The modern-day obsession with eternal youth has intensified a longstanding tendency to view the human body as a machine and age-related changes as suggestive of malfunctions (Dan 2021). Although not indicative of poor health, routine accompaniments of growing older – such as thinning hair, wrinkles, and a decline in sexual desire or ability – are increasingly deemed abnormal and in need of rectification. This process through which “normal bodies and normal physical functions [are perceived] as problems” is known as pathologization. Medicine plays a key role in this process, as changes such as those mentioned above are placed under medical authority.
The search for a remedy or a prescription that can enhance sexual function and/or treat male erectile dysfunction has been an obsession throughout known history (Shamloul 2010). Whether it was an Eastern civilization or a Western one, religious or atheist, man's aspiration for a better or best “manhood” has been a history-time goal.
In his late forties, Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua (1562–1612) decided he needed a new biostimulator to cure his legendary restlessness, for he was experiencing senior amatory difficulties (Finucci 2008). Thus he sent a young apothecary on a journey from Mantua to Spain, and then to Panama and Peru, to find an animal Viagra-equivalent in that expanse of lands where marvels were contained.
The duke's discreet fantasy of resurrecting the flesh (Finucci 2008), anchored in male anxiety, narcissistic excess, and a peculiar dream of domination, occupies hardly a footnote in the multinational project of mercantile imperialism that marked the discovery of the natural beauties of the New World. Yet, within the historical moment in which it played, the halcyon cure that this aging conquistador desired serves as a miniature parable that can reconfigure what is by all means a trivial colonialist narrative into an erotics of knowledge.
Sexual remedies include aphrodisiacs and a large number of love charm emetics, which are normally taken by men (Hutchings 1989). Some medicines are administered as charms to secure the fidelity of the beloved or to harm a rival in cases of suspected infidelity or to protect the user against the effects of such medicine.
The drug Viagra (sildenafil) has drawn public attention to aphrodisiacs (Sandroni 2001). The search for such substances dates back millennia. Aphrodisiacs can be classified by their mode of action into 3 types: those that increase (1) libido, (2) potency, or (3) sexual pleasure. Various substances of animal and plant origin have been used in folk medicines of different cultures; some have been identified pharmacologically, allowing for under-standing of their mechanisms of action.
For increasing libido, ambrein, a major constituent of Ambra grisea, is used in Arab countries (Sandroni 2001). This tricyclic triterpene alcohol increases the concentration of several anterior pituitary hormones and serum testosterone. Bufo toad skin and glands contain bufotenine (and other bufadienolides), a putative hallucinogenic congener of serotonin. It is the active ingredient in West Indian “love stone” and the Chinese medication chan su. The aphrodisiac properties are likely of central origin, as are the other effects of the drug.
For increasing potency (Sandroni 2001), Panax ginseng, used in traditional Chinese medicine, works as an antioxidant by enhancing nitric oxide synthesis in the endothelium of many organs, including the corpora cavernosa; ginsenosides also enhance acetylcholine-induced and transmural nerve stimulation-activated relaxation associated with increased tissue cyclic guanosine monophosphate, hence the aphrodisiac properties.
For increasing sexual pleasure (Sandroni 2001), cantharidin (“Spanish fly”) is a chemical with vesicant properties derived from blister beetles, which have been used for millennia as a sexual stimulant. Its mode of action is by inhibition of phosphodiesterase and protein phosphatase activity and stimulation of β-receptors, inducing vascular congestion and inflammation. Morbidity from its abuse is significant. The ingestion of live beetles (Palembus dermestoides) in Southeast Asia and triatomids in Mexico may have a basis similar to cantharidin. It is of paramount importance for the physician to be aware of the options available to help his or her patients, and to advise them in using the correct drugs while avoiding “miracle” remedies that could be potentially harmful.
It has been known since antiquity that castration causes a loss of male sexual characteristics and a decline in the sexual appetite (Taberner 1985). The Chinese were aware 4000 years ago that giving large doses of testicular extracts could overcome some of this loss. The Pen Tsao herbal also recommended the use of semen from young men for the treatment of sexual weakness, although it was believed that the brain was the ultimate source of the sperm.
The great Greek physicians wrote knowledgeably about conditions such as mumps which could adversely effect the functioning of the male organs (Taberner 1985). Aristotle wrote that the semen was the formative or activating agent, whereas the female element was merely passive and required fertilization by the sperm, and it was believed that the right testicle yielded male offspring and the left female. Animal testicles, in dried or powdered form, were recommended as aphrodisiacs by several authorities in Chinese, Greek and Arabic medicine.
The Vedic scriptures, particularly the Atharva Veda (Banerji 2008), also offered various sexual remedies in the form of chants and herbal potions that claimed to boost a man's virility and increase his attractiveness to women.
List of plants having aphrodisiac potential
Finucci, Valeria. "“There's the Rub”: Searching for Sexual Remedies in the New World." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 38, no. 3 (2008): 523-557.
Hutchings, Anne. "A survey and analysis of traditional medicinal plants as used by the Zulu; Xhosa and Sotho." Bothalia 19, no. 1 (1989): 112-123.
Taberner, P. V. "The Scientific Approach to Sex and Aphrodisiacs." In Aphrodisiacs, pp. 139-172. Springer, Boston, MA, 1985.
Banerji, Rita. Sex and Power. Penguin UK, 2008.
Dan, Viorela, and Carolin Pauer. "Empowered, Handmaid, or Rejector? The Framing of Low Libido in Women according to Scholarly Investigations of Public Communication." Health Communication (2021): 1-9.
Sandroni, Paola. "Aphrodisiacs past and present: a historical review." Clinical Autonomic Research 11, no. 5 (2001): 303-307.
Shamloul, Rany. "Natural aphrodisiacs." The journal of sexual medicine 7, no. 1 (2010): 39-49.