Receiving packages of products to try out is nothing out of the ordinary when you work for a newspaper – anything from a new energy drink or a cellphone might find its way into the newsroom. But one package of complementary medicines in particular caught our attention. It was a box full of herbal Erex supplements promising to improve sexual desire in both men and women.
We later decided to try out these products, and similar supplements available on the shelves of Clicks and Dischem, for our Valentine's Day edition. Complementary medicines, as we report in Downside of sex 'enhancers', have not been scientifically tested, so no one knows whether they work or are safe.
Each product was tested by three brave journalists in the Mail & Guardian newsroom, who scored it out of 10. Here are the average scores and some reviews. (Please, don't try this at home!)
?Ingredients: Siberian ginseng, L-arganine, guarana, nettle root
Claims: More energy, more vigour, harder and stronger for longer
Average score: 2/10
Tester 1: The packaging on the Chinaga sexual enhancement capsules, one to be taken twice a day for four days, reads: "Nature's UltiMATE Sexual Arousal Formula."
I'd like to give Nature a message: If this really is your ultimate shot at arousing a young, healthy, sexually active woman, then you're doing it wrong. Try harder!
One of Chinaga's ingredients is guarana seed powder – also used in energy drinks. It didn't "reduce mental and physical fatigue", as the packaging promises, so much as make me want to find a trance party to go to and dance there like I'd been sitting for seven years.
And I would need to run there, too, to release some of my newfound energy. I did not sleep properly for four days.
The packaging also promised to "assist with the nitric oxide formation in the body, causing vasodilation". There was no out-of-the-ordinary vasodilation happening anywhere near this vagina, I'm afraid. In fact, the only noteworthy effect it had on me was to ?dry me up.
As my partner walked me to my car at midnight on Sunday night after I tried valiantly to sleep next to him, but only succeeded in keeping him awake with my restlessness, I reiterated my frustration at this happening a third night in a row and how tired I was.
"So this stuff basically ruined your life, then" he wondered. (-1/10)
Tester 2: I tend to be really sensitive to stimulants, to the extent that I avoid caffeine. So I immediately felt the effect, but not quite in the way I anticipated.
The first evening I took the pills I became very energised. So energised I battled to stay focused and present while making love to my husband. This was definitely a first for me: I'm usually very much in the moment. He noticed the difference too; I kept getting distracted! It made sex worse. I also struggled to sleep that night – and for every night I took the pills. I ended up taking half the recommended dosage (once instead of twice a day), just so I could get my mind to calm down.
The second night was much better but I'm not sure whether Chinaga can take credit here: my husband and I have just changed contraceptive methods, which meant an increase in libido for me, plus we tried a new position that was fantastic. But like the first night, I struggled again with settling down and not being distracted (a new and unwelcome experience).
But one thing it did help with was on a 35-kilometre cycle I did on my last morning on the pills: with zero training I handled the cycle easily. With the major ingredient being ginseng, perhaps Chinaga needs to change its target market from sexually uninspired women to athletes. (5/10)
Product: Erex for men: the "1-hour before" capsules
Ingredients: Elongifolia extract, muira puama, tribulis, panax ginseng, taurine
Claims: Support your sex drive and stronger sex
Average score: 5/10
Tester 1: There is undeniable value in spending an hour contemplating sex while medically forbidden from engaging in it (it says right there on the insert). A tension, as it were. Plus, taurine (one quarter of the concoction) has to be a good thing, right? It's in all the cool energy drinks, and it sounds as though it will make you strong like a bull. A rutting bull. As long as I can stay unaroused for an hour.
