Warm shudders along the spine

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In many ways, human sexuality is unique among primates. Here are a few of the reasons:

Human males have larger testes, produce more ejaculate and have a higher sperm count than most primates.

Humans spend more time copulating and copulate more often than most primates.

Because the signs of the human female oestrous – time of ovulation – are hidden, humans copulate throughout the reproductive cycle.

And – here’s the killer – after a human male has ejaculated, a hormone is released that has a sedative effect. Not so with human females. After orgasm, they can want more. And more.

Is this at the base of male feelings of insecurity? Is this one of the main reasons why men have sought for some substance, plant or chemical that will allow them to last longer stay harder since first they began to think.

Reflect on what a joy the sexual act would have been for early humans. Their lives consisted of being chased by wild animals who wanted to eat them or – for the men – chasing wild animals so they could eat them They had little shelter, little pleasure and no leisure, the one release, the one joy maybe even the one thing that kept them going was sexual pleasure.

Any survey of the history of aphrodisiacs will show that almost without exception (and we’ll get to that one exception) all aphrodisiacs, from ambergris to Viagra are to be used to increase the sexual pleasure and potency of men.

The one exception produces, according to Adam Gottlieb, in Plants of Love (among other pleasant effects ‘warm shudders along the spine backbone which are especially pleasurable during coitus and orgasm.’

If there is an aphrodisiac that works for both men and women, could it be yohimbe? The evidence points to a cautious maybe—if, indeed, aphrodisiacs do exist outside the realms of speculation, mythology and yearning.

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Yohimbe bark contains the active alkaloids yohimbine and yohimbiline, and is taken, mostly as inner shavings, from Pausinystalia yohimbe (previously Corynanthe yohimbe), a tree of 9–15 metres (30–50 feet) that grows in tropical west Africa, especially Nigeria, Cameroon and the Congo.

Although the scientists have, as usual, spent more time on testing its effect on male erectile function, one reports says ‘Yohimbine hydrochloride (a refined powder processed from the bark) has been proposed to increase female libido (sexual interest). There is only limited poor quality research in this area, and more study is needed before a recommendation can be made’.

That’s no pill pusher talking—that’s Medline, the website of the US National Library of Medicine. Evidence or no, the experience of the users of the drug in its place of origin would suggest it might work for both men and women.

Yohimbe is used by the Bantu-speaking tribes of the regions where P. yohimbe grows during their traditional wedding ceremonies, which have been described as ‘orgy rituals’ that can last up to 15 days. It has long been known to the tribespeople, bushmen and pygmies of the region, and beverages containing it are dispensed by magicians and fetish priests, especially to tribal chiefs who have to exhibit public potency (which would make them, literally, potentates).

The yohimbe story became known to the wider world in the late nineteenth century, when colonists living in German southwestern Africa (now Namibia) began experimenting with it and gave P. yohimbe the title of ‘the love tree’. German merchant seamen took it home, where a researcher named Spiegel isolated the active alkaloids in 1896. It was tested on the male inmates of an insane asylum, all of whom, it was reported at the time, ‘exhibited hard and long lasting erections’.

But it was not until the 1950s that the pure alkaloid was first synthesised, and not until the 1960s that it was studied scientifically. Laboratory research at the time confirmed that it was a demonstrably effective aphrodisiac and erectile function agent for men (no experimentation was done with women), but this was coupled with strongly psychoactive effects. It became very popular in the drug culture of the 1960s and 70s, and Richard Alan Miller, author of The Magical & Ritual Use of Aphrodisiacs records one user saying ‘it makes you high and horny—they’ll have to ban it’. Curiously, they didn’t: yohimbine hydrochloride is approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the United States, although yohimbe, the bark itself, is not.

A trawl through the internet for scientific papers will reveal scores of tests on yohimbine, most agreeing that it does work on erectile dysfunction. The scientists, however, differ from the pleasure seekers in their opinions of the drug. Dr Julian Davidson of Stanford University, where the drug was trialled, said ‘yohimbine does help men get an erection but they don’t know what to do with it because they feel so lousy’.

Then there is the first hand report from Adam Gottlieb in Legal Highs: ‘First effects after 30 minutes … warm, pleasant spinal shivers, followed by psychic stimulation, heightening of emotional and sexual feelings, mild perceptual changes without hallucinations, sometimes spontaneous erections. Sexual activity is especially pleasurable. Feelings of bodies melting into one another. Total experience last 2-4 hours. After effects: pleasant, relaxed feeling with no hangover’. Gottlieb reported similar but not quite so intense reactions with yohimbine hydrochloride pills.

