Wrestling in Bed with the Myth and Science of Aphrodisiacs

By: Madeline Zelazo ’22

“Madeline Agatha Zelazo” Father Steve pronounced into the microphone as heads turned to the back of the church where I stood. I walked down the maroon carpeted aisle outlined by pews filled with young Catholics who were also making their confirmations. I had chosen to adopt the confirmation name Agatha, the Patron Saint of breast cancer, in honor of my grandma who passed away from it just years prior.

In Sicily, pastries called Cassatella di sant’Agata, or “Saint Agatha’s breasts” are made in honor of Agatha because she was believed to be a martyr who was tortured by having her breasts cut off. These pastries are in the shape of breasts–covered with white frosting and erect with ruby red cherry nipples. This is probably the only accepted excuse, that I can think of at least, for devouring a breast in public.

Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, Italy. She is also the patron saint of breast cancer patients, martyrswet nurses, bell-founders, and bakers, and is invoked against fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna on the island of Sicily.

We sexualize food all the time whether it’s Agatha’s breast pastries or texting the eggplant emoji to our crush. What’s more is that food and sex, the most basic needs of life, have been wrestling in the bed sheets of our minds for as long as time. More specifically, the idea of how we can use food to enhance our sex drives or make people fall in love with us has been teased more than once; this is where the origins of aphrodisiacs, possibly the eighth wonder of the world, comes from.

The FDA defines aphrodisiacs as “any product that bears labeling claims that it will arouse or increase sexual desire, or that it will improve sexual performance.” Currently, there is only one FDA approved aphrodisiac, flibanserin, which was approved in 2015 to be taken by women with low libido, although there is much criticism over its potentially harmful side effects when exposed to alcohol while taking.

For centuries, however, people have experimented with foods and herbs that sometimes have harmful and deadly side effects, in order to find substances that arouse. The history has a consistent track record of being intertwined with myth. To further explore, I dove into that history as well as prepared a meal of supposedly sexual enhancing foods for two friends, and asked them about the experience.

Tracing aphrodisiacs back to their origins, the name aphrodisiac began with the goddess of love and sex, Aphrodite. Born out of the severed genitals of Kronos, Aphrodite rose from the thrashing of the sea and embodied the idea that seafood possessed sensuous qualities.

The pure existence of love birthed from the sea excited people’s beliefs about seafood and innate sexual enhancement. Moreover, the saltiness of the sea and the pungent fishiness of sexual secretions, lay the foundation for more aromatic common ground. Today, oysters are still thought of as having sexual enhancing properties— good luck trying to eat one without feeling like you are slurping down the someone else’s insides.

In the 18th century, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, the O.G. womanizer, was believed to have eaten 50 oysters a day to increase his sexual arousal, which is some serious pre-Viagra action. He even came up with the “oyster game” which involved dropping an oyster into the bosom of a woman and retrieving it after having let it slither down her body. Casanova would then lick the oyster juice off of the women’s breasts, a true gentleman at work.

However the reality brought to light in a 2015 study published in the journal Sexual Medicine Reviews explained that oysters have less stimulating benefits than people think. The author, Micheal Kyrchman wrote, oysters have “specific amino acids and serotonin, which are integral in the neural pathway of the pleasure response..however there are no … data to confirm that oysters have any beneficial effects on sexual responsivity or satisfaction.” On the bright side, even if oysters aren’t necessarily aphrodisiacs, at least now you now know a fun game to play on your next Hinge date…thanks, Casanova!

The aim for aphrodisiacs has shifted much from their original purposes which was purely to increase opportunities for women to become pregnant. In 16th century Europe, the average life expectancy for humans was mid-twenties to early thirties, which meant they had to start their families as early as possible. It was also a time when infertility was deemed a misfortune for the kingdom’s crops, so couples frolicked in fields before planting for good luck.

A lot of aphrodisiacs were used because they were believed to improve sperm potency and sexual stamina which in turn, improved the likelihood of pregnancy. Dating to circa 400 BCE, the ancient Hindu erotic love manual Kama Sutra spoke to this perspective stating: “Even if one manages to subjugate someone, but is unable to consummate the relationship, there will be no result. In order to enhance virility, the science of aphrodisiacs is described.”

One of the most prevalent aphrodisiacs evoked in Kama Sutra is honey, appearing in almost all of the sexually stimulating recipes.

Her sexual secretions smell of honey. Her neck is marked with three lines, and her voice is like that of a partridge…She eats little and has a sweet tooth. (98)”

Honey is golden, ablaze with sweet, sticky nectar that drips slowly and steadily; it mimics the bodily secretions of sex. People usually associate love and sex with things that are sweet and intense in feeling and taste. As humans we have a natural affinity to sweetness, taking preference upon first taste. It’s no surprise that one of the only sweet foods available to the ancient world was perceived as a heavenly, erotic nectar.

Mad honey, that is, honey that is contaminated with grayanotoxins that intoxicate the body has been utilized as an aphrodisiac since 2100 B.C. Made from Rhododendron flowers most prevalently found near the Black Sea region of Turkey, “grayanotoxin binds and activates neural sodium ion channels, leading to continuous vagal stimulation. Low doses of grayanotoxin cause hypotension and bradycardia, while high doses cause syncope, atrioventricular block, and asystole.” In other words, your sexy-time might be interrupted by the need for some serious medical attention.

Studies have shown that mad honey can be lethal and it is not safe for consumption, however, regular honey is fine–although there is no research backing its aphrodisiac qualities. Although, honey in relation to sex has roots that stretch fairly deep into the cervix of history.

