An obscure study carried out 15 years ago has attracted a lot of attention recently, thanks to two scientists’ sensational claim that an unnamed species of bright orange mushroom found in Hawaii caused spontaneous orgasms in a handful of women who felt it. But before you get too excited, we’re sorry to tell you that there is no real evidence that this mysterious fungus does anything like this because all we are doing is a one-page observational study with a very small sample that has not yet been replicated and which makes some rather dubious assumptions about female biology.
Let’s start at the beginning. In 2001, a couple of medical scientists published a report in the International Journal of Medical Fungi describing an unnamed fungus species’ effects on 36 male and female volunteers. Belonging to the genus Dictyophora stink fungi, which has since been renamed Phallus, the fungus is believed to grow only at the top of the Hawaiian lava flow, which is between 600 and 1,000 years old, and scientists John C. Holliday and Noah Soule describe it as particularly difficult to reach.
Influenced by rumors that the smell of the fungus is a powerful female aphrodisiac, the two men carried out an “odor test” on 16 female and 10 male volunteers. Six of the women reportedly had light (no, not “earthy”) spontaneous orgasms when they sniffed the fungus, while the other ten reportedly had a high heart rate when they received a lower dose. On the other hand, the male volunteers all said that they found the “foul smell” of the mushroom disgusting, and this is how it affected them.
The researchers made a report at the time :
“In fact, almost half of the female subjects had spontaneous orgasms when sniffing this mushroom. These results suggest that the hormonal compounds present in the volatile part of the spore mass may bear some resemblance to the human neurotransmitters released during sexual intercourse”. Scientifically, this statement is fraught with problems. First of all, the 36 people are too small to prove anything, especially since 20 of them said they felt nothing but naughty. Secondly, apart from measuring the increase in heart rate – which in itself does not equate to an orgasm – scientists have done little to prove that the orgasms reported by the people concerned actually took place.
Moreover, as we all know, the results of the experiment cannot be considered conclusive until they have been reproduced under other conditions, and this has not yet been done. Furthermore, outside of this study, there is no scientific evidence that orgasm can only be triggered by smell, so if researchers want to make this claim, they have a lot of work to do.
One possible explanation could be that the unidentified fungus was actually a species of Phallus indiatus or something very similar. Found in the tropical regions of South Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia, this phallus-shaped fungus is believed to be a female aphrodisiac in the Hawaiian and South Pacific tradition, known as Mamalo o Wahine, which translates as “female fungus”, and whose use in Chinese medicine has been documented since the 7th century AD.
The reputation of the mushroom may have influenced the women in the study. Perhaps its suggestive form, combined with the medical study’s unnatural environment, triggered something that was not quite right in the minds of the six volunteers. As the fungus was never identified, we will probably never know, and until definitive research on the biology of aromatic orgasms is published, we will not hold our breath.