When asked how he prepares to play Wolverine, Hugh Jackman revealed a trick he uses to get into the mindset of the rage-filled X-Man: “I take very ice cold showers in the morning, because it really pisses me off,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Which makes sense: Despite some widely touted health benefits, most people agree that taking a cold shower sucks. For a man, of course, the most notorious side effect is their legendary ability to kill an erection, with even the Cambridge English Dictionary listing the phrase “take a cold shower” as “an expression used when someone needs to calm down when something has made them feel sexually excited.”
But where did this idea come from?
Like all idioms, “take a cold shower” had to start somewhere, and according to John Considine, an English professor and etymologist at the University of Alberta, it’s a fairly recent expression. “It seems to be from the late 20th century,” he explains. “If it had been around for longer, I would expect it to be in the authoritative Green’s Dictionary of Slang, and it isn’t.”
Certainly, the idea of cold showers being boner-killers rears its head — so to speak — in pop culture a lot over the last few decades. It’s been a punchline on sitcoms new (e.g., The Big Bang Theory) and old (e.g., Frasier, where Niles famously rejected their efficacy: “It’s clearly an old wives’ tale, because I’m still thinking of my old wife’s tail.”) Similarly, in 2014, when Derek Jeter split with model Hannah Davis, an article theorized that he had broken off the relationship as part of a “cold shower discipline” in order to focus on his final season with the Yankees. In 1980’s Raging Bull, Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta improvised his own cold-shower therapy by pouring a pitcher of ice-cold water down his pants in order to stick to his pre-fight sex ban.
The expression hasn’t just been used for men, either: The 1991 Erin Cruise song “Cold Shower” sees the singer use the technique to cool her passions, while in Grease — both the 1978 film and 1971 stage production — Rizzo sings about taking cold showers every day, in her classic showstopper “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”
Prior to that, though, it’s harder to find such references in popular culture, which fits with Considine’s assumption. That said, he does add that the idea of cold water dousing passions has been around for longer — if by a different name: “Green’s Dictionary illustrates the use of the word ‘son’ to refer to the speaker’s penis with the following quotation, [from P. Smith’s Letter from My Father] written around 1927 but not published until 1978: When I felt the ‘son’ was rising and could no longer be restrained I … rushed back again for the cold, cold shower.”
The most important question, of course, is whether or not it actually works. According to Ranjith Ramasamy at the University of Miami’s Director of Male Reproductive Medicine, the answer is a definitive, “Probably.”
“No one has directly studied cooling of the penis during a natural, non-prolonged erection, so no one actually knows what cold water does,” he says. “Most of what we know as to how cooling affects the penis is guided by studies on using cooling methods to treat priapism [an unwanted erection lasting more than four hours]. The theory of the mechanism hasn’t been proven, but it’s thought that cooling induces increased smooth muscle activity in the penis.”
The smooth muscle, he says, surrounds the blood vessels in the penis that direct an erection. During increased activity, it squeezes the blood vessels closed, stopping blood from entering. This, he explains, leads to your little soldier quickly going from “attention” to “at ease.”
In other words, a cold shower will, in theory, dampen your enthusiasm by cutting off the blood supply to your penis, but it’s yet to be scientifically proven. Considering the ironclad confidence a man would need to subject himself to such an experiment, it’s possible this will remain the case indefinitely.