Impotence: A review and interview

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of short looks at books from academic presses which I think might interest a wider readership. In each, there will be first a mini-review, and then a brief interview with the author. — JBJ

Impotence: A Cultural History
by Angus McLaren
(University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Laughing at erections is the province of middle- and high-school humor; laughing at impotence is a more adult entertainment. In the Friends episode, “The One with Monica’s Thunder,” Chandler has a momentary loss of power. Shaken, he asks Joey if it’s ever happened to him. Joey says, sure — happens to everybody. Not a problem. But when Chandler asks what he does in those situations, Joey’s answer leaves him even more disturbed: “Do it anyway.”

This brief scene illustrates a central difficulty with conversations about erections and impotence: Questions of definition abound. What looks like a simple question — am I hard or not? — turns out to have a long and interesting backstory. Angus McLaren’s new book, Impotence: A Cultural History (University of Chicago Press, 2007), surveys Western approaches to erection, impotence, and infertility since the Greeks. And these approaches are shockingly different. An early Christian culture emphasizing celibacy, for instance, is necessarily going to take a very different view of impotence than is, say, a late-Victorian one worrying about the decadence of the West.

Impotence is a fascinating book, one that easily sustains its most basic claim, which is that “every age has turned impotence to its own purposes, each advancing a model of masculinity that informed men if they were sexual successes, and if not, why not.” Despite the presence of a blurb from Dr. Ruth on the back cover, McLaren is a refreshingly low-key guide to the vicissitudes of impotence. The book is almost unmissable for its extensive cataloging of tests (“fifteenth-century English courts sometimes employed ‘honest women’ to examine the man”) and treatments (ranging from the implantation of monkey and goat glands, to the construction of mechanical scaffolding, to various forms of pastes, salves, and unguents, applied topically, orally, or anally).

Methodologically, McLaren’s book is relatively straightforward in its use of cultural-studies and gender-studies versions of Michel Foucault’s arguments in The History of Sexuality. That’s a deliberate tactic on his part: As McLaren explains below, the past thirty years have seen an explosion of work about the cultural construction of women’s bodies, while male bodies have been taken as a kind of cultural given. If one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, it’s also the case that one has to be made into a man. McLaren’s book traces how frequently — though not always, and not always in predictable ways — the working of one’s penis has been “the making of a man.”

Erections are notoriously tricky, and not especially amenable to introspection. In the heat of the moment, overthinking one’s wood is proverbially an invitation to shipwreck. And yet thinking seriously about sexuality is important: Sexuality is, perhaps, where the biology of the body meets culture’s most insistent efforts at meaning-making. Angus McLaren’s book shows us how little we still know about men, their bodies, and the widely diverging expectations that Western societies have imposed upon them.

In the brief interview that follows, McLaren discusses why sexuality is hard to define, and why we should care.

What does it mean to say that impotence has a history? What does the recovery of this history suggest?

To say that “impotence has a history” means that every age has had its own ideas about what caused and cured male sexual dysfunctions. Fiascos in the bedroom have been attributed at one time or another to witchcraft, masturbation, homosexual desires, shell-shock, sexual excesses, feminism, and the Oedipal complex. In recovering this history we not only learn about other cultures, more importantly we find that what it meant to be a man differed in each epoch. Countless studies have tracked the ways in which women’s sexuality was “constructed” or repressed or policed but next to nothing has as yet been said about how normative standards of male performance were established. Even historians of homosexuality have skirted the question. The study of impotence reveals that a vast and changing cast of characters interested itself in men’s sexual capacities. Their private problems were implicated in the discussion of a range of important public issues including marriage, divorce, reproduction, and aging. Such discussions naturally reflected societies’ changing views of men’s bodies and appropriate masculine behavior, but they were also entangled in ideas about sex, race, gender, age, and class.

Is it fair to say that cultural criticism of all stripes has overemphasized the erection as the image of embodied masculine sexuality? Do we need to come up with a new term for phallocentrism or phallogocentrism, inasmuch as these labels sound almost priapic?

Though I would agree that the erection as the image of embodied masculine sexuality has been overemphasized by cultural critics, I don’t feel qualified to suggest an alternative to the awkward term phallocentrism. Nevertheless I agree that the words people use when talking about sex are important. As an historian I’m particularly interested in the sexual vocabulary of previous generations. For example, I found that Roman males wore around their necks a replica of the penis (as protection against the evil eye) called the “fascinum” from the word “to bewitch” from which comes our word “fascinate.” “Glamor,” according to church inquisitors, was the power a witch could use to spirit away a man’s testicles — which might give one pause today in describing a woman as “glamorous.” And one of the original meanings of the word “courage” — as used by Chaucer and his contemporaries — was lustiness or sexual vigor. Such examples suggest how concerns about the fragility of virility permeated western culture.

