From food to pheromones, lovers still search for secrets to attraction


LAS VEGAS, Nev. — To be or not to be smitten? To try to ensure the man of her dreams went gaga over her so he’d never even ask that question on Valentine’s Day or any other day, a woman in Shakespeare’s England used what was then considered the best aphrodisiac — the aroma of her armpit.

Yes, as sexologist Robert Francoeur revealed in his book, “The Scent of Eros: Mysteries of Odor in Human Sexuality,” a woman who wanted love in the Elizabethan era used a sweating underarm to great effect. The come-hither technique involved placing a small peeled apple, known as a Lady’s Apple, in her armpit and leaving it there until it was saturated with her fragrance. Then she’d offer it to the apple of her eye in the hope he would be so turned on that he’d want to devour her as well as the fruit.

With Valentine’s Day, a holiday that celebrates love, now upon us, it is only natural that we take a brief trip through the ages to see if any scent, herb, potion or food has either stood the test of time or just come on the scene as a dynamite aphrodisiac — a term derived from the mythical Greek goddess of sexuality and love, Aphrodite.

Danita Cohen, the spokeswoman for University Medical Center in Las Vegas and a woman who normally appreciates the strong influence of history in modern culture, says women today are unlikely to use underarmed apples to attract men.

“That’s so gross,” she said. “How about the aroma of an expensive restaurant or a dozen red roses? Armpits? That’s nasty. I hope you come up with aphrodisiacs in your research better than armpits.”

Even in the rarefied air of scholarly research on underarm smell attraction, people turn up their noses at the messenger.

Ask historians, scientists and sex therapists for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about aphrodisiacs and they basically say that if something works, it is because people want it to work — what is known as the placebo effect.

In other words, according to Jerri Gallegos-Carr, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Las Vegas who specializes in sex therapy, the brain is the greatest sexual organ.

“The power of the mind is amazing,” she said.

It’s fascinating to see what the greatest sexual organ has come up with over the years to incite sexual desire and intensify pleasure.

Chocolate, of course, has long been thought to have aphrodisiacal qualities, and hence store shelves are full of it on Valentine’s Day. The Aztecs may have been the first to link the cocoa bean and sexual desire — the emperor Montezuma reportedly gorged himself on the bean to fuel his romantic trysts.

Phenylethylamine, an ingredient said to promote sexual arousal and feelings of well-being, is contained in chocolate but a study released in National Geographic magazine found that you’d have to eat so much chocolate to experience the sexual kicks that you’d more likely go into a diabetic coma.

Talk about sweet dreams.

The strength of many aphrodisiacs was born out of a medieval philosophy known as the “Doctrine of Signatures.” God, ancient people believed, designated his purpose for things by their appearance. So it’s not really that surprising that the Aztecs were infatuated with avocados because they grew in pairs and hung like testicles. Or that other ancients ate tiger penis. Still others have thought the powder from a rhino horn would add sexual power. Some people have long seen carrots and celery as phallic symbols and that by nibbling on those veggies the phallus will be more likely to swing into action. Because a human penis is often compared to a snake, people have drunk snake’s blood as an aphrodisiac.

What could be better than sipping on python blood before a goodnight kiss?

Perhaps the most famous of aphrodisiacs are oysters, which resemble female genitalia. Well-known lover Casanova was said to eat them by the dozens. In addition to the imagery of genitalia and the association with Aphrodite, who sprang from an oyster shell, oysters possess zinc, which helps a man’s sperm count and fertility. Yet doctors say if you eat a balanced diet, it’s highly unlikely oysters will make a difference in sexual prowess.

There’s no harm, of course, in eating dozens of oysters to help you become a Casanova, unless you come down with cholera from a bad batch. At that point, a restroom, not romance, will be on your mind.

An oft-used aphrodisiac in Asian cultures — ginseng — has been shown to get animals aroused but has yet to be duplicated in humans. Part of its allure is that the word means “man root,” which doesn’t impress researchers as much as some consumers.

That the effects of spicy foods on people mimic the sexual response — beads of sweat form, blood rushes through your body, lightheadedness — has earned them a reputation as an aphrodisiac, but scientists have found nothing to support the reputation.

To licensed marriage and family counselor Donna Wilburn, the best aphrodisiac for men and women was found long ago — emotional intimacy.

“People become very attracted to someone when he or she listens and you can feel you can share anything with them,” Wilburn said. Such behavior, she said, often leads to physical intimacy.

Still, researchers continue their search for something that attracts members of the opposite sex on an almost evolutionary primitive level — something akin to the way women tried to use their armpit smell to attract men during the Elizabethan era.

In fact, body odor continues to be a major topic of investigation as scientists try to determine whether pheromones — chemicals secreted by an organism that makes another organism of the same species respond in a certain way — in humans are a myth or real. Creatures from mice to moths send out these signals to entice mates, yet no pheromone has been isolated and conclusively linked to a physiological effect in humans.

Despite that lack of concrete data, some researchers — many of them funded by the perfume industry — believe smell plays an underappreciated role in romance and other human affairs. The late sexologist Francoeur pointed out as recently as 1995 that men in Greece and the Balkans would act much like Elizabethan women, first doing folk dances alone with handkerchiefs under their arms and then, after working up a good sweat, waving the aromatic tokens under the noses of women with whom they wished to dance, sure their masculine scent will be a turn-on.

While Francoeur said Greek men bragged they were successful in attracting women that way, there is no evidence the armpit technique will work as an aphrodisiac.

Wilburn, who believes there is a scientific basis for pheromones in humans, doubts, however, the scent of armpits will ever cause an American man or woman to swoon uncontrollably.

“It’s just so gross,” she explained.

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Paul Harasim is a health writer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at pharasim@ reviewjournal.com