A wryly humorous dissertation on the biological, instinctual and chemical difficulties of preparing and meeting any public demand for love philtres [with potentially helpful notes].

We decided to have some fun with our “bonus fifth Thursday” this month by digging way, way back and pulling something from the very first issue of “Penthouse” ever published. Having pulled and verified the article, we soon became aware of just what we had done. The world was a very different place back then, this of course being before cable television homogenized culture to a great extent. Having discovered that, we decided to offer a bit of help getting some of the analysis you will find into a slightly more colloquial approach. In other words, we decided to try and translate this as we go along for people that are not seeking advanced science degrees.

On Subliminal Self-Advertising [The Love Potion Quest]

Most doctors meet at least once in a career the patient who demands, or at least tries indirectly to get, an aphrodisiac. Very few, in England anyhow, will ever have been approached for a love philtre — though many will have promised, without realising it, not to administer them — for they were one of the noxious substances at which the Hippocratic Oath was directed. An aphrodisiac (if there were such a thing) would be a substance which produced sexual excitement. A love philtre, as former ages understood it, would be specific — it would make the taker desire a particular person.

[We’ll save you some time. A “philtre” is essentially a Love Potion. Remember this was written in England back in 1965. Quite proper, those chaps back then. -Ed.]

Oddly enough, if medicine did re-enter this field, the second might prove biologically the easier undertaking of the two, and well in line with the kind of research upon attractants and repellents which is now in hand elsewhere in applied biology. A great many substances, from alcohol to hormones, will produce sexual excitement in some people, but individual variation is enormous, and none of them is specific, reliable or, generally speaking, “safe” in either sense of the word. Folk-lore about aphrodisiacs has produced many disappointments (we forget that tomatoes — formerly called “love-apples” — came here first with an undeserved reputation). It occasionally produces tragedies — including, not long ago, the death of two girls from cantharidin poisoning. Apart from intoxicants and mere irritants, the human sexual impulse is too complicated and too much modified by “higher” directional effects to respond en bloc to any single drug (it does not even respond, in different people and cultures, to a single image of physical beauty). It is this wide variation in specificity which would make the enquiring pharmacologist offer, to any Foundation willing to pay, specific erogenics in say ten years, and the safe blunderbus aphrodisiac only in twenty.

[It takes all kinds to make a world. People like different things. (We may need to keep translating this. Feel free to skip all the “footnote” parts, should you find yourself fascinated by the scholarly discourse.) -Ed.]

The most important determinants of human specific sexual response (“falling in love” our grandparents called it) are situational and probably conditioned — most of them are unknown to the subject himself, or herself, and to work them properly one would need to know in detail all the fetishes and antifetishes of the target — they may draw you a tear or a box on the ear, and you cannot tell which till you’ve tried. Expedients such as growing long hair or cultivating a deep voice are in any case hardly philtres, and most people do the necessary research on them by trial and error. The philtre is to be a chemical substance acting as a surefire short cut to courtshipable to be offered rather than administered, and preferably over-whelming in its effect. It must also be at least as specific as a letter.

[Making a love potion targetted to a specific individual would be hard. -Ed.]

Substances of this kind, performing almost exactly this role, half-hormone and half-message, do occur in nature. The common situational signals among mammals are odours. These are individually specific (dogs, as Kalmus showed, can discriminate, though with difficulty, between the smells of identical twins), strongly associated with sex-recognition, and easily conditioned from casual stimuli. For the biological control of courtship, this would seem the obvious starting-point.

[Maybe dogs can help. They have an excellent sense of smell. -Ed.]

Havelock Ellis mentions a medical student who was troubled during his lectures by persistent, unexplained sexual excitement — and traced it to the natural perfume of a lady colleague a few seats back. Our culture is peculiar in its attitude to these stimuli — it is a Carbolic Culture. We tend to disclaim awareness of the normal skin odour of other — clean — individuals, to have a commercially — exploitable fear of our own, and to use perfumes to disguise rather than exploit their possibilities. This is a weakening cultural pose, as we can see by comparison with other literatures, but it is evidence that our proposed research is on the right lines, for the appearance of disgust or reticence is always evidence of response and blocking. Psychoanalytical ideas seem to support this — in fact Groddeck, with his usual talent for overstatement, thought that “however wise we might be, in matters of love we let our noses decide for us” — and moreover, that the apparent poorness of human olfactory discrimination, compared with that of “nose” mammals like the dog, is due not to brain structure but to repression for psychosexual reasons.

[Honestly almost everything stems from repression for psychosexual reasons. Otherwise everybody would be buying love potions all the time. -Ed.]

