We couldn’t help but wonder: could there be a crossover between our main fields of interest: illegal wildlife trade and sexual health?
We thought it was time for a twin collab, but we didn’t realise how timely this could get. In case you didn’t know, Sicily, my twin, is a wildlife trade researcher (see her blog here). Given that the current coronavirus, COVID-19 is thought to have come from illegal wildlife trade (allegedly from wild meat sold in a market in Wuhan, China), it forms a pretty hot topic atm. You wouldn’t think these worlds would collide, but hey, you can’t make this stuff up.
A brief note: when discussing illegal wildlife product consumers (especially relating to Asia), culturally nuanced approaches are essential to avoid furthering racist stereotypes, which conjure up images of the ‘Asian Super Consumer’. As aptly written by Marguiles, Wong and Duffy (2019)- there is no catch-all caricature of an illegal wildlife product consumer.
Illegal wildlife trade and traditional medicine
Illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar industry- between USD $7 and 23 billion a year (GEF, 2020). The illegal wildlife trade, including illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and timber trade is comparable to the international trade in narcotics and weapons.
A large portion of the legal and illegal wildlife trade industries concern the use of wild plants and animals, known as phytotherapy and zootherapy, which are also intertwined with traditional medicine systems. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 80% of the world’s population primarily rely on animal and plant-based medicines (Alves and Rosa, 2005).
Many cultures employ traditional medicine which has been in use for thousands of years, such as wildlife-derived remedies. Arguably, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the most famous of these systems, though other well known medicines include Ayurvedic medicine (developed in India) or ‘muthi’ (traditional medicine in Southern Africa).
TCM is recognised officially by the WHO, and accepted as a system by a quarter of the world’s population (Alves and Rosa, 2005). However, the WHO have since said that the inclusion of traditional medicine was “not an endorsement of the scientific validity of any Traditional Medicine practice or the efficacy of any Traditional Medicine intervention”. There is often debate, particularly from the West, as the efficacy of some products has not been scientifically proven (Shaw, 2017).
This article will focus largely on the use of TCM in the pursuit of sexual performance. TCM encompasses many areas – acupuncture, breathing and physical exercise (think Tai Chi), eating relative to the needs of certain organs and pursuing balance in the body. It just so happens that TCM products used to enhance sexual performance have been demonstrated to have some important medicinal effects…
Why do we want to enhance sexual performance?
What supposedly differentiates humans from other animal species is our imagination and cognitive powers. It is thus no surprise that for thousands of years, humans have looked for new ways to innovate their sexual experiences. The use of aphrodisiacs, or substances to enhance sexual performance/experience is no new feat, the first known of which was thought to be body odour?! (Williamson, 2015). Original and cheap.
Aphrodisiacs can be considered “any food or drugs that arouse sexual desire or pleasure” (Fogle & Picard, 2018). Whether they actually work or not, is a different story. These have ranged from oysters to chocolate to piranhas (Malmed, 2017), to parts of tigers (we’ll get to this later). It is thought that when food diversity was scarcer, anything that was tantalising, or sensual were seen as aphrodisiacs (Gomez-Rejón, 2014).
Further, it is thought that visual symbolism influences what is consumed as an aphrodisiac (ginseng, sea cucumbers (phallic shaped)) (Malmed, 2017), or walnuts to represent testes and thus virility (Williamson, 2015) although exactly what is consumed seems to be far more complex than these symbolisms alone.
Whilst the effectiveness of aphrodisiacs has commonly been seen as myth, sexual dysfunction is a recognised physiological issue. 1 in 5 men in the UK experience erectile dysfunction, and by 2025 it is thought that 322 million men will be affected by it (King’s College, 2020). However, other research suggests that this figure is more around 1 in 10 men, also highlighting issues of premature ejaculation.
Although often missed out, it seems that female (reproductive system-wise) sexual problems are more prominent, with around 1 in 3 young women and 1 in 2 older women will experience these (albeit they are not all physiological, such as depression affecting desire etc.) (NHS, 2019). Yet, most aphrodisiacs are advertised to the male consumer.
People do turn to (Western) medical options in order to combat sexual dysfunction, such as Viagra, which was one of the fastest-selling drugs in history – this has by no means slowed down, with it’s annual revenue a cool $1.8bn (Cox, 2019). Viagra, working to increase blood flow to the penis to enable easier and more erections (NHS, 2019), is the most popular for people with penises (apparently it is now available over the counter in the UK (Millar, 2018)). It can be taken 4 hours before intercourse, and can be prescribed (NHS, 2019b).
Although women can take Viagra (our favourite Samantha famously tries in a SATC episode) it is not proven to be licensed, safe or physiologically useful (Dutt, 2020). The drug is not used to increase desire (ibid) (which is a complex, personal, context-specific matter (Nagoski, 2018)). Female sexual dysfunction is not categorised the same as male – it is not a blood-flow to sustain an erection kind of situ, but more physiological and potentially psychological.
