Spanish fly, chemsex and 'female Viagra:' why drugs and sex don't always mix
For hundreds, even thousands of years, people have sought drugs to prolong erections, enliven libidos and awaken love. But people have a messy relationship with drugs — and an even messier relationships with each other, so the history of drugs and sex is, well, complicated.
Jennifer Evans, University of Hertfordshire professor, has traced some of that complicated history in early modern England.
"Sexual desire and sexual pleasure are really connected to heat," Evans said of the way people believed the body worked at that time.
Physicians in the mid-1600s would assume patients who lacked sexual desire didn't have that heat; they were referred to as "frigid."
"a lot of aphrodisiacs are foods that are heating — that give that sensation of warmth when you consume them, so things like rocket, or mustard seed, peppers" - Jennifer Evans, University of Hertfordshire
Now, you may have heard of something called Spanish fly, which is really a catch-all name for an aphrodisiac formulation. In recent decades, versions of the potion were marketed by sketchy suppliers in the back pages of men's magazines. The ads typically promise the administration of drops will arouse lust in you and your female partner.
But Spanish fly has also popped up in popular culture time and time again, usually with the implication that the stuff is being administered surreptitiously. The Beastie Boys mention it in the song "Brass Monkey" from their 1987 album, Licensed to Ill.
"This girl walked by she gave me the eye/I reached in the locker grabbed the Spanish fly/I put it with the Monkey mixed it in the cup/Went over to the girl, 'Yo baby, what's up?'"
There's a 1969 comedy routine by Bill Cosby on his recording, It's True! It's True!, where he jokes about learning to put Spanish fly in girls' drinks as a 13 year old.
In all likelihood, the Spanish fly being sold through girly mags were little more than sugar water. But the actual chemical that the name comes from is pretty scary. Spanish fly does derive from an insect, but it's not a fly, it's an emerald green beetle by the name lytta vesicatoria.
And according to Evans, the truth of Spanish fly is that — while it may provide a sensation of warmth — it can have dangerous consequences, and that's beyond the moral and criminal implications of non-consensual administration of the drug in a person's drink. She says it's a very serious irritant to the skin, that can cause terrible blistering, and worse, if taken internally.
"A Swiss physician, Théophile Bonet, writes in his medical text that he knows of two noblemen who have taken the drug internally, and it's caused blistering inside the body as it's moved through them and he says that one of the men took it to gratify a prostitute and the other one took it to gratify his new wife and both men, unfortunately died," said Evans.
"One died through apoplexy, which is what we'd now consider kind of a stroke, and the other one died in a most horrible manner where he started bleeding profusely through his genitals."
The rise of chemsex
While there there might not be much science behind supposed libido stimulants like Spanish fly, drugs do play a role in shaping sexual experience.
David Stuart, manager of chemsex support services at a London sexual health clinic, argues that drugs and alcohol play a major role in our love lives.
"There are many married couples, my mom and dad might be one of them who probably — I can't believe I'm saying this — who probably enjoy better sex after a drink or two," said Stuart.
"We couldn't even begin to understand what chemsex is all about if we didn't start from the premise that drugs make us feel good."
"Chemsex actually has a specific definition, which is kind of the convergence of specific circumstances that are unique to gay culture," he said, adding that a lot of gay men adopted drugs like ecstasy and cocaine during the traumatic era associated with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"What we've been learning is the one common theme for the last 10-15 years amongst gay populations in big cities around the world is this increasing use of chems, and kind of chemsex culture, or party-and-play culture" - David Stuart, manager of ChemSex Support Services
"It was kind of serving a very distinct purpose, culturally. It was helping this challenged community to bond and to commune in safe spaces, to feel disinhibited and to feel confident in the social spaces where they hadn't felt confident in the decades before."
According to Stuart, there wasn't initially too much harm associated with the recreational drugs being used, but that changed as drugs like methamphetamine and GHB became popular and accessible.
"What we've been learning is the one common theme for the last 10-15 years amongst gay populations in big cities around the world is this increasing use of chems, and kind of chemsex culture, or party-and-play culture," said Stuart.
"In the grip of these drugs we don't always care about our health. We don't care about our partner's health. We don't care about what money we're spending or about what we have planned for tomorrow. And so this common theme has been driving HIV epidemics around the world, despite our best efforts," he said, noting it's not because people in the culture don't care, but because there are more complex reasons for the drug use.
Drugs can and do play a role in people's sex lives, but whether it's Spanish fly, cocaine, ecstasy or something else being used, it might point to deeper issues of human connection.