Photo by Jonnie Craig
Hamilton Morris is Vice’s resident drug expert and the man behind the psychedelic documentary series, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. He is a student of science, a doer of things and an asker of questions. He is also extremely physically attractive, as is clearly visible from the photo above. Last week, Hamilton gave a talk at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts about the pharmacology of aphrodisiacs. I’ve taken Viagra a couple times, but the only thing that happened was my face turned really red. Hoping to better understand the science of love potions, I talked to Hamilton about the various substances that (supposedly) make us horny.
How did your talk go?
Hamilton: It went well, I think. I can never gauge those kinds of things, but I think the audience was moved. After the talk ended I was peer pressured into smoking marijuana, which is very unlike me, and I ended up accidentally stealing a laser pointer from YBCA, which they were not happy about.
Was it really an accident?
Yes absolutely! I am not a laser thief, although I can see how they would be suspicious of me. The guy at YBCA asked if I needed anything weeks before the talk and I told him I only needed a laser, and then for me to leave with the very laser I asked for so far in advance could definitely seem like premeditated laser thievery. But I’m not like that, I am a man of strong morals with a great respect for both lasers and personal property.
Sure. So what did you talk about?
I talked about different poisons that have been used as aphrodisiacs, like lead, arsenic, strychnine and radium. I also talked about Paracelsus and the doctrine of signatures, which is the idea that there is a divine signature in the structure of all natural objects that will indicate that object’s purpose. For example, according to the doctrine of signatures, walnuts should exert some medicinal effect on the brain because their are divided into regions that look like cerebral hemispheres marked with gyri and sulci, and just generally look brain-like.
But I thought walnuts are good for your brain.
Well they are, but that’s because of their omega-3 content, and it’s really just a coincidence. Anyway, by that same Paracelsian logic, natural objects that are phallic or yonic should have aphrodisiac properties.
So for example, according to Paracelsus, eating cucumbers should make us horny because they look like penises?
Yes. Also things like tiger penis, deer penis, rhinoceros horn and oysters are all working on that same visual similarity concept, but have no pharmacological or scientific basis.
Interesting. Before you mentioned arsenic…
Arsenic’s aphrodisiac effects have been written about a quite a lot. In 1889 there was a highly publicized murder in Liverpool England, where a woman named Florence Maybrick was accused of poisoning her husband with an arsenic laced beef extract. She was convicted and incarcerated for fifteen years as a result. Now arsenic is exclusively known as a poison, but the trial was complicated by the fact that arsenic had countless household uses in the 19th century. There was arsenic fly paper, arsenical cat poison, pesticidal arsenic preparations for taxidermy, and various forms of pharmaceutical arsenic, not to mention home made arsenic-based cosmetic solutions, which was what Florence Maybrick was interested in. Anyway, arsenic was also used as an aphrodisiac, and her husband was extremely interested in it for exactly that purpose. Apparently he was consuming no less than 20mg of arsenic trioxide per day to “excite passion.” So even though his blood and liver contained arsenic at the time of the autopsy he was not poisoned by Florence Maybrick, but simply trying to keep the fires of love burning in his loins. The word “poison” is tricky though, as there really is no such thing a poison, only medicines that are lethal at a comparatively low dose. Yet most of the chemicals that are generally recognized to be deadly poisons have a significant history of being used as an aphrodisiac. You could probably draw some sociochemical conclusions from that, but I won’t go there.
So what will make me horny and is not a deadly poison?
Well that’s complicated. Consider Albert Fish, he ate a stew made from the body of a little girl he had murdered and experienced an orgasm that lasted seven days! That is impressive even by the standards of the most accomplished Tantrist, so for Albert Fish it can be said with reasonable certainty that little girl stew is an effective aphrodisiac, but maybe it would be less effective for you. I guess you could say the science of developing aphrodisiacs is finding the “little girl stew” for each of us. Albert Fish, though monstrous, possessed a human brain and so perhaps these same neurochemical states can be achieved through less odious means. Therapies aimed at elevating testosterone levels seem to increase the libido of post-menopausal women, but testosterone is not essential for sex drive, even in men. The main problem in finding an effective aphrodisiac is the t
remendous variability in what humans find arousing and, from an experimental standpoint, the tremendous difference between what humans and rodents find arousing.
Right, so what drugs are used?
Until the nineties it was assumed that if a pharmaceutical aphrodisiac were discovered it would be a psychoactive drug. Alexander Shulgin wrote about the psychedelic 2C-B something along the lines of, “If there is anything ever found to be an effective aphrodisiac, it will probably be patterned after 2C-B in structure.” But Viagra bears no structural resemblance to 2C-B, it’s not even psychoactive. When those Viagra, Levitra, Cialis type drugs were introduced it was a bit of a pharmacological paradigm shift because they reduced sexual arousal to a matter of hemodynamics, so like blood flow to the genitals. People often argue that Viagra is not a true aphrodisiac for that reason, but I think they are overestimating the mind body divide. Having a boner or, I suppose, engorged labia is definitely a significant step towards desire for sex.
What drugs will make us horny in the future?
In 2006 I started corresponding with a Harvard trained organic chemist who is currently serving a life sentence for synthesizing some enormous percentage of the world’s supply of LSD. While in prison he had become obsessed with the idea that a drug called PT-141 would usher in some kind of sexual apocalypse. At least from the scientific literature, PT-141 seemed to be the first true aphrodisiac, a drug that would cause female mice to mount male mice and might introduce a new category of consensual rape, in addition to mass proliferation of STDs and a host of other bioethical issues. The drug has been available for years from grey market suppliers and thus far nothing has happened, so it’s hard to say. I have never tried it. A new derivative of PT-141 called PL-6983 is under development as well, so we shall see what the future holds.
And lastly, do you have a preferred aphrodisiac, and if so what it is?
At this point in my life if there is anything I want it’s an anaphrodisiac, perhaps in twenty years things will be different, but right now I’d like to throw a little sand on the fire. I also have some concerns with the way technological advancements will alter our sexuality; I don’t want to spend my life like a capybara, enervated from excessive ejaculation. The convergence of scientific and pursuits has the potential to become what Stanislaw Lem called “an exceptionally pleasant form of intellectual suicide.” Eventually we will be nothing more than disembodied genitalia vibrating in cosmos, that is not what I want. On the other hand if someone offered me a dose of PL-6983, well, I might not say no.