Groddeck apart, we can at least start by saying that there is a substantial erotic component in human olfaction which ought to be open to operational research. There is certainly a large apparent difference if not between individual olfactory acuity to human skin odour, at least in the extent to which it comes to consciousness. Many people claim to detect consistent differences between skin odours and associate them with skin and hair-colour. This applies not only to ethnic groups (where diet and race prejudice play a part) but between genotypes within a so-called “race”, one of the several red-haired genotypes being the most often recognised as distinct.

[Noses like things that smell good. -Ed.]

“One could subdivide this perfume indefinitely; none has more nuances. Daring and sometimes tiring in brunettes, sharp and fierce in redheads, in the blonde it is subtle and heady, like some ‘flowery’ wines — one could almost draw a parallel with the way they use their lips in kissing: with more pressure and attack in brunettes, more intimate and personal, perhaps, in blondes. But whatever the colour of the fleece that grows under their arms … one has to admit that Mother Nature is wise and provident in distributing these spice-boxes to season and flavour the act of love, which has to be served up so often, and which monotony and habit would make terribly indigestible and dull….”

[Hair color determines pheremones, romance technique, and preferences. (Of course this is bunk.) -Ed.]

J.-K. Huysman’s description of these differences in Croquis Parisiens greatly offended his contemporaries (“on me qualifie d’erotomane”, he wrote to a friend), but perfumers have endorsed the correctness of his natural history for centuries. Without going into the capacity of saints, Indian and Christian, to detect celibacy by odour (said to resemble synthetic violet oil), there is here the basis of individual discrimination with an erotic cast. In some cases this is both conscious and very powerful — in a few it is overwhelming, with a deja-vu component very like that which is associated with cataclysmal love at first sight. Something of the sort occurred to Henri III, or Henri IV, or both, of France (authorities differ). One or other was accustomed to fall madly in love with women whose handker-chiefs he borrowed. In its extreme form this kind of response is clearly in. the debatable area of physio-psychology where aurae, fetishes and memory-processes converge possibly in the temporal lobe. Many mammals show ecstatic responses to odours not derived from other individuals-cats to catnip or valerian, birds to wood-smoke — and if olfactory fetishes are exceptional in man they may well be phylogenetically deep-seated, and capable of being evoked for general exploitation with a little research. It is on lines like these that one might begin work. They already work like a bomb in insects and are widely used for pest control.

[Scent dominates in importance across the animal kingdom and in all of nature. -Ed.]

The operative components of such an olfactory “crush” can be guessed — if it resembles visual attraction it is probably in part non-specific (like our visual reaction to any beautiful woman) and in part highly specific (like a recognition). It has sometimes been suggested that falling in love of the catastrophic kind (which is what a philtre aims to produce) depends on assortation or dissortation towards some memory of the mother, but since our memories of our parents are complex, and depend as much on behaviour and manner as upon looks, this is difficult to: investigate. If there is such a factor, however, it pays to remember that skin taste and odour precede voice, and long precede personal appearance, as available traits for imprinting. Exchange of skin odours has a high importance for infant mammals, since future parental recognition depends on them. We are unusual in not being able to recognise our newborn young in this way, but milk itself is in origin a dermal secretion, and the areola is provided with special large scent-glands, which presumably fulfil a function-possibly either in guiding or in labelling the newborn. If there is a chemical specificity which could determine falling in love, or out of it, this might well be it. It is also promisingly accessible to manipulation; there is a limit to our powers of acting, looking or sounding like the target’s mother, if this were effective, but it might be much easier to smell like her. Given a basic range of odours, one could at least try.

[Everybody loves mom. -Ed.]

Welch and Hayes ( 1957) found that babies become enamoured of cod-liver oil or asafoetida if they meet them early enough. Kenneth found similar differences in adult preferences, which he regarded as genetic. If Groddeck is right, suckling is not the only point in psychosexual development where infants encounter olfactory landmarks which could be libidinised. Psychoanalysts have hinted at such mechanisms, but are habitually not given to statistics. If, however, oral and anal personalities have characteristic and different responses, the target widens considerably. There must be quite a few potential users of biological aids to courtship who aim not at an individual but at one personality-minded group — the successfully acquisitive. If the choice of a ketonic against an indolic perfume made the difference between getting an orally-inclined chef or a sword-swallower on one hand and an anal-acquisitive millionaire on the other, it would be well worth knowing that. This suggests the technique of “assembling” used by entomologists: male moths will assemble to a female from an area of many square miles. It would be no mean feat to assemble the millionaires from a liner’s passenger list in this way, even if a few numismatists and museum curators came down with them.

[It would be cool if we could do what insects do, and being able to bottle that would be best of all. -Ed.]