Like clockwork, we call our lovers “honey,” we go through the love blind “honeymoon phase” of dating and if things go well, we take post-wedding “honeymoon” vacations to tropical islands and far-away lands to relax, celebrate, and most of all, consummate.

In fifth century Europe, when time was measured by moon cycles, newlyweds would drink mead, a boozy fermented honey drink, that was believed to arouse and increase intimacy between the couple. Of course, if you have enough booze in any capacity there’s a high likelihood that things will be getting hot and heavy, as shown adequately in every romantic-comedy ever created.

In utter curiosity and in the pursuit of knowledge, I fed Micheal and Rachael Wuchter, a Northampton duo married for roughly 6 years, an aphrodisiac inspired meal to see if this past-honeymoon-phase couple felt as inspired as fifth century European newlyweds and romcom couples. Since I couldn’t get my hands on any rhinoceros horn, wild yam extract, or Spanish fly–all partially toxic, semi-illegal aphrodisiacs–I stuck to some basics: dark chocolate, strawberries, figs, maca and of course honey.

Aphrodisiacal virgins Micheal and Rachael Wuchter were game to try a meal of sexually enhancing foods, and report later on its effects.

Although they have never screwed around with aphrodisiacs (pun intended) until I strut through the door of their home bearing as many as I could gather, food has always been an important part to their relationship. “We never have rushed meals, even if that means we are eating at nine or ten o’clock sometimes we would wait to have dinner at ten o’clock instead of just having a quick meal alone at like six or something … we always kind of eat together no matter what the situation,” Michael explained.

This night in particular, however, I was providing the meal and dinner was just after 7 p.m. Having a meal prepared for you is arguably an aphrodisiac in itself, we agreed, as the Wuchter’s reflected on their current moods after a long day: heavy.

The meal began with freshly brewed ginger root tea.

Ginger, implemented into Arabian medicine as an aphrodisiac, was also used by 19th century physicians for dietary needs, anti-nausea, and other factors. Its wide array of uses didn’t stop there; lovelorn women drifting through the 16th century would buy gingerbread men from witches and magicians that, supposedly when fed to a man, would make them fall head over heels in love. If only it was that easy!

Next was spinach salad with goat cheese, figs, and pomegranate. Phallic resembling foods like mushrooms, carrots, and asparagus and yonic shaped foods like oysters, papayas, and halved figs have also faded in and out of the aphrodisiac realm because of their evocation of genitals.

The meal ended with dark chocolate covered strawberries drizzled with honey, sprinkled with maca powder–a plant extract domesticated around 3800 B.C. that is believed to “benefit the endocrine and reproductive systems by addressing such disorders as chronic fatigue, anemia, and infertility and to aid in enhanced stamina and hormonal balance.”

Chocolate (cacoa) for example, is inherently thought of as romantic and sexual. We shower our loved ones with chocolates on the most romantic day of the year, Valentines Day, so naturally people associate the two (or if you’re like me, we go to the store the day after Valentines to buy disgusting amounts of half priced chocolates for ourselves.) In ancient Aztec, people “referred to chocolate as ‘nourishment from the Gods.’” In one legend, it’s claimed that emperor Montezuma drank copious amounts of chocolate on a regular basis to swell his sex drive, and possibly his stomach too, for his multitude of wives.

Mesoamerican civilizations utilized chocolate for its perceived medicinal properties and reserved it for only the high elites who were mostly men. In fact, it’s not uncommon that foods which were believed to be aphrodisiacs were also used as medicine and in religious rituals because the ancient concepts of virility, stamina, and fertility have always been the little spoon to health.

The next day, I talked to the couple to see if the aphrodisiacs had any effect at all, the climax: even if the food wasn’t necessarily sexually stimulating, the open conversation about aphrodisiacs definitely was. “I think just having the conversation around sex and aphrodisiacs put us in a more romantic mood even if it wasn’t explicitly sexual. Not having to cook and having a homemade meal in our home that we didn’t have to make definitely gave it a date night feel, and there was a lot of fun to share–cracking jokes, feeding each other strawberries–it was memorable for sure,” Michael shared.

In a New York Times article published in 2006, chocolate and its aphrodisiac powers are placed under the microscope. The author writes, “Scientists ascribe the aphrodisiac qualities of chocolate, if any, to two chemicals it contains. One, tryptophan, is a building block of serotonin, a brain chemical involved in sexual arousal. The other, phenylethylamine, a stimulant related to amphetamine, is released in the brain when people fall in love.” Finally, justification for having dessert.

Whether it was a placebo effect or not, there wasn’t much disappointment from the Wuchters after the meal. “I actually did feel kind of warm and nice,” Michael said as Rachael chimed in, “I did feel maybe, uh…tingly? Down there! Which I was pleasantly surprised by– and the lightness of the food made my body feel light and energized… Like that heaviness that I mentioned felt a smidge lighter.”

It’s very likely that this meal did make the Wuchters feel good! Much of the foods labeled as aphrodisiacs have specific vitamins and serotonin stimulators that are healthy and productive for the body’s overall functioning.

What’s the takeaway? Scientists has proven that most of these foods don’t hold the erotic-inducing properties that people believe them to possess, historically and today. What has become more clear, however, is how aphrodisiacs, across time, have been handcuffed to the bed frame of gender roles, religion, folk-medicine, fertility, class, and most obviously, sex.

Encompassed in myth, the use of aphrodisiacs is more of a fun choice rather than scientifically-backed behavior. Like the Wuchters, trying aphrodisiacs was an excuse to feed each other strawberries; like Casanova, it’s an incentive to lick oyster juice off of someone’s breasts; and similar to Montezuma’s heavenly chocolate drink, well, that just sounds delicious.