Was there a section of your history that was particularly eye-opening for you?

I hadn’t realized that the rise of endocrinology in the early twentieth century was accompanied by the enterprising attempting to use a variety of “scientific” therapies to restore masculine vigor. Hormone research led both quacks and scientists to implant monkey glands and goat testicles in some men and to carry out vasectomies on others (including Freud and Yeats) with the futile promise of “rejuvenation.” The public appeared to be well aware of these practices. Novelists such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Italo Svevo noted the role of the ductless glands in bringing about “rejuvenation.” In “You Can’t Do What My Last Man Did” blues artist Ethel

Waters sang about her new lover’s need for such assistance while bartenders concocted “monkey gland cocktails.”

Your book obviously limits itself, in the main, to cultural formations in Europe and North America. Have you discovered strikingly different models for impotence in other parts of the world?

No, I haven’t, which isn’t to say that they do not exist. I had originally intended to look at non-western cultures as well, but soon realized that the project was far too ambitious.

Frequently Impotence recurs to a fascinating question: What, exactly, does “sex” mean? Is it vaginal intercourse? Is it any form of penetration? Is it penetration + orgasm? And, sometimes, you imply that overemphasizing penetration can have troubling consequences for gender relations. Can you comment for a bit on a nonpenetrative vision of sexuality, and what its sociopolitical implications might be?

Your question reminds me of Bill Clinton’s insistence, “I did not have sex with that woman.” His defenders later argued that “oral sex” was not real sex. The Kinsey Institute subsequently polled a thousand or so college students and found that there was in fact a wide range of opinions on what constituted “having sex.” Similarly in my book I point out the variety of meanings impotence might have. When reproduction was highly prized it was often confused or equated with sterility or barrenness. Even in modern times it has had a variety of meanings — failure to achieve an erection, failure to penetrate, and either failure to ejaculate or ejaculating prematurely. Such failures might be chronic or intermittent, they could have physical or psychological causes. They could arrive with old age.

And what is “sex”? Our culture obviously does overemphasize penetration. The advertisements for Viagra, Cialis and Levitra reinforce this message. But whom are the rock hard erections, promised by the pharmaceutical companies, for? Studies suggest that women are far more interested in intimacy and cuddling. And echoing the complaints of wives, some gay men have described themselves as feeling “pill fucked.” When feminists joke that what is really needed is a pill that extends foreplay, they are pointing out the importance of the nonpenetrative aspects of sexuality, aspects that business has yet to exploit.

David Lodge, in Nice Work, uses the fact that Robyn Penrose, and her boyfriend, Charles, have nonpenetrative sex as a way of mocking a certain kind of effete, overintellectualized (that is, overly theoretical) feminism. What’s interesting, then, is the way that Robyn ends up having a brief affair with a middle-management type, Vic Wilcox (!), in which penetrative sex is the order of the day. I was instantly reminded of this book, in part because of the way questions of potency, class, performance, and politics are all bound up together.

I’m a David Lodge fan. The first novel of his which I read was The British Museum Is Falling Down, the tale of a 25 year old married grad student who, as a good Catholic, has to employ “Vatican roulette” (the rhythm method) to avoid getting his wife pregnant. At the time I was a 25 year old married grad student doing research in the British Museum on the history of contraception. Going through early modern medical works looking for references to ways of limiting fertility, I kept on coming across recipes to “inflame lust” or “restore potency.” I initially cast them aside, but decades later I returned to these sources when beginning


Curiously enough I can’t remember much about Nice Work. The way in which you describe Lodge lining up potency, class, performance, and politics does sound disappointingly predictable.

Your method enjoins you from taking a position on what view of impotence is “best” for men, for sexual relations, and for cultures, since all cultural formations have benefits and costs. (Sexuality is always regulated, but there’s always resistance — including resistance produced by the regulation itself.) But I wonder whether there is a model of impotence and masculinity that you found more congenial than the pharmacological consensus of Viagra, Levitra, and the rest? Should we feel sanguine about signing over our future erections to Pfizer?

I conclude my book by saying that impotence has a past and also a future. That is to say, a world in which sex is problem-free is unimaginable — unless it is a dystopia such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The pharmaceutical corporations at times do sound as though they are offering us their version of soma, Huxley’s happiness pill. But in agreeing that we should not rely on Pfizer to sustain us, I think it is important to reiterate that the basic premise of my study is that sexuality — commonly taken to be a biological given — has always been and will always be culturally constructed. “Sex,” as Leonore Tiefer has rightly noted, “is not a natural act.”