Yohimbe—or yohimbine—is also used in bodybuilding and weight-loss supplements, to sexually arouse animals for breeding, and in treating depression. In 2004, the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute released the findings of a study demonstrating that mice treated with yohimbine overcame their fear four times faster than those given a standard anxiety medication. The result of all this is that the market in Cameroon and Nigeria is booming—and there is now a black market in ‘fake’ yohimbe bark, because, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned, ‘the destructive harvesting methods employed and the rapidly-growing market for aphrodisiac remedies’ are endangering the resource. The FAO, in cooperation with the Centre for Research in Agro Forestry (ICRAF), has reportedly begun a research programme in Cameroon to investigate the potential of the tree for domestication.

But is it the long-sought aphrodisiac for men and women? The problem is that all the serious research on the drug has concerned erectile function or dysfunction; erotic pleasure has not been on the research agenda. And there is one big hurdle to any further research being carried out.

Dr Alvaro Morales is a distinguished urologist at Queen’s university in Ontario, Canada, who has done extensive research into yohimbine’s effectiveness with erectile function. In 2000, he wrote in the International Journal of Impotence Research that yohimbine ‘has been used for over a century in the treatment of erectile dysfunction. In-depth, systematic studies in animals have shown that the drug has a remarkable positive effect on sexual performance. Meta-analyses of the few controlled, randomized human studies have consistently shown an advantage of yohimbine over placebo’.

The problem, as he points out later in the same article, is that because yohimbine is an ‘old’ drug, it does not enjoy patent protection or commercial viability. ‘Until molecular/formulation changes can be brought about (as recently happened with two other agents: phentolamine and apomorphine)’ he writes, ‘serious investigations of yohimbine will remain in limbo. It could be that the nay-sayers are right and yohimbine, indeed, lacks clinical activity as a treatment for men with erectile dysfunction. As long as it remains an orphan drug, we will never know’.

This is a modern twist on our relationship with the plant world. Unless someone can own a potentially useful naturally occurring substance, we will never know the extent of its usefulness—so science becomes the handmaiden of commerce. And the possibility of pleasure is left waiting, panting, in the wings. I have only one question.

Why did I not discover this when I was in my twenties?

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Aftermath

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A me se me importa poco

que un pajaro en la alamea

se pase un arbol a otro

 (It doesn’t matter to me

if a bird in the poplar grove

has skipped from tree to tree)

From Los Titeres de Cachiporra, The Billy Club Puppets, by Federico Garcia Lorca

Zipless fuck. Hah. A panic ran the village. Everyone was to report to Javier’s surgery. There was an epidemic of sífilis. I climbed the stairs with a grim face. The waiting room was packed. What are you doing here? Oh, I see, you slept with him and he slept with her, and she slept with him and he slept with – Tonia. All roots led to Tonia. And, of course, whoever had given it to her in the first place. We all suffered large needles full of antibiotics jabbed in our arses. Javier’s mother was there, knitting, blissfully ignorant. Isn’t it nice that all your friends are here dear? She spoke only Spanish.

It wasn’t syphilis. Soon after this Saturday in the surgery, we moved from the McKinley house to our last stop before going home. We camped with a Spanish friend, Fina, in a house in Lluc Alcari. I woke one morning and, when I tried to get out of bed, was hit with an excruciating pain in my testicles. I gasped with it, and laid back in bed. I discovered it was OK, as long as I laid down and didn’t move.

Javier came to visit, diagnosed epididymytis, returned with more antibiotics, and mumbled something about it being caused by a too tight pair of jeans I had bought recently. “Rubbish” bellowed Uncle Theophilus, a psychiatrist when I told him about this some years later, “it’s a sexually transmitted disease, extremely painful, an infection of the epididymis. You must have been fucking around.” Uncle Theophilus, a complex man, was bisexual, and knew about these things. I later found out a lot more about the epididymis.

It is, in the words of one medical dictionary “an elongated mass of convoluted efferent (carrying away) tubes at the back of the testes.” This long – six metres long – thin tube stores, transports and matures sperm cells. A bit like a sperm cellar. You can see the little sperm dispensers in white coats, wandering its convoluted passages sampling various barrels of sperm in tasting glasses, swilling and spitting. “This batch is ready, Smithers, motile, mature and raring to go.” Meanwhile, up above, a hand is moving rapidly up and down the shaft, or a penis is moving frantically in and out of its preferred receptacle, awaiting the explosion.

