email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
269 Amazing Sex GamesA History of MarriageA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyActionAll the WayAmerica UnzippedAmerica UnzippedAmerica's Sexual TransformationAmerican EugenicsAmerican GirlsAmerican HookupAn Interpretation of DesireAnarchism & SexualityAnatomy of a BoyfriendAnatomy of LoveAnthony GoicoleaAnticlimaxArt and HomosexualityArt/PornAssuming a BodyAutoportraitBachelors and BunniesBecoming OrgasmicBehind the Red DoorBest Sex Writing 2005Better Sex Through YogaBetter Sex Through YogaBetter Than EverBetween Mom and JoBeyond Diversity DayBeyond SexualityBeyond ToleranceBig Porn IncBill HensonBodies in DoubtBody ImagesBonkBoys Don't CryBreasts - A DocumentaryBrothelBuying SexCase Studies in Communication about SexCase Studies in Sexual DevianceCaught in the WebCelibaciesChildren and SexualityChildren and the Politics of SexualityChildren with Sexual Behavior ProblemsChildren, Sexuality and SexualizationChristy ReportClay's WayClinical Manual of Women's Mental HealthClose toYouClumsyCold HitCollege SexComing of Age in AmericaConfessions of the Other MotherCybersexCyborgasmDare... to Make Love with 2, 3, 4... or MoreDare... to Try BisexualityDating: Philosophy for EveryoneDeadly ButterflyDebating Same-Sex MarriageDeep GossipDeparting from DevianceDesire, Love, and IdentityDigital DiariesDilemmas of DesireDirty MindsDirty StoriesDisorders Of DesireDisorders of Sex Development:Doing ItDoing ItDoing It Down UnderDown and Dirty Sex SecretsDude, You're a FagEarly Embraces IIIEmerald City BluesEmotionally InvolvedEnjoying Guilty PleasuresErotic CapitalErotic InnocenceErotic PassionsEthics, Sexual Orientation, and Choices about ChildrenEveryday PornographyEvolution and Human Sexual BehaviorExploring TranssexualismFade to BlackFagbugFaking ItFamilies Like MineFast GirlsFinal JeopardyFinding H. F.Fire on the Mountain DVDFor Lesbian ParentsFor The Bible Tells Me SoForbiddenFrictionFrom Disgust to HumanityFrom Shame to SinFuckologyGay, Straight, and the Reason WhyGender in the MirrorGender OutlawsGeography ClubGetting RealGetting the Love You WantGirls & SexGirls Gone MildGirls Gone SkankGLBTQGoddess WorshipGoing DownGood GirlsGood PornGood Sex IllustratedGreat Answers to Difficult Questions About SexGuide To Getting It OnHandbook New Sexuality StudiesHandbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual ClientsHard to GetHardcore from the HeartHear Us Out!HeterosyncraciesHit & MissHomosexualitiesHookedHooking UpHow Sex Became a Civil LibertyHow Sex ChangedHow Sex WorksHow To Be GayHow to Do Things with Pornography How to Give Her Absolute PleasureHow to Have Magnificent SexHow to Make Great Love to a ManHow to Make Great Love to a WomanHow to Make Love Like a Porn StarHow to Think More About SexHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenHysterical MenI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'll Be Your MirrorIf Men Could TalkImpotenceIn a Queer VoiceIn Praise of the WhipIn the Mood, AgainInsatiable WivesIntense Games DVDInvestigating Young People's Sexual CulturesIt's Perfectly NormalIt's Perfectly NormalItís Your HourJane Sexes It UpJock SturgesJust Between UsKama-Sutra--The Secrets to the Art of LoveKids Gone WildLegalizing ProstitutionLegalizing ProstitutionLet's Get This StraightLets Talk about SexLetters to Penthouse Vol. 50Likely to DieLittle ChicagoLoose GirlLosing Matt ShepardLoveLove and DesireLove and SexLove JunkieLove Lust DesireLove SickLustMad for FoucaultMagical ThinkingMaking American BoysMaking Babies the Hard WayMaking Chastity SexyMaking Peace with PornMaking ScenesMale SexualityMalefemaleMaster BreastsMating in CaptivityMedicalized MasculinitiesMelancholia and MoralismMenMental Health Issues