When I was in basic training, it wasn’t long before someone whispered to me that “there’s saltpeter in the water.” I didn’t know what saltpeter was but I decided not to show my ignorance on that score. Instead, I asked why there would be saltpeter in our water (we were required to down two glasses prior to every meal). “To decrease your sex drive,” was the answer my fellow trainee provided, although he used more colorful terms than this.
It turns out, as I found later, that there has been a longstanding belief that the military, prisons, ships, or even colleges and summer camps sneak saltpeter into food or water in an effort to decrease the male libido. Basically, anywhere men are separated from women, the organizations do not want them to be distracted, or to become restless and thus misbehave, because they are overwhelmed by sexual desire.
On the TV show MASH (I love MASH), the character Hawkeye mentions saltpeter when he has a date and he has one of those dreaded male moments where he “couldn’t do it.” This was set during the Korean war and I suspect that yes, it is an accurate portrayal and the belief was present in the military at that time. This belief extends at least as far back as World War II, and possibly to WWI.
It is true that most men in military training experience a decrease in sex drive. Thus, it is easy to assume that there is indeed a substance being administered that is responsible for this decrease in libido. However, there is another, very simple reason, why a man might have a diminished desire for sex during military training: He is exhausted, both mentally and physically, and he simply has no time to think about anything but rest and not having more abuse heaped on him by his training instructor.
As well, there may be a more technical explanation. Basic military training is a time of very high stress for most men. Ironically, this high stress level may reduce testosterone levels just when they need it most. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol will be high, and this signals the body to both produce fewer testosterone precurers, but the cortisol itself blocks the effects of testosterone, thus leading to a decrease in sex drive and even the ability to produce an erection. That’s right, the body produces its own form of saltpeter which works much better! Stress is not just mental, it has a marked physical effect on the body.
Does Saltpeter Reduce Sex Drive?
Saltpeter is a common term for potassium nitrate. It is used preserve meat, temper steal, and to make gunpowder and fireworks. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that saltpeter reduces sex drive in men, or that it prevents men from getting erections, which was part of the “colorful terms” my fellow trainee provided in answer to my query. Just replace the word salt with soft and you will understand what I mean. As female readers may imagine, however, the idea that something is being administered to us which will mess up our erections, well, that is a great source of anxiety. The belief, or even the hint, that our food or water is laced with such a substance may well help along the very symptom the substance is said to cause!
This myth has been extended, in modern times, to include the claim that MRE’s (Meal’s Ready to Eat) are laced with saltpeter as well. Of course, this is not true at all. Before the advent of the MRE, which are low-moisture or dehydrated foods sealed in vacuum packed plastic pouches, soldiers belied their C-rations were spiked with saltpeter.
Curiously, if you think about it, such an effort, to reduce libido in men, would, if it were possible, include a decrease in testosterone. Lowered testosterone would be a very undesirable symptom for a soldier, as it would decrease aggression, but also physical strength and stamina and a host of other detrimental effects. As we have already seen, the high stress of training (and of combat) would already have an effect on testosterone, so adding to this effect would be ill-advised, and if saltpeter had actually been used and worked, the effects produced would probably have been more than expected. Regardless, saltpeter use in the miltary is a myth.
Why is it Called Saltpeter?
Originally spelled saltpetre, this term could have referred to potassium nitrate, sodium nitrate, or even calcium nitrate, but it’s main use was for potassium nitrate. Saltpetre comes from sal petre, which means “salt of the rock.” This refers to how potassium nitrate (and other salts) are found in nature, being part of the rock of the earth. Potassium nitrate is usually found mixed with sodium and magnesium salts.