I nearly made it through the full hour. But not quite, as I fell asleep. On the upside, I had a fantastic night's sleep, and the sex the next day wasn't half bad. But I'd probably have been better off with a nice glass of hot milk. (2/10)
Tester 2: My girlfriend and I only see each other twice a month, so generally when we meet the mood and excitement is high. Honestly, it was my first time trying sexual enhancers and I was happy to see my girlfriend. So it's hard to tell whether the pill worked, but I enjoyed myself and wish to try it more often. (6/10)
Product: Erex for women: Arousal drops
Ingredients: uBangalanga extract
Claims: Improves sexual desire and heightens sensation. For over-all improved sexual libido and vitality
Average score: 1/10
Tester 1: I wish I could tell you that I took Erex and had the best sex of my life, that the chandeliers shook, that I contorted into positions I'd only read about in Cosmo magazine, and that I spent the following day walking like John Wayne. But I can't.
Such antics were a possibility before I counted 30 drops of Erex into a glass of water. I had looked across the room at my partner and thought, "I'd tap that. But wait! I have these drops that will make sexy times even sexier."
But after waiting an hour – as per the instruction on the insert – for the "sexual enhancer" to kick in, I would rather have been curled into the foetal position in a dark corner. The lusty fervour I had before imbibing the drops, which tasted like old ale, had transformed into a lethargic throbbing that spread across my forehead.
I had expected pulsating and throbbing from the Erex drops, but I think it's a sadistic joke that they were in my head rather than my lady parts. So, thanks to Erex, I told someone for the first time in my life that I "wasn't in the mood" because I had a headache. (0/10)
Product: Libido Booster for men and women
Ingredients: Epimedium (horny goat weed), ashwaganda, maca extract, St John's wort
Claims: Rejuvinating tonic, anti-stress agent, promotes wellbeing. Functions as a sexual stimulant and mood enhancer
?average score: 2/10
Tester 1: Nausea, heart palpitations and light sensitivity aren't what you might call "libido-boosting".
These were the side effects I had after a day's dosage of Libido Booster capsules. Oh, and sweating. Cold sweats that left me drenched and shivering on the bathroom floor, where I was stuck because of waves of nausea.
Perhaps the box should come with two warnings: one, take capsule on a full stomach, and two, read the fine print. One of the ingredients, St John's Wort, may reduce the effectiveness of your oral contraceptive.
Not that this will be a problem for me. After two hours of feeling like Death was coming for me, my partner and I were just too grateful the side effects had started wearing off and, sans the post-coital glow, both of us fell into a deep, unsatisfied sleep. 0/10
Tester 2: "I think we should get these again" – those were the first words out of my boyfriend's mouth after we tried the Libido Booster. The box claims it's an anti-stress agent, and it's quite possible it worked because I felt a lot more excited during foreplay. It usually takes me about 10 minutes to get ready, and with this it took me about three minutes. I also didn't need to use a synthetic lubricant to supplement my usual excitement. But I had not had sex in a few days (about four) and I'm not sure whether that affected it. (6/10)
Product: Man No 1 capsules
Ingredients: Panax ginseg, L-arganine, bioperine, epimedium, sagitatum, lycium fruit extract, reishi mushroom powder
Claims: Improves performance and reignite passion
Average score: 1/10
An over-the-counter pill to help you "perform" better immediately had me doubting whether this would do anything. And I was right – it did nothing. It gave me a lot of energy. Which wasn't great because? I had taken it at night and battled to sleep afterwards. It didn't affect my libido.
The fun bit was the expectation of a fun night ahead, and giggling about it before taking the pills, which helped to create a mood a lot more than the pills themselves.
The pills could quite easily have been replaced with an energy drink and would probably do as much for sex drive as this concoction. (2/10)
Downside of sex 'enhancers'
Traditional and Western healers team up to treat patients with HIV and tuberculosis because many people consult more than one health system.
After having survived the harrowing disease, Ebola survivors are met with humiliation and scorn by members of their communities.
Healthcare for Kenya's semi-nomadic communities comes in an unlikely form of camels, who carry medicine to the country's most remote villages.
Bhekisisa means "to scrutinise" in Zulu
In South Africa, Zulu patients who would like to be thoroughly assessed by a doctor, would ask the physician to "bhekisisa" them.