Cover Story: Sexual Healing

Why penis pills and passion potions are all the rage

Feb 12, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

The Pink Pyramid's selection of sexual stimulants attracts a "steady group of repeat customers," says owner George Vanover II.

Elyse Metcalf of Elyse's Passion says she discourages people from relying on magic pills and potions to improve their sex lives. "I support erotic imagination."

Enzyte's ads in Rolling Stone are part of a national campaign.

Penis pills aren't just for Bob Dole anymore. And pro-penis promotions have come a long way since the former presidential candidate peddled Viagra. Today, computers in every home and office are stuffed with spam e-mail advertising products to make your penis bigger and better. The products, which euphemistically promise "male enhancement," make a lot of claims, offering a source of pleasure as well as a drain on your finances.

And despite Cincinnati's puritan self-image, local companies haven't been left out of the enhancement craze. Full-page ads in Rolling Stone tout the penis-enhancing powers of Enzyte, sold by Lifekey Healthcare Inc. in Blue Ash — right off Ronald Reagan Highway, if you can believe it.

If its ads are to be taken at face value — and Enzyte runs lots of ads in national magazines and on radio — the product increases sexual virility, energy and stamina. But enough with the fancy talk. What Enzyte claims to be is a pill for making penises thicker and harder.

"Most men on the Enzyte program report an increase in erection size and fullness from 12 to 31 percent, with an average reported increase of 24 percent," one magazine ad boasts.

Every man's dream of being bigger seems to have found fulfillment in Enzyte. In a survey on the product's Web site, 91 of 100 men using the pills for three months or longer reported gains in the size and/or fullness of their erections and 97 said their erections were harder and firmer.

But what's so special about a big penis?

'They want them strong'
"Men hugely value having erections," says Barnaby Barratt.

Barratt is a sexologist. Yes, that's a real job, not a pick-up line. He's a psychologist and founder of the Midwest Institute of Sexology in Michigan.

Barratt compares the male fascination with erections and penis size to the same drive that leads men to like fast cars, big bank accounts, nuclear warheads and building pyramids.

Concerns about penis size might have their roots in history, according to Cincinnati psychologist Kayla Springer.

"It's always been considered a mark of virility, and virility is also equated with power," she says. "Certainly the whole issue of penis size has always been something that boys and men have been concerned with."

But let's face it. Men aren't the only people who want a bigger penis in their lives. So do at least some women.

If penis size is a sign of virility, that would make sense. After all, Springer says, women might say they want sensitive, mushy men, but that's not the whole truth. Women don't want their men to be weenies, so to speak.

"They want them soft and emotional, but they also want them strong," she says.

Size does matter, or men wouldn't be swallowing big-penis pills in the first place. But men with unusually large penises have problems, too. Men with huge porn-star penises tend to have erectile dysfunction more often than men with average-size penises, according to Barratt. He believes men are too hung up on the size of their equipment for their own good — and for the good of their partners.

The Enzyte ad in Rolling Stone seems deliberately calculated to make the product look like a prescription medication, with a Latin scientific name under the product name. But unlike Viagra, Enzyte doesn't require a doctor's prescription.

Enzyte's Web site lists its ingredients, largely a collection of herbs: saw palmetto, maca, muira puama, gingko biloba. Some of the ingredients are known to be effective, according to Barry Dillmore, a certified nutritionist and owner of Barry's Herb Shop in Delhi Township. Saw palmetto works on human hormones and shrinks the prostate, he says. Maca is a Peruvian herb known to have aphrodisiac effects. In Peru, cattle ranchers use it on reluctant breeders.

"It will increase their desire and actually increase blood flow to the genital area," Dillmore says.

Muira Puama is in every formula of horny goat weed — an aphrodisiac that increases libido in men and women.

"It allows men to have stronger erections and it actually works," he says.

Gingko Biloba extract increases circulation to the extremities. Niacin, which is also in Enzyte, opens the body's tiniest capillaries, Dillmore says. Enzyte also contains an L-Arginine base, which he says helps to lower blood pressure.

