By B.A. Nilsson
centuries, people have attempted to stimulate sexual magic
with food, drink and drugs—but which ones really work?
hardly was time for the ramifications of sex to sink in before
I heard about Spanish fly. This, for me, is the enduring legacy
of Boy Scouts. Tent talk, or murmurs, long after lights out,
when older kids delighted in tormenting us tenderfeet with
the Facts of Life. Amazing. Frustrating, too, because girls
were a different life form, unapproachable, sure to be repulsed
by this base desire.
matter,” soothed an Eagle Scout. “All you have to do is slip
some Spanish fly into her drink.” He went on to describe a
situation that involved this magic potion, bad timing and
a stick shift.
Soon I discovered that every older guy I knew had heard this
story, and I even found it on a Bill Cosby record. It’s recounted
in Jan Harold Brunvand’s urban legends collection The Choking
Doberman, and given even more detail on the urban legends
Web site www.snopes.com.
It’s the sorcerer’s apprentice all over again, according to
snopes.com archivists Barbara and David P. Mikkelson, where
magic spins out of control while playing on the “adolescent
male fear of the (perceived) strength and irrationality of
the female sex drive; the idea that even a ‘nice’ girl is
really a ravening sexual beast just waiting to be awakened,
and that if you do arouse this primal lust, it will be more
than you can handle.”
Not so, I hear you insist. You can handle it. Tonight. Where
to find this Spanish fly?
It’s actually a beetle—cantharides, the “blister beetle”—the
ground-up carcass of which is irritating to the skin and thus
was thought to tickle the urogenital tract in such a way as
to provoke a sexual frenzy. “No medical or scientific test
has ever shown Spanish fly to be deserving of its reputation
as an aphrodisiac, however, and its indiscriminate use can
result in serious medical problems,” the Mikkelsons conclude.
(And don’t confuse it with the South American beetle whose
ground-up carcass produces cochineal, a red coloring agent
you’ve eaten many times.)
According to the Food and Drug Administration, “An aphrodisiac
is a food, drink, drug, scent, or device that . . . can arouse
or increase sexual desire, or libido. . . . Named after Aphrodite,
the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty, the list of supposed
sexual stimulants includes anchovies and adrenaline, licorice
and lard, scallops and Spanish fly, and hundreds of other
Do any of them work? Check the eBay listings under “aphrodisiac”
and you’ll find dozens of items offered; likewise, the back
pages of supermarket tabloids trumpet these concoctions in
ads. Somebody is buying them, but they’re not sharing news
of their success.
In 1989, the FDA found no scientific proof that any over-the-counter
aphrodisiacs are effective, but, as the agency’s own Web site
notes, these findings “clash with a 5,000-year tradition of
pursuing sexual betterment through use of plants, drugs and
magic,” and “people continue the optimistic quest for drug-induced
Men were using the bark from Africa’s yohimbé tree
long before the days of viagra, and the gingko leaf extract
that’s touted as a memory enhancer gives a general boost to
blood circulation, which always helps get the necessary parts
in working order. But there’s nothing on the radar that works
as a magic potion upon an unsuspecting companion—at least,
nothing outside of that touchy area of sleep inducement. There’s
always good old booze, which fairly reliably helps relax inhibitions.
But, as Shakespeare advised, “it provokes the desire, but
it takes away the performance.”
Some items were assumed to have aphrodisiacal qualities because
they resembles genitalia. Antlers and asparagus, oysters and
the astonishing-looking coco-de-mer (which grows on
the fan-leaf palm in the Seychelles) are category favorites.
And don’t overlook simple walnuts, a staple of ancient Roman
fertility rites. Its Latin name, juglans, derives from
“glans of Jupiter.”
For the most part, however, if you need stimulants at all,
your best success will come from those substances that promote
a sense of well-being.
A medicinal boost comes from foods like the ashwagandha,
a pepper native to India and Africa, and an important part
of Ayurvedic medicine. It has a steroidlike effect, which
boosts testosterone—and which allies it with ginseng, one
of the all-time classics thanks to its stress-fighting capacity.
When you’re out to sow wild oats, keep wild oats in mind.
In addition to complex sugar chains, oats contain proteins
and steroidal saponins (anabolic steroid precursors, for the
technically minded. They won’t push the body past its natural
limits), as well as a relaxation-inducing alkaloid content.
There’s an herb known to the Chinese as dong quai that’s
especially useful for women. It contains plant sterols which
have estrogen-like qualities—nothing as powerful as animal-based
estrogen supplements, but enough to put you back in your game,
perhaps, if you’re feeling low.
A tasty, healthful, relaxing meal promotes that elusive sense
of well-being. It may be all you need, but try to work some
pesto in there. Garlic was considered an aphrodisiac by ancient
Greeks and Egyptians, and pine nuts are renowned the world
over. For a sweeter blend, mix the pine nuts instead with
honey and almonds, and you’ve got a 2,000-year-old formula
rich in L-arginine, which stimulates male and female erectile
tissue, and zinc, good for testosterone production.
More recently, green M&Ms began to be singled out for
their lust-inducing properties about 30 years ago, thanks
to some imaginative college students. Again, we turn to the
Mikkelsons at www.snopes.com: “Why the green M&Ms were
attributed with this power is unknown; perhaps it was because
the color green has always been associated with healing and
The search for a foolproof love potion will persist as long
as we worship from afar; it’s the stuff of classic literature,
from Chaucer and Shakespeare, to the present. But a never-failing
formula was proposed 2,000 years ago by Seneca: “I will show
you a philtre without potions, without herbs, without any
witch’s incantation: If you wish to be loved, love.”
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