Forbidden Fruit: Why Cherries Are So Sexual

From erotic poetry to 19th-century romantic painting, "Cherry Pie" to kitschy underwear, the stone fruit has been a sexual symbol for centuries.

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Aug 1 2016, 4:00pm

Photo by Lumina via Stocksy

Only one fruit can claim to have symbolized both an uncircumcised penis and a vaginal membrane. Where bananas are obvious, and peaches have been assigned backdoor duty, since the 16th century, artists, writers, musicians, and run-of-the-mill perverts have all agreed: There's something about women and cherries, whether that cherry is in our mouths or waiting to be popped inside of us.

The history of cherries—the actual sweet-and-sour stone fruit—extends all the way back to prehistoric Europe and West Asia, when people were plucking and eating them off wild trees. According to Pliny the Elder's Natural History, the Roman Empire was cultivating at least eight varieties by the first century AD, though it wasn't until the 15th century that domestic cherries were widespread throughout Europe. Two centuries later, the future underwear designs cozied up next to apples, peaches, and pears on early settlers' transatlantic journeys from Europe to America, where we now grow more than a billion pounds' worth a year, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.

Read more: How Chili Became a Woman's Game

From this thoroughly standard culinary history arose the cherry's legacy as a sex symbol. In A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, Gordon Williams traces the cherry's cultural influence back to the 16th and 17th centuries, referring to some of the notable ways Europeans were using the fruit to talk about sins of the flesh: Poets Josuah Sylvester and Robert Herrick liken "Cherrielets" to "niplets" and "teates" in multiple works; Charles Cotton compares a "Garden-plot of Maiden-hair" (pubes) to black cherries in Erotopolis (1684); and John Garfield refers to sex as "playing at Bobb-Cherry" in the erotic pamphlet Wandering Whore II (1660).

Although the fruit is now most frequently associated with the female anatomy, our literary ancestors picked up on the fact that a bulbous cherry pressed up against pouting lips looks like the tip of a dick, and that a pair of cherries dangling over an open mouth resembles another, slightly hairier pair. In 1655, authors Michel Millot and Jean L'Ange published The School of Venus, an erotic novel that includes the sentence, "There's a fold of skin towards the tip of [the penis] which draws back and uncovers a head like a huge red cherry—as pleasant to the touch as anything could be."

One of the most notable nods to cherries, though, is one of the earliest. In the poem "There Is a Garden in Her Face" (1617), Thomas Campion likens the fruit to what it most commonly symbolizes today: the sex appeal of a pure, virginal young woman. During the 17th century, English cherry vendors would call out "cherry ripe" to alert potential buyers to the fruit, which Campion refers to here: "There is a garden in her face... / There cherries grow which none may buy / Till 'Cherry-ripe' themselves do cry." Sadly for Campion, the poem suggests his beautiful virgin isn't quite ripe for picking.

Frederic Leighton's "Mother and Child," 1865. Photo via Flickr user repolco

It wasn't until the late 19th century that this figurative meaning started to become widespread. "The image [of the cherry] is based on an idea of ripeness—and thus the virginity tends to be seen as something that, sooner or later, is due to be lost," distinguished slang lexicographer Jonathon Green writes in Green's Dictionary of Slang, in which he also traces the origins of virgins "losing" their cherry, or getting it "popped" or "busted," to the early 1900s. By this time, young girls picking cherries or cradling baskets of them is a common motif in art, with men like Frederic Leighton, Charles-Amable Lenoir, and John Everett Millais painting prepubescent girls' unblemished porcelain skin alongside deep red cherries. Just as there's a perfect time to pluck a perfectly plump cherry before it browns, older men believed nubial virgins to have a "best by" date.

More recently, the cherry's juicy influence has bled into all parts of American culture. The deep red fruit is a popular pattern on lingerie and adolescent girls' clothing, which, considering its connotation of purity and sex appeal, is reason enough to never dress your daughter in a cherry-printed dress. Men who play around with instruments have also enjoyed slipping cherry references into their music: Warrant belts, "She's my cherry pie" in "Cherry Pie"; ZZ Top comes in with the gross "I'm addicted to the feel of her cherry red" in "Cherry Red"; and Neil Diamond sings to his "Cherry, baby" in "Cherry Cherry." The ska band Cherry Poppin' Daddies, which formed in 1989, deserves a (skeptical) mention. We do get one song from women—"Cherry Bomb" by female punk group The Runaways—in 1976: Joan Jett tells her "Daddy and mom," that she's their "cherry bomb," a reference that reframes the fruit's sexual connotations as something explosive, connecting them to the "cherry bomb" fireworks popular at the time. (Today, a magazine about women and food, Cherry Bombe, publishes biannually.)

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But perhaps the cherry hit its peak when Audrey Horne slipped a cherry between her bright red lips in that famous Twin Peaks scene. Eating the flesh and tying the stem with her tongue, she embodied everything (resoundingly male) artists have thought about the cherry: She was drippingly sexual but also innocent and pure. (And therefore ripe for entering the infamous brothel, One-Eyed Jacks.) Fruit itself is innately sexual—after all, it's defined as the enlarged ovaries of flowering plants—but cherries have always been on top.