"Whenever you're helping with circulation, you're helping with either sexual response and/or desire," Dillmore says.

Zinc gluconate is also in the product, which Dillmore says acts like testosterone in the human body and is often used by weight lifters to improve their performance.

"It's an old standby," he says.

It's not a muscle
A 30-day trial supply of Enzyte costs $59.95. But through judicious buying at a health food store, Barratt says, you could achieve the same effects the male enhancement pills claim for a third of the price.

"Basically all of them, if you look at the label on the back, are the same six to 10 herbal ingredients," he says.

Some of the ingredients in Enzyte have been used in native traditions for a long time, often to help with erectile dysfunction, according to Barratt.

"There's a lot to be said for native wisdom," he says.

There are also a lot of misconceptions about the penis. If, for example, you think working out with your penis will stretch it, you might as well give up.

"One of the most common misperceptions about the penis is that it is a muscle," Enzyte's Web page explains. "If that were so, you could increase erection size and strength through exercise. But the simple truth is the penis is not a muscle."

Products such as Enzyte and Viagra aren't the first time science and commerce have tried to help men get bigger, badder hard-ons.

The Pink Pyramid downtown sells a popular product known as Max-Arouse, a "sexual stimulant." The people who buy it tend to be repeat customers, according to shop owner George Vanover II.

"They all say the stuff works," he says. "We have a small, steady group that comes in for that."

The pills are $2.99 for a pack of four.

In addition to the pills, the store sells de-sensitizing sprays and creams that claim to help men maintain erections longer. They also sell a vaginal cream that claims to make the clitoris swell and increase sexual pleasure, according to Vanover.

In the past, when treatment for sexual problems was more invasive — such as injections and implants — men weren't quite as quick to get on board, according to Springer.

"People were maybe a little more hesitant to do that," she says.

Even so, devices claiming to stretch penises are available — and some men actually try them. That's not a good idea, according to Enzyte's Web site.

"Physicians warn to avoid the use of implements promising to improve penis size," the site says. "The penis is a durable organ, but it can be damaged. To avoid fracture or scarring, natural erection enhancement is preferable to these device-based methods."

But how safe is Enzyte itself? What kind of research has the company done? That's hard to say. Repeated phone calls and a written request for interviews went unanswered by Lifekey officials.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) identifies Steve Warshak as owner of the company. Reached at home, Warshak said he'd give CityBeat an interview if his name weren't used but then didn't return follow-up calls. He said he wanted anonymity because people show up at his home at night asking for free samples of Enzyte.

A pill for the women
If men can take pills to get a harder penis, shouldn't women be able to "enhance" themselves as well? Coming to women's aid is Avlimil, a new herbal supplement sold by Warner Healthcare Inc. of Cincinnati, which happens to be a sister company of Lifekey.

Getting information about Avlimil, however, is much easier than prying loose information about Enzyte.

A pill for enhanced sexual arousal is in high demand among women, according to Lynn Schwartz, spokeswoman for Warner Healthcare. The supplement only recently was launched, but Schwartz says the company's phones have been overwhelmed by calls.

"We've had lots of doctors calling," she says.

Citing reports that up to 43 percent of women have sexual dysfunction, Schwartz says Avlimil has a ready market.

"Female sexual dysfunction is very controversial in the media right now," she says. "Women want help. Women are following through, and they're becoming very vocal."

History shows men have always talked about their penises. Women are starting to catch on that it's all right to talk about their feelings about sex, too.

"For women, sex is much more emotional," Schwartz says. "Every woman I've mentioned it to is very willing to talk to me about it. Suddenly it's not taboo."

Judith Sachs of New Jersey is a sex educator and author who works with Warner Healthcare. Attention to women's sexual needs is relatively new in science, she says.

If men don't get an erection sufficient for sex in three out of four tries, they're said to have erectile dysfunction, according to Sachs. Their doctors will ask them to keep a journal about the problem.