But my epididymis was fucked. An infection, more likely Chlamydia trachomatis than N. gonorrhoeae, the usual antecedents, had moved from my bladder or urethra into this complex sperm cellar and I was rendered immobile and immotile. Why most likely Chlamydia ? Because it’d the hidden STD. You can walk around with it for years and be handing it around to all your best friends and not know. We didn’t use condoms in those pre-AIDS days. Everything was curable.

I lay on my back inscribing the Chinese character for Tao onto a leather pouch that I had made to carry my passport. I still have this relic, and it still carries my passports – now four, mine, De’s and those of our two children. I just pulled my old rendering of it in red ink pricked with the hypodermic, and compared it with the one above, printed from the net. Not bad, not bad all. Here it is

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My diary at this time is littered with quotes from Lao Tzu, which I had discovered, along with the Tao Te Ching, when living in Balmain. I carried Lao Tzu with me, always, in the slim Penguin edition, as a talisman. On Tuesday January 23rd 1974, for example, I wrote:

I do my utmost to attain emptiness

I hold firmly to stillness.

Well, that was certainly the case, every movement sent a screaming wrenching pain through my balls. Not exactly the stillness Lao Tzu had in mind.

Antonia, Mujerissima.

Now way was Antonia as beautiful as Penelope Cruz, but something about her in that Woody Allen film captured Antonia's crazy

No way was Antonia as beautiful as Penelope Cruz, but something about her in that Woody Allen film captured Antonia’s wild crazy.

“Las brujas, como representantes del desorden, sólo se podían desenvolver con facilidad en estas circunstancias de confusión”(Witches, as representatives of disorder, are able to develop easily in confused circumstances.) Carlos Garrido, Mallorca Mágica.

It occurs to me as I begin to write about Antonia, or Tonia or Mujerissima Mia (although mine she never was, despite the last letter of love) all of which I called her in our brief time together, and the havoc she caused out of all proportion to the time she was in the village, that perhaps she was a witch. Or perhaps she merely bewitched the entire village – including me.

The folklore of the island is full of witches. It is littered with witch place names: Puig de ses Bruixes (Witch Mountain) in Llucmayor; sa Cova de ses Bruixes (Bay of Witches) in Escorca; Pla de ses Bruixes (Witch’s Plain) in Manacor and to the south of Son Ferriol, and sa Font Bruixa in Fornalutx are just a few. If my brief winter lover from Seville was a witch, then she would not have been lonely on the island. But I think it more likely she arrived in turmoil, her own marriage shaky, divined the nature of our little community, and, like Circe, turned all us men of Deià into swine. Perhaps not a witch, but most certainly bewitching.

She arrived as the rains went. She came with Crysanto, and Carmen, their two children Krysna and Sara, and I described her in my diary at the time as a ‘dusky Andalucian lady by the name of Tonia with her son Carlos, who, like Krysna, was about five.” They had arrived from Seville. And, as I have stated, Tonia was Crysanto’s solution to the triangular problem – of his wife and Pete being lovers. It was, for a time, quite workable. Rectangles are far more comfortable. Especially when the wife at the other point is happy with the arrangement and best friends with her husband’s lover.

She seemed to me alive, responsive, and maybe, at those first meetings, a little apprehensive. She had crow black glossy long hair, a long and heavy face with full lips, white teeth that flashed often in smiles, a large laugh and a voice of honeyed sandpaper. I had always associated the dark brown blush on her cheeks with ladies of the Casbah, and, much later was to note it as the characteristic colouring of the beauties of Seville and Córdoba. She and Carmen both wore, as did many Spanish girls of the time, ill fitting jeans, which did little to hide a large bum, unattractive covered, glorious, I was to discover later, when revealed. She often wore black boots under her jeans, and had abnormally large feet. Anyway, she was with Crysanto, and I was, when first she came, still mooning over my neighbour.

But not for long. After being cut by her several times, I realised that it was over before it started. Rather, it was over because it never started. I had not been willing to give all, so I got nothing. She became a brooding presence in my life, no longer a neighbour (Pete and I had, by then, moved to the McKinley house) so I saw less and less of her.

And more and more of Antonia. The process of eye contact began, as it did in that long winter, at Gita’s parties. Looking back, she must have been playing her version of killer with many of us. Not so much killer as fucker. Of course she spoke no English, but she laughed and flirted eloquently.

And then, one night, we fell into bed, and there, at first, no words were needed. She simply appeared, I recall, as she did many times later, waking me to make love. I did not mind. There was never much pressure to arise early – some mornings I had to get up and go to the other side of the island to work on the yachts with Walter the American architect, but sleep was not such an important commodity in my twenties.