There are Viagra-esque daily options for women but these are used to treat Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). These pills work to boost chemical messages in the brain that aid arousal – so they’re actually very different to Viagra (WebMD, 2020). On the plus-side, cannasexuals – people who use cannabis to enhance sex – can use weed lube, oils, spray, cream for vulvas that are specifically designed to increase pleasure (Al-Juzi, 2018), although there are cautions for combining drug use with sex.
What is interesting is that there seems to be a considerable placebo effect of taking aphrodisiacs – the illusion and increased confidence from the promise for increased sexual performance could actually be what is more beneficial (Shaw, 2017). Knock yourself out (although ofc if you do start taking medications such as viagra, N.B. it doesn’t mix well with other medications). What must be known however, is that “the Mediterranean diet may have aphrodisiac qualities”… (Brown, 2019). Pass the wine.
The mechanisms behind of action behind aphrodisiacs in the male body
This figure, from Lim (2017), shows the various action sites of phytotherapies, for male sexual performance enhancing substances. Different products can enhance different aspects of sexual performance, showing a complexity to consumer product choices. Testosterone facilitators increase the level of testosterone in the blood. Dihydrotestosterone blockers such as pumpkin seeds have antidepressant properties and promote healthy hormone function (Lim, 2017)
So what do people take and where in the world are they taking it?
It is important to appreciate that a lot of aphrodisiacs are plant-based (yay for the vegans). Wildlife trade often surpasses plant trade, and ‘plant blindness’ is an important phenomena (Marguiles et al., 2019), which also affects how we perceive the use of animal vs. plant tonics for sexual performance. In a post-COVID 19 era, where we can expect to see the relative phasing out of endangered animals offered in traditional medicines, dependence may shift to plants (which comprise 80% of wild species in TCM).
This could lead to a greater societal dependence on plant-based aphrodisiacs. For wild-sourced products, this could lead to new pathways of unsustainable harvest. For example, Panax ginseng, the famed aphrodisiac Asian or Korean Ginseng, is a Class 2 protected species in China, which requires that their harvesting and trade take place only with a permit from provincial authorities and under their oversight.
As TimeOut Hong Kong (2020) advised this Valentines day: “Be advised that with ginseng you’re playing the long game – it’s a better idea to start with a low dose every day, and increase the amount over time to improve your condition, rather than popping a capsule right before getting down ’n’ dirty”. Ginseng is particularly popular as it does have pharmacologically active components – having been linked to higher sperm counts, and increased libido (Leung and Wong, 2013).
Alongside ginseng, which could also help menopausal women as an aphrodisiac, Peruvian maca is also used to supposedly boost fertility and stamina (Sengupta, 2017). However, there is not concrete scientific data to support this trend (Shaw, 2017).
Some people use aphrodisiac tonics, which can be used by both men and women, which may enhance sex drive, stamina and performance. Female reproductive tonics are traditionally used to tone and preserve the Yin (such as Rehmannia, Chinese Licorice and Ginger) and promote the flow of Qi (energy) and Blood to the ovaries, uterus and pelvis (such as Cyperus and Ligusticum) (Fusion Health, 2020).
Not all phytotherapies are available over the counter; some require prescription, such as Horny goat weed (no joke lol) (Time Out, 2020). This translates from the Chinese as ‘licentious goat plant’. Some studies have shown that extract of the plant may restore low levels of testosterone (Lim, 2017).
Beyond Chinese traditional medicine systems, herbal remedies, such as Tribulus terrestris, are used as folk medicine in Eastern Europe and Bulgaria for sexual deficiency (Lim, 2017).
Typically, for men, sexual performance carries an identity and the sense of self-esteem in society (we know, patriarchal society and ideals don’t really help). Although it is often sensationalised in Western media, it is likely only a small portion of consumers who actually engage with taking TCM products for erectile dysfunction (ED). Lim (2017) cited that only 9% of men in China and 30% of men voluntarily admit to having ED.
Seafood section – given that Aphrodite herself, was Goddess of the sea, it’s no surprise people turn to a salty seafood treat
- One of the earliest reports of a salty aphrodisiac we could find was in 8th Century B.C. The sucking fish or remora, was mixed into potions sold in Roman markets and was said to induce passion (Williamson, 2015)
- Oyster extract is allegedly excellent for men’s reproductive health and endurance. It is rich in the amino acid taurine, which is vital for cardiac health and nerve transmission and additionally boosts dopamine for all lovers (Lim, 2017)
- Other popular marine products such as abalone and seahorses are consumed as an aphrodisiac (Costa-Neto, 2005; Lim, 2017)
Kim Reiley of ‘Eat Something Sexy.com’ highlights the allure of abalone (a group of sea snails) as a lucky aphrodisiac – used in soup as a sexy ‘boost’. The illegal harvesting and export of abalone in one of its hotspots, South Africa, is largely controlled by Chinese triads (organised crime ‘secret societies’, originating in China and Hong Kong) collaborating with South African fishing communities. Its scientific quality (which could explain its use as an aphrodisiac) is its’ high source of selenium (a mood enhancer and component of sperm) and magnesium (good for the production of sex hormones) (Reiley, 2020). From South Africa alone, this market may be worth as much as 500 tonnes ($32.5 million) (Gastrow, 2001).
