This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 16 table of contents.


Aphrodisiacs are mostly-mythical substances that are supposed to increase sexual desire and arousal. Most traditional aphrodisiacs are ineffective, and some can be toxic. But as the biochemistry of emotional states is better understood, true aphrodisiacs are being located. Viagra has caused a revolution in treating impotence and has many imitators. It is so popular it is displacing folk medicine aphrodisiacs like powered rhinoceros horn in village markets of China. Contrary to widespread rumors, however, Viagra does not improve sexual responsiveness or pleasure in healthy young people without sexual problems, except through a placebo effect.

What are aphrodisiacs?

Pleasure generally involves dopaminergic circuits of the limbic system. Those areas are strongly activated by an orgasm. Cocaine also activates those areas and has strong aphrodisiac qualities for a beginning user. For the hard-core addict, it may replace sex rather than enhancing it. A woman who was injecting 4 to 6 grams of cocaine a day (whose essay is reproduced in Chapter 14) said at the time she felt no sexual desire for men. Her "pleasure centers" could only be turned on by large amounts of cocaine. Methamphetamine has a similar effect. Initially it activates sexual behavior, but over the long term it tends to replace sexual behavior.

What part of the nervous system is involved in sexual cravings?

Dopaminergic neurons of the limbic system, implicated in sexual cravings, are affected in Parkinson's Disease. When L-Dopa was discovered as a way of providing relief for Parkinson's' Disease, researchers quickly discovered a serious side effect in some people: they became hypersexual. Oliver Sacks (1976), whose book Awakenings was later made into a movie, described how one patient—"Mr. L.", age 49—went from a 24-year state of semi-paralysis into a sexual frenzy. Given L-Dopa, his paralysis disappeared and he became mobile again. It seemed like a miracle, but then trouble signs appeared.

How did one of Oliver Sacks patients respond to L-Dopa?

...He wanted to touch and kiss all the nurses on the ward...

Very rapidly, in May, relationships became strained, and Mr L. passed from a gentle amorousness to an enraged and thwarted erotomania. Early in May he asked me if I could arrange for various nurses and nursing aids to "service" him at night, and suggested—as an alternative—that a brothel-service be set up to meet the needs and hungers of DOPA-charged patients.

...Driven at this time by libidinal force, he started to masturbate—fiercely, freely, and with little concealment—for hours each day. (Sacks, 1976, 246-256)

What finally happened to Mr. L?

Eventually Mr. L's condition turned into a destructive psychosis with sexual hallucinations and paranoid delusions. This continued despite a reduction of his L-Dopa medication to a fraction of the original dosage. Finally, in August of the same year (1969) he was taken off L-Dopa entirely, whereupon he reverted to his original paralysis. Mr. L's response illustrates the tie between dopaminergic areas of the brain and so-called libido—energy derived from or related to sex. It also illustrates the tie between excessive dopamine production and psychosis. Hypersexuality as a reaction to L-Dopa is not uncommon, although usually the response is not this extreme.

What did the chemist who formulated Andron think about its effect?

Do humans react to odors as sexual attractants? In the late 1970s, several perfumes used androstenol, a substance found in armpit sweat of men, in an attempt to stimulate animal instincts of sexual attraction. The makers of one cologne—Andron by Jovan—claimed to use human pheromones (distance hormones common in the animal world) to stimulate human sexual arousal. But the chemist who formulated Andron did not believe in its power. He pointed out that sexual arousal in humans was always mediated by other cues (White, 1981). Other researchers failed to find any sex-attractant pheromones for humans, using double-blind studies.

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