Making love with the Mujerissima was not a staid affair. Like smoking and selling dope, the perdidos (the lost ones, what the Spanish called hippies) of seventies Spain fucked for the revolution, and the wilder, the noisier, the more depraved and energetic was the fucking, the more it was a spit in Franco’s face. Anyone noting the outpouring of erotic, depraved licentious and wonderful Spanish films immediately after the death of Franco – most notably the 1987 Matador by Pedro Almòdovar – will have seen the bursting of the dam that had been building up in these people since 1938. But individual acts of rebellion had been, if not as public as the bombing of the car of Carrera Blanca, at least as spectacular in the lives of the individuals involved. And the sense of suppressed anger, creativity and passion was palpable in the company of these Spanish hippies. It was an exciting, dangerous – and erotic – time.

Did Antonia know that she was fucking for the revolution? Not if you had asked her straight out. It was not as calculated an act as, say, bombing a Guardia Civil station. But although she would not have put it in such a straightforward way, she would have been aware that her life was a revolutionary act, and that the power she wielded with her voice, her eyes and her body was used to defy. Of course there were consequences. Of which more later.

So successful was she in this defiance that we actually broke two beds in the McKinley house. In one night. This sounds a boast, but the beds were flimsy, cheap and made of the inferior plantation pine called norte.

But we laughed. “Joder!” she screamed waking Pete who slept downstairs, “la puta cama está rota, está hodida!” Fuck, the fucking bed is broken, it’s fucked! This she yelled down the stairs. Pete told me later he would never forget the sight of her standing, naked but for her long black boots, black hair wild from the night, screaming with laughter in her hoarse voice down the stairs. I seem to recall he drew her like that.

She may have been – was – leaping from bed to bed, another revolutionary act, but she ended the night in mine. Which is all I could have hoped for. It meant that we then spent days together, and she was exhilarating company.

We would eat our breakfast of bread and coffee in a dialogue of misunderstanding, her heavily accented Andalucian Spanish sparring with my English and halting French. We invented twisted responses to Spanish colloquial greetings; vaya con pulgas (go with fleas) replaced vaya con dios (go with God); hasta los coulos (until the arseholes or see you arseholes), hasta luego (see you later, or, literally, until later). This intense conversation and cunning lingual humour both in and out of bed had the consequence of continuing and expanding on my Spanish language skills which had begun with the far more sober lessons at the hands of the sombre Ferran. Although those lessons were also charged with eroticism, if somewhat more repressed. It does explain why the sound of Spanish, to this day, is, for me, the sexiest sound the mouth and lips can make.

The four of us – with Pete and Carmen – would often take off on excursions around the island in the little battered Citroen Mehari. One such to Sa Calobra stands out clearly.

To get there you drive through Fornalutx and take the road to Lluc, and turn off to drive down to the coast through a lunar landscape, barren of trees but littered with giant rock limestone formations of eerie beauty. A river, the Torrente de Pareis, enters the sea at the beach of Calobra through a limestone arch, a favourite site for tourists. So even then, the narrow road leading down to it was dangerous because of the lumbering buses full of day trippers from Palma.

On the drive down we would be forced off the road, often dangerously close to sheer drops, by these lumbering behemoths, with the impassive faces of elderly refugees from industrial northern European cities staring out at the two scruffy males with the beautiful Spanish girls. On this occasion, it became too much for Antonia. She had picked a bag of oranges from the trees on our terrace for the journey. She now stood up in the topless Mehari and, as the buses passed us, hurled oranges which would splatter against the windows, causing the hapless tourists to jerk back in fear of the juicy missiles.

“Maldita turistas!!” she would bellow as she flung another succulent bomb, “vaya con pulgas, a casa todos, jodete!” (cursed tourists, go with fleas, go home, fuck you!)

She took my breath away. It was Spanish, and not Spanish – it was certainly not the Spanish of sequestered maidens hidden behind mantillas (the vestigial Moorish veil). And it was also Gypsy behaviour, for turistas, read gauj, anyone outside the tribe, anyone ‘not Romany.’ Antonia was even too much for the more bourgeois hippy Carmen, but her behaviour thrilled her as much as it did me.

 

 

A famous painting by Julio Romero de Torres who was born and died in Córdoba, Spain, where he lived most of his life. La mujerissima con naranjas

A famous painting by Julio Romero de Torres who was born and died in Córdoba, Spain, where he lived most of his life. La mujerissima de naranjas.