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Sniffing Your Way to Better Sex

From the goat testicle potions of ancient Tantra to the lavender-scented dildo we got in the mail, aphrodisiacs have always occupied a weird space between myth and science.
October 29, 2015, 6:10pm
Photo by Deirdre Malfatto via Stocksy

The Lily 2 vibrator arrived on my doorstep last week, a sleek black box containing a purple scented vibrator. "Romantically infused with the scents of lavender and Manuka honey," the box read, but it smelled more like a chapstick I would have wanted to eat in secret when I was young.

I skimmed the PR sheet: The Lily 2 comes in three scents, "Bordeaux & Chocolate" and "Rose & Wisteria" being the other two. All of these are vaguely romantic, or sexual, but why?


According to Merriam Webster, and lore, an aphrodisiac is simply "something (such as food, drink, or drug) that causes or increases sexual desire." Chocolate, I know, is an obvious one; it contains tryptophan, which builds serotonin and promotes sexual arousal, as well as phenylethylamine, a stimulant that hypes you up like a line of cocaine. (And as Dr. Helen Fisher discovered when studying neurology, the brain's reaction to cocaine is the same as its reaction to love.) Like chocolate, roses are also grossly associated with romance, but the folkloric side, not science. According to The Aphrodisiac Encyclopedia: A Compendium of Culinary Come-ons in ancient Egypt, Cleopatra "carpeted her pleasure palace with rose petals" because she believed the scent enticed her lover, Mark Antony. When she wanted to seduce him, she layered them an inch thick on the floor.

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Today, research can find any justification for why a natural product might boost your sexual health; it's so explainable it almost feels like bullshit. Chilies and cayenne contain capsaicin, which increases blood flow and stimulates nerve endings (which is also why it's suggested to induce labor). The vitamin E in avocados brings out estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone, which stimulate sexual responses like clitoral swelling and natural lubrication. Pomegranates pump up antioxidants, protecting the lining of the blood vessels, allowing more blood to go through faster and increase genital sensitivity. Basically, any food that gets your blood going also makes you feel sexier, which is the same logic behind the skeptical science of aphrodisiacs.

Could a scented vibrator really make a difference? What did humans do before sleek, carefully designed sex toys imbued with a light scent of Manuka honey? Did the ancient Greeks slather themselves in oysters? Or was everyone too busy chugging sour wine in their merkins to care?

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Greeks developed the word aphrodisiac after their goddess of love, Aphrodite. Today, many of the aphrodisiacs that the ancient Greeks swore by have been proven clinically ineffective by modern pharmacologists, but the cultural myth is so strong for others that scientists have found chemical benefits in their "magical powers." The Greeks based a lot of their aphrodisiacs on imagery, with a very light sprinkling of logic. According to Andrew Dalby's book Food in the Ancient World From A to Z, they believed taro roots, leeks, and carrots to be aphrodisiacs because they looked phallic, and they thought snails and eggs stirred up the sex drive due to their semen-esque texture. Naturally, they turned to wine because it removed inhibitions, while myrrh's strong aroma was culturally connected to festivities.

What did humans do before sleek, carefully designed sex toys imbued with a light scent of Manuka honey?

The Greeks thought the oyster's slime also resembled semen (some argue even female genitals), so they believed it was a very powerful aphrodisiac as well. The story stuck, and now a cheesy, romantic anniversary often starts with oysters and champagne. However, beyond the myth, oysters do contain high levels of zinc, a mineral that speeds up the production of testosterone.

The Greeks also loved to mix up nonsensical potions, like an unruly child making a concoction of all the condiments in the fridge. According to book 20 of Pliny's Natural History, these potions were meant to fight sexual problems like impotence and frigidity. Dalby describes one potion: "bulbs, snails served without sauce, and little unmixed wine." The Greeks also believed heavily in herbals medicine and ritual, swearing by cannabis seeds (the verdict is out on whether THC makes you more horny or less), lettuce seed, and chaste tree seed. The Greeks also ate sparrows to kick up their sex drives, because they noticed that sparrows mated a lot and thought they could ingest their need to fuck constantly.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Farther east, practitioners of Tantra, an ancient Hindu tradition that probably originated around 500 CE, were pretty sensible when it came to sex, elevating tantric skills and the use of oils, cosmetics, and perfumes to popular culture. Basically, the principles are: Fuck like you mean it and don't smell like shit. Spiritual and bodily cleanliness were big. As Peter V. Taberner notes in his book, Aphrodisiacs: The Science and the Myth, "The essential skills of seduction have changed little over the centuries."

However, Tantra also advocated rituals with certain herbs and roots to help the sex drive and secure relationships. One tradition required the sprouts of the vajnasuhi plant to be chopped into small pieces, dipped in a mixture of red arsenic and sulphur, and then dried seven times (Hinduism's lucky number). The mixture would be dried into powder, at which point the powder would be lit on fire so that smoke patterns could be observed: If the fumes revealed a golden moon, then sex and love were on the way. If that did not work, then another "aphrodisiac" method was to mix the powder with monkey feces and thrown "upon a maiden" to ensure she would not marry anyone else.

If the fumes revealed a golden moon, then sex and love were on the way.

Like the Greeks, practitioners of Tantra were big on foods that produced vigor and energy on the basis of coming from animals or from body parts that produced semen. The Hindus mixed rice and sparrows' eggs, boiled in milk and then mixed it with ghee and honey. They also liked to boil down a goat's testicle in milk and sugar and drink the resultant liquor, which they believed to provide an insane source of physical energy.

Practitioners also made their own natural lubricant, most often combining powdered white thornapple, black pepper, and honey and applying the mixture right before sex. The thornapple contained atropine and hyoscine, which are the alkaloids that kickstart when you start to fall asleep to slow your heart rate and relax you. The pepper would, obviously, create a light burning sensation. For the male, this would increase blood flow to the penis and maintain an erection, while the woman would get kind of screwed. Her vulva would become irritated, and she'd feel like she was going to piss herself.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Basic physical and mental health were also huge for the Taoists, who lived in China around 2000 years ago and created elixirs of sexual health using ingredients like bear bile, deer penises, bull testicles, and seal penises. Later, and for hundreds of years, cultures in Southeast Asia, including China, have been particularly into "bird's nest soup," which is still considered a (very expensive) delicacy today. This traditional aphrodisiac meal is based on a type of sea swallow's dwelling: The swallow builds its nests from its own solidified saliva, and because of its diet of seaweed and sticky fish spawn, this gives their spit-nests heavy doses of natural phosphorus. Among other health benefits, bird's nest soup promises high libidos.

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Chinese cultures also championed ginseng—which people take shots of at fancy juice bars and Whole Foods all over America today—and insisted that opium (only when smoked in small doses, for that rush of dopamine) was a great aphrodisiac. According to Yangwen Zheng's book The Social Life of Opium in China, during the Ming dynasty the drug was thought to "treat masculinity, strengthen sperm, and regain vigour," as well as to stimulate "the art of alchemists, sex and court ladies." Now, there is evidence that opium use causes erectile dysfunction.

Knowing all this, I went back to the Lily vibrator. It was surprisingly pleasant to have something that smelled nice, and the vibrator itself was excellent. But I imagine that, like a scratch-and-sniff sticker, the synthetic lavender and honey will wear off over time.