But for women, sexual problems are less straightforward, Sachs says. Women who have a lack of desire, lack of arousal, less lubrication or aren't having orgasms can't really put those things on a graph.

"Doctors have been really stumped by, 'Well, what does this mean?' " Sachs says.

Schwartz attributes part of women's sexual problems to their busy lives.

"For some women, it's just they have the kids, they're running around and they're stressed," she says.

Avlimil works by increasing sensitivity, relaxation and local blood flow, according to Schwartz.

"What we're trying to say to women is it's almost like taking a daily vitamin," she says.

One of the ingredients in Avlimil, red raspberry leaf, helps keep hormones balanced, according to health food store owner Dillmore.

"The Indians called it the perfect herb for all women," he says.

Another ingredient, bayberry fruit, helps you feel better overall, he says. Other ingredients include capsicum pepper, which is wonderful for circulation; damiana leaf, known to be an aphrodisiac; and ginger root, which helps deliver other herbs to the parts of the body where they perform.

Test subjects taking the pills were monitored by Ph.D.s as well as a medical doctor, according to Schwartz.

"Everything we've researched indicates that it's safe," she says.

But does Avlimil work? Does it improve women's sex lives?

Avlimil underwent a randomized double blind test involving 80 women, half using the product and half taking a placebo, Sachs says. In the first four weeks of the study, the placebo group and the Avlimil group seemed to be running neck and neck. As the study continued, the placebo group stayed about where they were, while the Avlimil group really improved.

"We feel Avlimil is just like a vitamin pill for sexuality for women," she says. "There is nothing in this product that you couldn't have found previously."

She says the combination is the key: You don't have to take a variety of products two or three times a day. Plus, she says, using the supplement is an active step in deciding that something in your life has to change.

When Viagra came out, many women discussed it with their gynecologists for the men in their lives, she says. Now the hope is that women will take that same interests in their own sexuality.

When Sachs was promoting a book she wrote in 1990 about menopause, the topic that kept coming up was sexual health.

"The real thing they wanted to be able to talk about is their sexuality," she says.

If a woman can take care of her own sexual needs, Sachs says, not only will she be happier but she'll be a better partner.

As do ads for prescription medications, Avlimil has a Latin name: salvia rubus. But the phrase appears to be something of a sexual pun.

"It's literally 'healthy bush,' " says Mike Braunlin, assistant to the head librarian at the University of Cincinnati's Classics Library.

Schwartz, however, challenges that translation.

"Salvia rubus' doesn't mean anything," she says. "It's derived from the Latin names of the ingredients."

Getting more — and more
Enzyte, too, has a Latin moniker, but its meaning is more problematic. Lifekey calls Enzyte suffragium asotas. You might expect it to mean "stiff pole" or "mighty rod." But it doesn't.

Braunlin says the closest he could get to the meaning of the phrase, if it has any, is "dissipated vote."

"Probably a Roman would have just shaken his or her head," he says. "The Romans, being a very Earthy people, would have had many ways to express that — and that certainly isn't one of them."

Never mind the Latin. Some customers have had more serious complaints about Enzyte.

"An overwhelming majority of our customers are extremely satisfied with the results they receive from Enzyte," says the company's ad in Rolling Stone. "In fact, 82 percent of all customers who try Enzyte choose to purchase it again!"

Yes, well, there's the first problem. Some customers have complained they've purchased Enzyte again whether they want to or not. The Web site has a litany of angry messages from people saying they're Enzyte users.

Edward of St. Paul, Minn., complained he received a shipment he hadn't ordered.

"It was sent under the 'auto shipment' that I did not ask for or know about," he wrote. "I called the company and was told that I would receive a form to fill out. The form came and they want it notarized and sent back certified mail — all this for something I did not ask for in the first place."

A man identifying himself on the Web site as Greg Cossman, president of Lifekey, replied that Enzyte is a continuous-use product.

"We explain in the literature provided with the product that, as a courtesy, we will automatically ship the product when the current supply is about to be exhausted," the message says.

