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'07 Authors Insider Tips

by Louisa Burton
Formatting Your Manuscript
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Hard Business
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Impotence: A Cultural History
by Angus McLaren

Book Review by Rob Hardy

Impotence: A Cultural History"Impotence in an age that believed in witchcraft was quite different from impotence in an age that believed in science." So writes Angus McLaren in Impotence: A Cultural History (University of Chicago Press). What's even more important than the differences, however, is that all cultures have fretted about not having sufficient lead in their pencils. We have the solution now, a wonderful pill, although like all the others, it is a solution linked with its own problems. McLaren's extensive history may be about impotence, but winds up being a history of all sorts of sexual ideas, like understanding of conception, superstitions about masturbation, women's emancipation, and more. This is literally a vital topic, and in some ways it is dismaying that we have a long history of surrounding it with silly and illogical worries. That merely shows, however, that the subject is an important one, and McLaren's entertaining book puts it into proper historical perspective.

Everything always seems to start with the ancient Greeks, who started the long tradition of blaming someone else for the problem. Spells could cause it, or you could render a man impotent by touching him with an inscribed figure of a castrated man. It was more common to blame the woman involved; she was too physically unappealing, or she was too eager, or she was not eager enough. There were remedies, like wine, or perhaps nettles, chickpeas, or crushed beetles. Nuts or peas that, viewed with enough imagination, looked like penises were recommended. Ovid wrote that a guarantee of erection was a crocodile's right molar worn as an amulet. The Romans shared the preoccupation with impotence, producing a large literature on what to do in case of declining sexual abilities. A fourth century clinician recommended "books to read, which stimulate lust and in which love-stories are insinuatingly treated," but also recommended surrounding the patient with beautiful girls or boys. This illustrates that the Roman concept of "sexuality" was different from ours; a man would fret if neither women nor boys prompted an erection, and not having an erection, not being able to penetrate, was a shame in itself. It had nothing to do with failing to please a partner, for a desire to please a partner was itself felt to be effeminate. It was the male's aggression and anger that fueled normative sexual desire, they believed, and such beliefs have of course continued; we may say "erectile dysfunction" now, but there is a reason it is called "impotence".

The medieval church was also concerned with power issues, mostly over bringing forth children. This was somewhat paradoxical, as fleshly life was held to be a distraction from true spirituality, but if there had to be sex, it was supposed to be with a lifelong partner and also it was only good if it was for the sake of reproduction. Margery Kempe in the 1400s prayed that Christ would stop her husband from pushing sex during Holy Week. "She said, 'Jesus help me,' and he had no power to touch her at that time in that way, nor ever after with fleshly knowing." A marriage was, however, only a marriage if it were properly consummated, and as a result, there was the irony of nominally celibate churchmen having to debate and adjudicate the finer points of coitus. Whether the marriage was consummated by the man simply getting an erection, or by penetration, or by ejaculation, were all discussed in detail. Marriage was so important, however, and consummation so necessary to its definition, that if a wife or her family claimed that a husband had not fulfilled his part of the bargain, he might have to show that he had the power to do so. Sometimes prostitutes would be hired so that the clerics might witness the resultant erection. The performance anxiety must have led to many false positives. The church at the time also promoted the fear of witches, who were famous for not only being able to induce impotence but even to spirit penises away from their owners. Masses and prayers might lead to restoration, but a woman who put a wax representation of her husband's penis on a church altar in Germany inspired nothing but the anger of the parish priest.

Probably because the issue was being taken too seriously by their medieval forebears, those in early modern Europe saw humor, however cruel, in the plight of the impotent man. They even coined a host of terms for such fellows, and McLaren lists: malkin, pillock, fumbler, fribble , bungler, bobtail, domine-do-little, weak-doing man, Goodman Do-Little, and John Cannot. Husbands so afflicted were the subjects of plenty of funny stories or plays. In real life, such husbands might be sued for divorce by their wives, a situation as hilarious to the populace as when represented on the stage. The problem has always been perceived as a real one, however, and so solutions were always there to be tried, even if they were not real solutions. Impotence then as now has been a boon for quacks. In the 1700s Dr. Brodum offered his Nervous Cordial and Botanical Syrup to get men ready for the rigors of the married state. In Victorian times, men's publications would carry back page ads, like one touting the remedy concocted by a "Lionel Strongfort" to "give you new courage, increased vigor, more pep." Victorian doctors tried to cure the ailment, but they had little to offer to distinguish themselves from the quacks. They had advice on morals; don't have sex too often, and for goodness sake, don't masturbate. They might prescribe electric belts and "Seminal Replenishers", but had as little science behind their treatments for impotence as they did for most other ailments. As always, blaming the woman was always a good excuse. A Victorian wife could cause impotence in her husband by being too enthusiastic about sex; the other end of the spectrum was the wife who while her husband was making his efforts, "essayed to divert her mind by reading, asking him from time to time if he were through."

It would be nice to think that the twentieth century and its scientific and sexual revolutions would have solved things, but such is not the case. There were nutty therapies involving the implantation of goat or monkey glands, and even human testicles were implanted as boosters. The testicles mostly came from executed prisoners, and worked just as well as any placebo could. The discovery of the hormone testosterone did not help increase potency or sperm count. The biggest change over the past few decades has come from the concept that the man not only has to spout a usable erection, but that he has the responsibility for sexually satisfying the woman. This increase in pressure may have been responsible for the supposed impotence boom which such journals as Esquire "documented" thirty years ago. Viagra (and the subsequent Cialis and Levitra) were supposed to take all the worry out of sex, but nothing performs that function. McLaren reports that female partners of Viagra users aren't nearly as convinced that the drug is a boon as those who swallow the pills are, and anyway, only half of the men who try it ever get their prescriptions refilled.

It would be nice to shake some sense into people, to have them see that erections are not all there is to sex, and that there is plenty of sexual enjoyment to be had in lots of ways whether or not an erection can be counted upon. That's really the only sensible way to look at the issue, but McLaren's book demonstrates that we do not look at it sensibly. The best guess is that there will be even more advanced solutions to the problem a hundred years from now, and a hundred years from now, we will be fretting over the problem (or turning it into some new problem) just as every generation in history has.

Rob Hardy
September 2007

Impotence: A Cultural History
(University Of Chicago Press; April 15, 2007; ISBN-10: 0226500764)
Available at: / Amazon UK

© 2007 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

About the Reviewer
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
WebBio: Rob Hardy

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