The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

The Long, Strange Quest to Find a Substance that Kills Sexual Desire

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Aphrodisiacs have a rich and often-told history — but what about their opposite? Throughout history, people have tried to find ways to suppress sexual desire. People have used methods ranging from saltpeter to cornflakes to modern-day chemical castration, with mixed success.

Why do people want to discover a way to kill sexual desire? Find out the weird history of anaphrodisiacs below. [jump]


Top image: Iakov Filimanov/

Quick: What’s the first email you’d find if you looked in your spam filter right now? Now just imagine if it was advertising the opposite of what it’s actually selling right now.


Anaphrodisiacs are a (mostly) foreign concept to modern Western society. There’s an entire marketing system geared to delivering more sex, either in fantasy or reality, to the population at large. And a lack of sexual desire is generally perceived as a problem. And yet, anaphrodisiacs have been around seemingly as long as humans have, and have as strange a history as any aphrodisiac.

Take a look at the options that people chose, rather than experience any pesky sexual inclinations.

You Are What You Eat

Oysters, champagne, and green M&Ms are all supposed to get the engine revving — but what about foods that kill it and roll it downhill into a ditch? There are a lot of things that, it has been rumored at one time or another, can be sprinkled on food to kill the libido. No less a source than Pliny the Elder recommended the appropriately named Chasteberry or Monk’s Pepper, a bush in the Mediterranean. Camphor has a strong medicine smell that might keep people away rather than taming desire in the consumer. Some herbs on this fabled list are still eaten today, including marjoram and coriander — neither of which has been shown to have any effect.


But a sex drive isn’t something you can put in a burlap sack and wallop unconscious with a stick just by sprinkling a little something on your food. It takes a full diet to knock out your libido, according to sex-killing pioneers John Harvey Kellogg and Sylvester Graham.

Kellogg and Graham hit their creative stride in the second half of the nineteenth century. The deprivations of the frontier were gone, the Civil War was over, and America was in the full flush of Utopianism. People all over the place thought they had discovered the single principle that would make the world perfect — and Kellogg and Graham independently latched on the same idea. Out-of-control libido, especially masturbation, was the source of all the troubles in the world. And all of that horniness, in turn, came from heavy, rich, and spicy food that angried up the blood.


Kellogg built and ran Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. It was a boot camp for Utopia-seekers, putting them on a strict schedule with plenty of exercise and food so bland it could cause nightmares. The corn flakes we eat now were originated by Kellogg, but don’t resemble what the Battle Creek convalescents ate. Theirs were made out of cracked wheat berry flakes that had been over-dried when an employee forgot to see to the thin layers of bread that the residents also ate. Bread and yogurt, with minimal fruit and stewed vegetables, comprised the whole diet of any person unfortunate enough to stay there. It’s quite possible that the residents were too bored to think about sex. Then again, with Battle Creek’s policy of regular yogurt enemas, perhaps they were too tired and sore to get up to much mischief.


Graham Crackers were invented for much the same reason that corn flakes were, and have undergone a similar sweetening process over the years. The original crackers were more cracker-like, in the traditional sense. They were also made of coarse wheat and formulated to be nutritious but dry, without arousing the slightest bit of interest in any part of the body. There was to be no meat, salt, sugar, tobacco, or alcohol.

Even healthy adults, Graham said, should have sex only once a month, and men should abstain entirely until after the age of thirty. Graham was a city mouse, not a country one, and set up boarding houses that served up his special diet in Boston and New York. This worked against him, because he couldn’t be surrounded by his acolytes. He was assaulted by three different angry mobs of butchers and bakers, who believed he’d drive them out of business.


Chemical Solutions

Those who didn’t want to go to dietary extremes turned to chemistry. The most famous libido-reducer of all time was a little chemical called saltpeter. Also known as potassium nitrate, saltpeter is used in fertilizer and fuses — and so it seems like a bad idea to put it in anyone’s body. Surprisingly, though, it does have a medical purpose. Involuntary muscle fiber, like the kind that constricts blood vessels, relaxes when coming into contact with it.


Asthmatics relied on it to stop attacks, and it brought down high fevers, especially in the lower body. All this relaxation and loss of heat got people’s minds working, and soon they suspected saltpeter was the ultimate anaphrodisiac. Suspicion turned to full-blown conspiracy theory when members of the British sailors found out that saltpeter was being used to preserve their meat. Although there’s no evidence that saltpeter works, or that it has ever been given to inmates in any all-male facility, rumors abound to this day.


Well, if you can’t make them behave, knock them out entirely. Another rumored drug that was secretly given to enlisted or incarcerated men was potassium bromide. (Yes, pretty much that stuff.) Unlike saltpeter, potassium bromide would work to reduce anyone’s sex drive. Also anyone’s social drive. Really, any drive at all gets eliminated with potassium bromide. It was a sedative in the late 1800s, and it made people sleepy for days. It also, if consumed in quantity, caused copious diarrhea and vomiting. Since few armies are served well by drugged, chronically-ill patients, it’s doubtful that any bromide found its way into their ranks.

Modern Medicine

As we’ve seen, most anaphrodisiacs throughout history simply didn’t work. But recently, anti-aphrodisiacs have started being tested in a systematic way — and there are a few things that actually do work.


The most controversial one is chemical castration. The most common kind of chemical castration is the kind that cuts off the testosterone supply. Like saltpeter, it has other medical uses. Hormonal birth control, drugs meant to fight breast cancer and prostate cancer all mess with people’s hormones, thus indirectly decreasing sex drive. They generally do this using a drug called a GnRH agonist, which stimulates the pituitary gland until it simply stops encouraging hormone production. There is good evidence that these drugs lower sexual drive, and at least so far, they are almost exclusively used on sex offenders. One study done on released sex offenders showed the recidivism rate cut from forty percent to five percent. Some say, though, that’s it’s an extreme solution that works in the short term at best before increasing hormonal rushes when people go off the twice-monthly drugs.

And then there are the substances that affect your sexuality indirectly. Alcohol and cigarettes take out your blood circulation, indirectly killing sex drive. High-fat diets do the same. Many recreational drugs make people either too wired or too lethargic - and that’s to those who aren’t physically addicted. According to physiology, everybody — especially rock stars — has been wolfing down down the anaphrodisiacs for thousands of years. You can judge whether or not that seems right.


But what of the good old-fashioned days when diet could control sexual appetite? Is there truly nothing there? After a lot of testing, research showed there is: Licorice. Yes, that stuff that they sell at the store in glossy black spirals comes from the licorice root, Glycyrrhiza glabra, and it lowers testosterone. It is potent enough that eating about twenty-five grams has a strong effect. So if you’re planning to end a date fast or have an early night, keep some licorice on hand. If you’re eating licorice now . . . maybe weigh carefully just how much you like the taste.


Potassium Bromide Image: Ondřej Mangl Cornflakes Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos Licorice Image: Pikaluk on Flickr

Via The Straight Dope, UCSD, Snopes, and CSUN.