Weirder – although more sustainable oi oi – the sea cucumber
Another phallically-shaped food which is in high demand in Asian markets is the sea cucumber, in the echinoderm family (the same family as starfishes!). This is a particularly net-positive product as it is promoted as an alternative livelihood in many former fishing communities (although debatably unsustainable- see the Sustainable Asia podcast episode at the bottom). At $100 per kilo, sea cucumbers are a versatile and low-maintenance aquaculture crop, even implemented in FAO programs to female seaweed farmers in Zanzibar, whose seaweed crop is diminishing due to climate change (FAO, 2020).
Sexy and saving the planet? We love to see it. It contains niacin, magnesium and zinc, which help reduce muscle tension, increase blood flow, build sex hormones and maintain a healthy sperm count (Reiley, 2020).
It physically resembles a phallus and uses a defense mechanism akin to ‘ejaculation’ when it squirts its insides at its oppressor. Quite an impressive parallel.
High profile examples of animal products
Meat consumption of the literal (phallic) body parts of other animals
- Tiger-penis soup/wine – “Particularly sought after are the penises and bones, which are soaked in an awful-tasting rice wine and served, usually to men. They’re supposed to imbue men with the prowess and sexual energy of the tiger” (Nuwer, 2018)
- Cobra meat- known as ‘Surabaya’ – cobra meat and blood has had claims of improving erectogenic prowess (Lim, 2017)
Male-focussed aphrodisiacs are often consumed in powder form:
- Ostrich/cow penis powder (Lim, 2017)
- Rhino horn powder (dissolved in water, taken as a shot). Detoxification properties. Using rhino horn was a myth, but now Vietnamese men actually use it (myths often turn into ritual, for all my anthropology people, you know what we mean). Asian economies are growing, so more there is an increasing demand (Smith, 2012)
As well as the literal consumption of animal body parts and their derivatives, some male animal parts are used to represent virility and thus indirectly act as an aphrodisiac, such as the use of hippopotamus tusks as a sex symbol in rural Nigeria (Costa-Neto, 2005) or deer antlers from young bucks used in sexual tonics in TCM (Lim, 2017).
Unfortunately, we can’t do an analysis of ALL the various products used to enhance sexual performance; believe it or not, this list is by no means exhaustive.
An interesting point to conclude with is whether society’s, and largely the West’s fascination and proliferation of sex as a cultural symbol may have impacted the search for increasing penis size and longer performance using TCM.
Although aphrodisiacs have been dominant through time and across space, the proliferation of these pursuits within the illegal spheres perhaps show that such controls over the body are increasing (I’m sure somewhere Foucault has a point about body power and sexuality here). Regardless, humans are still in hot pursuit of enhancing their sex lives.
It is also important to appreciate the gendered consumption of wildlife products, as the most endangered products are often linked to male consumers. In addition, women are seemingly omitted in both Western and TCM – there aren’t the same options for female sexual performance. It seems there are none marketed for non-binary people either, which demonstrates that pursuits of wildlife trade and increased sexual performance are informed by heteronormativity.
Ultimately, COVID-19 has caused society to question the sustainability of zootherapy. Most zootherapies were never illegal, until populations of animals started to decrease in the wild. In particular, we do not condone the use of endangered animal parts in the pharmaceutical pursuit of sexual performance – especially when there are effective domestic animal or plant substitutes. However, it is important to embrace diverse cultural practices and not be rooted in the dogma that only Western medical science is valid.
Regarding the use of endangered animals in TCM, the tide is turning. The endangered pangolin, the most highly trafficked mammal in the world, has now been officially removed from the Chinese Pharmacopoeia. On this compendium of recipes, pangolin scales were listed as useful for nursing mothers and promoting blood circulation. Now, those caught trading or hunting pangolins could face up to 10 years in prison (Pinghui, 2020).
It’s expected that the face of sexual performance enhancer consumption will drastically change, as these products may also be removed from TCM compendiums. Will we see increased volumes of phytotherapies consumed in the pursuit of sexual performance? Only time (and evidence-based research) will tell.
We hope you enjoyed reading this mini twin research project. Our favourite discovery: a close competition, but it has to be the sea cucumber.
- Curious Women Are Seeing if Viagra Works Wonders for Them (NYT article from 1998)
- How Many Oysters Does it Take to Get Horny: An Investigation (Vice article by Laura Roscioli)
- Love Potions: A Brief History of Aphrodisiacs
- The race to replace Viagra | Science
- Aphrodisiacs Can Spark Sexual Imagination, But Probably Not Libido | All Things Considered
- Illegal Wildlife Trade: Responsible for Covid?
- Three Billion: Are Asia’s Marine Species Protected?- Sustainable Asia (2020)
- Slutever – On Demand – Stoned Sex episode
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