The company provides a toll-free number to cancel future shipments at any time with no questions asked, according to the message.

"We operate on the assumption that any responsible consumer would read the provided information before they would ingest something into their system," the message says.

But Cossman wrote that the policy was being re-designed to remove any chances for misunderstanding.

The Ohio Attorney General's office has received complaints about Lifekey, according to Mark Gribben, spokesman for the office.

"We're aware of Lifekey," Gribben says. "We've seen a number of complaints."

The BBB has received 104 complaints from across the country about Lifekey, according to BBB President Jocile Ehrlich. She says a majority of the complaints have been resolved.

The company has an "unsatisfactory" rating with the BBB due to a failure to substantiate or modify advertising claims and a pattern of complaints concerning contract disputes and guarantee or warranty issues, according to a BBB report.

"Specifically complaints state that customer credit cards are automatically billed for additional shipments of products, which are then sent to the customer without prior authorization," the report states.

The report says the company responded to complaints by saying customers were notified of this auto-shipment program with their initial order and they could discontinue by contacting customer care.

In September 2002, the Cincinnati BBB requested substantiation of the company's claims that Enzyte performs as described. The bureau requested the results of all medical studies testing the performance of the product and a material safety data sheet listing all of the ingredients.

The BBB hasn't received a response, Ehrlich says.

Use your imagination
Are pills for harder penises and increased female arousal the best way to improve our sex lives? Physicians are a little more open to suggesting patients try a pill and see what happens rather than looking into the possible psychological roots of a problem, says psychologist Springer.

Some sexual problems can be the result of relationship problems or performance anxiety, she says. She worries that men and their partners might be misled by the advertising for products such as Viagra.

In one commercial, she says, a man's co-workers notice a sudden change in him. Did he get a raise? A new haircut? Noooo. He got a really good erection.

"Even with the ads for Viagra, they're acting as if you'll be a new person," Springer says.

Some herbal remedies might be helpful as well but not the cure-all they claim to be, she says.

"It's not that there's nothing in here," she says. "What they claim may be an overdoing of the possibilities."

Barratt, the sexologist, understands the appeal of pills for improved sex.

"Men rush to physical solutions when they're worried about erections," he says.

But the power of suggestion could be at play.

"I could give you an M&M and, if you believe me enough, it would support your erectile function," he says.

It's possible for supplements to cause firmer erections, but other steps can also help, according to Barratt. Activities that can have a negative impact on erectile function are smoking and alcohol, he says.

Want a better hard-on? Quit smoking and drink less alcohol.

Elyse Metcalf, who owns Elyse's Passion in Northside, isn't impressed by the new products.

"This entire culture, especially in Cincinnati, thinks there's some quick fix out there for them," she says. "I'm not supporting pills. I actively don't support it here."

What she does support is erotic imagination.

"An endless stream of guys come through here wanting penis rings and wanting to know how to delay erection," Metcalf says.

Sure, she could sell them a penis ring and send them on their way. But she instead suggests they masturbate in order to learn erection control.

Instead of helping people with their anxieties and struggles with sex, many companies are trying to offer magic potions, according to Metcalf.

"It's people trying to make money off of sex," she says.

Her own male customers sometimes have the idea that size is all that matters.

"I think most of them that ask those questions have this idea that they just want it bigger and bigger and bigger," Metcalf says. "You realize his problem isn't his penis size. His problem is he doesn't have clue one how to satisfy a woman."

Metcalf says a big part of the problem is that no one has ever helped them learn.

But men aren't the only ones who have questions. Some women, she says, still don't know where their clitoris is or what it's for. They think a penis in the vagina is the only formula for sex.

"They're mysteriously supposed to climax that way, and they don't," she says. "People still think a healthy sex life is marriage, missionary position, lights out."

Women have been intimidated against speaking out about what's pleasurable to them, Metcalf says, and it hampers their ability to enjoy sex.

"I'm trying to do this ethical thing down here and support erotic imagination," she says. ©