It might be, where the target was an individual, that previous conditioning would have swamped such influences, so that the smell of paint, or a previous lover’s brand of tobacco, was an overriding factor. Some people have become conditioned to the erotic significance of the odour of gasoline rubber, from regular use of contraceptives. There are, of course, too many such possible factors for testing on a proposed target. But we have a second line of attack in the non-specific component, and it is to this that the perfumery business is directed.

[The perfume industry has a plan, and “love potion” turns out to be a handy sales pitch. -Ed.]

Perfumes attract because they are pleasant, but “fascinate”, in advertising parlance, because of a subliminal component which is specifically aphrodisiac. Most perfumes contain volatile ingredients combined with one or more fixatives, which have the property of retaining and enhancing the other scents, and which are commonly mammalian sex odours — ruminant and rodent (musk) or carnivore (civet). Some sex hormones have themselves a musky odour, and, more suggestive still, there is apparently a sex difference in the power to detect their odour: men smell it better after a dose of female hormones.

[Sex sells. -Ed.]

Of the musk rat Fr. Lejeune wrote in the seventeenth century, “A part of its body smells of musk, if caught in springtime — at other seasons it is odourless. The French are very fond of this odour — the savages dislike it as if it were a stench.” Similar cultural differences, rather than physiology alone, may account for the fact that most customers for a biological aid to courtship in our society would probably be women. One need not despair of working the oracle in the reverse direction, however. Arab historians recount that the false prophet Mozailama (whom Allah punish!) dealt with an awkward situation vis-a-vis the ascetic would-be prophetess, Chedja-et-Temimia, by such means. Excited by a tentful of perfumes (the recipe is given), she leapt straight into his bed. In the event she married him, and was obliged from then on to accept the heresiarch’s authority in both doctrinal and domestic matters. Mozailama’s mixture bore a close resemblance to modern formulae; unfortunately the proportions are not known, and the ingredients too expensive for haphazard trial upon other ascetic ladies.

[If you are not French, you are a savage. Musk rats teach us this. -Ed.]

The perfumer works his philtre as follows — the overall odour must be matched to the natural skin odour of the wearer; the “scent” of the volatile ingredients is pleasant, generally evocative, and characteristic; and the mildly aphrodisiac effect of the fixative, which evokes a more specifically sexual note, combined with the natural charm of the wearer, provide a “reward” to which the target becomes conditioned. Beyond this, it is up to you to make him love you, and the measure of your success will enhance the conditioning, so that your letters will excite him even when still unread, provided you do not change your scent until you are indispensable on other grounds.

[You can have really great perfume (or presumably cologne), but your desired partner will still need to like you. -Ed.]

The speculative biochemist might well be able to improve on this, both in specificity and in intensity of evoked response. He would have to add to the already great complexity of perfume chemistry — in which, because of the sensitivity of our noses compared with our tests, synthetics are rarely if ever equivalent to natural empirical mixtures — by separating and identifying trace factors, or at least patterns, in human odour. The work would be interesting (to biologists, psychologists and geneticists as well as the trade) and financially rewarding if successful. One might succeed in producing specific attractants directed either at one target (made up to order after clandestine tests on him) or at a class of men to include him. The opposite sex arrangement in spite of the drive to sell perfumes to men, would probably not come at once. One might ask if we could not also produce non-specific aphrodisiac odours as effective for man as civetone is, presumably, for the civet. This seems less likely. There certainly are such components in human genital, as opposed to skin, odour, but some people would probably interpret an artificially increased concentration as distasteful. Still, if we knew what they were, chemical substitution might be possible with remarkable effects. At least we might teach our women-folk that deodorants in love are like deflavourants in cooking (most of them contain aluminium salts and taste vile), that advertisers are liars, and that they should leave well alone — stick, spray and razorwise — and cleave to soap and water. A material which produced compulsive responses like those of French kings to ladies’ handkerchiefs, cats to valerian or birds to the smell of smoke might come under the head of chemical warfare rather than perfumery. But it would have the merit of being, as the advertisers say, “unusual and exciting”.

[It would be most excellent if we could really make a targeted love potion, but we probably cannot. Still, it would be “unusual and exciting” if we could. -Ed.]

If for whatever reason your find yourself fascinated by this topic, you might enjoy reading about some famous historical aphrodesiacs. From our perspective, clearly one need be careful when deciding willy-nilly to do something fun without at least doing a tiny bit of research first. We hope that you either found the editorial simplifications easy to ignore, or in the alternative, both helpful and entertaining. We will endeavor to research more carefully in the future as we begin to draw articles from the very early days of Penthouse. In our defense, we have a perfectly clear rationalization of our decision in this initial instance. … OOPS.

Have Something to Add?