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A-Z of Drugs


S is for sex and drugs

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson

S is for sex and drugs

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love. She lends her name to a large range of foods and drinks that are termed aphrodisiacs and possess a reputation for making sex more attainable or more pleasurable. People have variously sworn by the properties of Japanese blowfish (if it doesn’t kill you first), bird’s nest soup, cobra blood, fertilised duck eggs, fried giant leaf-cutter ants, oysters and even baboon’s urine.

One notorious aphrodisiac that crops up time and time again over the years is something called ‘Spanish Fly’. Rather than being a new low-cost Iberian airline, it is in fact an emerald-green beetle of the family Meloidae. The body of the beetle contains a blister inducing substance called cantharidin. The yellowish brown powder that results from crushing the beetle has a somewhat disagreeable scent and a bitter flavour. It has been used for medical reasons since antiquity when it was described by Hippocrates. It is still used today in the treatment of most forms of warts. Its use as a poison is well documented. Mixed with arsenic just four to six drops in a glass of wine was considered enough to deliver a horrible death within a few hours. It also was employed in the creation of the world’s first recorded stink bomb. That creation also utilised arsenic again, along with wolfsbane and human excrement. It is however in its non-fatal dosage that Spanish Fly has attained its real notoriety as cantharidin irritates the genitals and thus increases the blood flow to that area mimicking an erection.

Livia (the wife of Augustus Ceasar) was said to have added it to food in order to tempt her guests into sexual acts that she could later use to blackmail them. Henry IV, Louis XIV and the Marquis de Sade were known to have used the substance, unwittingly or otherwise. The Marquis de Sade was even sentenced to death for poisoning and sodomy after he used it, but got off on appeal.

Many people would put modern-day anti-erectile dysfunction drugs such as Levitra and Viagra in the same category. Whilst they increase the ability to attain an erection they do not directly affect a person’s libido. They too therefore cannot, strictly speaking, be regarded as aphrodisiacs. Some however believe that the knowledge that an erection will occur in itself increases libido.

The name of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer has recently become closely associated with a Covid-19 vaccine, but its real ‘wonderdrug’ was Sildenafil (Viagra being one of the adopted brand names.)

For convenience we will use ‘Viagra’ to refer to all of the drugs of this type for the rest of the article.

Incidentally, there is a whole industry dedicated to coming up with brand names that subtly imply a product has certain qualities. It’s no accident that Viagra rhymes with ‘Niagara’ and thus has connotations of force and endurance. The rival product Levitra apparently drips with European sophistication to an American ear as it combines the ‘Le’ for ‘life’ from French and the ‘Vitra’ which is similar to the word ‘vie’, meaning ‘life’. It’s also no accident that Levitra sounds quite similar to the word ‘libido’.

Viagra was launched in 1998 and over the past 20 years (until the patent ran out in 2020) was racking up sales worth over a billion dollars each year in North America alone. If it wasn’t for one particularly observant nurse the company may never have had the money-spinner on its books. Sildenafil was originally developed to treat cardiovascular problems. It worked moderately well and was brought to a phase one clinical trial. Head of R & D at the company, John La Mattina, received a report from one the nurses administering the trial that many of the men where lying on the stomachs when they went to check on them. The men were embarrassed because they kept getting erections. The Sildenafil was working but in the wrong part of the body.

Viagra can have interactions with a range of medical drugs and for that reason taking Viagra is not recommended if a patient is taking nitrate-based medications. These are commonly prescribed for systemic hypertension or other cardio-vascular problems. Certain HIV medications can also have similar problems.

Risks tend to increase when Viagra is combined with an illegal drug. These other drugs would typically include cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamine, poppers or other stimulants. Sometimes they are taken alongside Viagra or they can be combined into one pill. ‘Sextasy’, for example, is a combination of Viagra and Ecstasy that has been commonly sold in clubs.

The interactions which result may lead to a ‘serotonin syndrome’ where the user develops seizures, abnormal heart rhythms and may enter a coma. In some cases it may precipitate a heart attack.

One particularly notorious example of a serotonin syndrome overdose concerned the former basketball player Lamar Odom. He was also a star of the reality show ‘Keeping up the Kardashians’ as the partner of Khole Kardashian. He was found in October 2015 in a coma at the ‘Love Ranch South’, a legal brothel in Nevada. He had regularly talked about his struggles with cocaine use and on that night had also consumed about two-thirds of a bottle of cognac and ten packets of a herbal mixture called ‘Reload’. Seen as a form of herbal alternative to Viagra it is thought that the packets still contained small amounts of the drug. The herbal supplement primarily contained an extract from the bark of the Yohimbe tree. With a long history of use in West African traditional medicine to improve sexual performance that too would have added to the strain on his body.

Over recent years the possibility of obtaining products both legal and illegal has taken a dramatic leap forward with the advent of websites and retailer platforms offering a bewildering array of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS). Although any product that claims to be psychoactive cannot be sold in Ireland (under the 2010 Psychoactive Substances Act), obtaining then through websites located where controls are considerably laxer in nature is increasingly a straightforward procedure. Even illegal products bought on the ‘darkweb’ (an area of the internet hidden from normal browsers) has been facilitated by increasingly sophisticated websites, special darkweb browsers and the use of crypto-currencies.

These potentially harmful substances are currently largely unregulated and could constitute a major public health concern, especially among subjects with psychiatric disorders.

NPS that are specifically marketed as sexual enhancers include the aforementioned Yohimbine, but also Maca, Ginko biloba and Horny Goat weed. It is the last of these, due to its unusual and memorable name, that has perhaps attracted the most attention. Horny Goat weed (epimedium grandiflorum) is said to be named after the almost legendary discovery of its aphrodisiac properties by a Chinese goat herder who noticed the increased sexual activity of his herd after they ate the leaves of a certain plant. Horny Goad weed may well possess aphrodisiac properties due to the presence of Icariin, a relatively weak regulator of blood flow in comparison to substances like Viagra. Whilst the medical evidence for its effectiveness is limited, in one reported case a 66 year old man with a history of cardiovascular disease had to be admitted to a hospital after consuming the weed for two weeks. He presented with both new-onset tachyarrhythmia and hypomanic symptoms (sexual and verbal inappropriate behaviour, irritable mood and hyperverbal speech).

When it comes down to it, anything may act as an aphrodisiac in the right circumstances. As the writer Isobel allende put it: “For women the best aphrodisiacs are words. The G-spot is in the ears. He who looks for it below there is wasting his time.” Despite those sage words, the American satirist P.J O’rourke perhaps also had it right when he noted that “There are a number of mechanical devices which increase sexual arousal, particularly in women. Chief among these is the Mercedes-benz 380SL convertible.”

R is for Rohypnol and other date-rape drugs
U is for Ultram