but they are much more insidious than that. Some are placebos, but others are — according to an FDA news release — modified compounds that resemble something like Viagra, but are unknown, untested, unregulated, and horrifying. This modification of a known drug for an untested purpose is essentially the same phenomenon that in other contexts we call the sale of “bath salts,” as drugs.
“Mojo Risen,” for instance was available at Shell stations, and it was the compound used for Viagra but with one less methyl group on the nitrogen atom in the new molecule than in the original. What happens when there’s one less methyl group on the nitrogen atom? I don’t know. I’m not a chemist, and chemists don’t know either, because the compound has never been tried in a clinical setting. It was, however, briefly being packaged and sold without telling customers it was in there.
The rest of the world’s over-the-counter pills are a very mixed bag. At the absolute worst, there was Spanish fly, a compound that, while it was poisoning you, caused your genitals to swell, creating an erection-ish illusion if you were a man. Fortunately that’s mostly off the market. Enzyte was a pretty worthless assortment of herbs that was the locus of a credit card scam. Extenze remains a major Nascar sponsor, and as a “men’s health supplement,” it’s not clear whether it is supposed to make penises bigger, or more reliably erect, but no convincing case has been made that it does either. Extenze does, however, contain the steroid DHEA, which is legal over-the-counter in the United States via a loophole, but not associated with the treatment of erectile disfunction.
So when you buy those pills you’re being scammed in the best of circumstances, and your health is at risk in the worst of them.
What about aphrodisiac foods?
When I lived in South Korea, I was told time and again that one of my favorite dinners, barbecued eel and raspberry wine, would afford me something that translated literally as “stamina,” and connotatively — people were raising one eyebrow when they said it — as “sexual vigor.” This was doubly true, I was told, if I ate the pointiest part of the eel: the tail. I didn’t care if it was an aphrodisiac or not, because it was delicious.
This trend of consuming animal protrusions in order to symbolically absorb, and then embody tumescence, seems to extend to other traditional aphrodisiacs. Traditional Chinese medicine touts other animal parts that stick out, like deer antlers, rhino horns, a fungus that produces horn-like protrusions from the heads of caterpillars, and of course animal penises. Most of these — especially the ones that drive animals to extinction — do absolutely nothing, and none seem to be effective aphrodisiacs.
I’m not a Western chauvinist about medicine. Traditional Chinese remedies produced innovations that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for years of tradition. These include life-saving antimalarials, promising dementia treatments and even chemotherapies. But much of that same testing rigor has been applied to traditional aphrodisiacs that are confidently advertised, with only thousands of years of tradition to back up the claims, but in scientific trials they haven’t delivered so far. (That link was to an interesting and instructive story about “horny goat weed.”) It doesn’t mean they never will.
Furthermore, Western medicine chauvinists are no better about equating resemblance to genitals to validity as a sexual therapy. Just as often, though, Westerners prefer similarity to female genitals rather than male. Here are excerpts from a credible-looking blog, apparently written by an M.D., that presents you with all kinds of tips about foods to “get you in the mood.”
- “For a special after-dinner treat, try serving almond paste, also known as marzipan, in the shape of suggestive fruits.”
- “The suggest[ive] shape of asparagus can help get you in the mood, too.”
- “Avocado: Because of its shape, the ancient Aztecs named this fruit ahuacatl, or testicle.”
- “In ancient Greece, the use of sparrow eggs as an aphrodisiac was prevalent, and the sparrow is also associated with Aphrodite.”
- “A halved fig is thought to resemble a female’s vagina and is traditionally considered a sexual stimulant.”
As with research defending much of the Chinese remedies I came across. There’s a phenomenon that I find hard to compete with: the tendency to string connections to chemicals found in foods tenuously to experiments that correlate those compounds with certain effects. I’ll give you an example from that same blog: “Asparagus contains high amounts of vitamin E, considered one of the sex hormone stimulants, as well as potassium. Vitamin E increases blood and oxygen flow to the genitals and potassium is important for healthy sex hormone production.” This was the same trick I used when I was writing advertisements for this stuff, and the internet is stuffed to the gills with it.
As a thought experiment, I cooked up my own version of this for your delectation. Read it with the understanding that it is fake, and bad advice, and not medically sound:
A good way to achieve enhanced sexual ability is by ingesting cannabis. As this peer-reviewed article shows, proper function in the hypothalamus comes from the presence of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Hemp seed oil contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, and this oil occurs naturally in cannabis. Therefore, any ingestion of cannabis will enhance sexual function.
It’s frustrating that some of the medical information available online about sexual function and food is based in science. Oysters, for instance, really do contain massive concentrations of zinc, higher than perhaps any other food. Zinc is required by the body to produce testosterone, but it’s required for just life in general. A zinc deficiency will kill you, and too much zinc is also detrimental to your health. Loading up on oysters to get your zinc fix is not, however, a reliable path to sexy times!
In short, a food high in something you need in order to function sexually, doesn’t have a traceable mechanism of action that gives you sudden sexual urges. In most cases it’s just a tangential connection used to justify a tradition or a hunch.