There’s a Historic Misconception That ‘Spanish Fly’ is an Aphrodisiac
Cultures across the world and throughout history have attributed Spanish fly with aphrodisiacal qualities, used to cure erectile dysfunction, generate desire and enhance sexual performance. Even today, it’s popularly purchased as a libido booster. But few realize that—despite its historic reputation—the supposed love potion known as Spanish fly can actually be fatal.
Rather than a passion-inducing insect, Spanish fly is actually the common name for a substance called cantharidin which can be sourced from the hundreds of species of blister beetle worldwide. This can help explain why the aphrodisiac belief exists in so many cultures. First isolated in 1810 by Pierre Robiquet, cantharidin is produced by these insects as a defense mechanism against predators, as well as a pheromone to attract mates during breeding season.
But, if you’re wondering why Spanish fly has achieved its fabled status as an aphrodisiac, there is a grain of truth behind this enduring rumor; Cantharidin, when ingested, can induce a sensation of burning in the urinary tract, which may lead men to experience an uncontrollable erection, known as priapism.
However, the reality is, it won’t take much to kill you, and a perilous dosage lies somewhere between 10 and 65 milligrams. Under the counter it has been prescribed to cure warts, due to its ability to peel off your skin. Side effects reported include miscarriage, seizures, blood clots and death. Nevertheless, knowledge about Spanish fly has been part of the never-ending search to cure an affliction which is so damaging to men’s self-esteem, and there are reports of its use in Chinese medicine as far back as 2,000 years ago.
The active component within Spanish fly, a.k.a. cantharidin, can actually be deadly and can be sourced from the hundreds of species of blister beetle worldwide. (Vitalii Hulai / Adobe Stock)
Spanish fly hit the headlines back in 2014 when a comedy sketch by Bill Cosby from the 1960s went viral in which he made reference to Spanish fly being slipped into women’s drinks to get them primed for sex. Put into the context of the several rape allegations, during which he supposedly drugged his victims, Spanish fly has garnered a sinister reputation.
This is actually nothing new, since it has been exploited at various moments in history. Legend has it that the Empress Livia, wife of Augustus Caesar, would secretly feed her guests Spanish fly to excite them into illicit behavior in order to blackmail them later. During an 18th-century orgy, the Marquis de Sade famously fed two prostitutes sweets laced with cantharidin to ignite their passions, but almost killed them in the process.
Those tempted to purchase Spanish fly products on the internet, be warned. While the chemical component is toxic and should be avoided at all costs, products marketed as Spanish fly aphrodisiacs usually have nothing to do with the insect or with cantharidin. Unscrupulous charlatans are just trying to make some money off millennia of dubious and unproven snake oil treatments.
Top image: Spanish fly has garnered a reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac. Source: Mr. Bolota / Adobe Stock