in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Communities MiddlesexMoney ShotMoral Panics, Sex PanicsMy Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me UpMy HeartbeatMy Horizontal LifeName All the AnimalsNatural BeautyNerveNerveNew Sex Now DVDNightswimmingNone of the AboveNormalNormalNot GayNot The Marrying KindNot Under My RoofNothing PinkOedipus WreckedOn Being RapedOne Hot SecondOne Hour in ParisOpenOrgasmOrgasm Inc.OrgasmologyOrgasmsOver 100 Truly Astonishing Sex TipsOverexposedPeekPeriod PiecesPervPhilosophizing About Sex Philosophy of Love, Sex, and MarriagePin-up GrrrlsPINSPlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPolicing SexualityPolyamory in the 21st CenturyPornPorn NationPorn StudiesPorn UniversityPornifiedPornlandPornographyPornographyPornography, Sex, and FeminismPosition Of The Day PlaybookPray the Gay AwayPredatorsPremarital Sex in AmericaPrinciples and Practice of Sex TherapyPrivate Dicks - Men ExposedPrivate Practices DVDProblem GirlsPrudePsychopathia SexualisQueer PhilosophyRapeRape Is RapeRated X - A Journey Through PornRazmatazRecruiting Young LoveRedefining GirlyRedefining RapeRegulating SexRethinking Gender and Sexuality in ChildhoodRethinking RapeRunning with ScissorsSatan's Sex BookScreening SexSelling Sex ShortSexSex & Single GirlsSex (Ed)Sex and SpiritSex and the American TeenagerSex and the SoulSex and the Soul, Updated EditionSex and WarSex at DawnSex by NumbersSex DetoxSex Fiends, Perverts, and PedophilesSex in CrisisSex ObjectSex OffendersSex on the BrainSex PositionsSex Q & ASex, Family, and the Culture WarsSex, or the UnbearableSex, Therapy, and KidsSex, Time and PowerSextasySexting and Young PeopleSexual ArtSexual Boundary ViolationsSexual DevianceSexual DisordersSexual EcstasySexual EthicsSexual FluiditySexual IntelligenceSexual Orientation and Psychodynamic PsychotherapySexual Orientation and School PolicySexual PleasureSexual PredatorsSexual Teens, Sexual MediaSexuality in AdolescenceSexuationSexyBookShameShamelessShy GirlSlutWalkSmall FavorsSmutSocial Control of Sex OffendersSome Assembly RequiredSplit ScreenStir-FryStraight to JesusStrange BedfellowsStripped BareSurviving Sexual ViolenceSymptoms of Being HumanTalkTalk to Me FirstTechniques of PleasureThe Anthropology of SexThe BabiesThe Better Sex Guide to the Kama SutraThe Big Book of PornThe Birth of the PillThe Blue Moon Erotic Reader IIIThe BodyThe Breast BookThe Breath of Tantric LoveThe Busy Couple's Guide to Great SexThe Case of the Female OrgasmThe Chemistry Between UsThe Clitoral TruthThe Education of SophieThe Emergence of SexualityThe End Of AliceThe End of SexThe Erotic EdgeThe Erotic Lives of WomenThe Essential KamasutraThe Fate of GenderThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Gay Baby BoomThe Good Vibrations Guide to SexThe Happy Hook-UpThe Hite ReportThe Humble Little CondomThe Illustrated Guide to Extended Massive OrgasmThe Illustrated Story of OThe Love CureThe Madness of WomenThe Men They Will BecomeThe Mirror of LoveThe Miseducation of Cameron PostThe Moral Panics of SexualityThe Naked Truth About SexThe Nature of Sexual DesireThe New Erotic PhotographyThe New Gay TeenagerThe Notebook GirlsThe Only Girl in the CarThe Order of the Poison OakThe Origins of SexThe Other HollywoodThe Other PlaceThe Other Side of DesireThe Perils of MasculinityThe Perversion of YouthThe Philosophy of PornographyThe Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary ReadingsThe Pleasure's All MineThe Politics Of LustThe Porn TrapThe Pornographer's GriefThe Pornography IndustryThe Praeger Handbook of TranssexualityThe Psychodynamics of Gender and Gender RoleThe Purity MythThe Real Truth About Teens and SexThe Right to Be ParentsThe Secret Lives of GirlsThe Sex Addiction WorkbookThe Sex Lives of TeenagersThe Sex MythThe Shared HeartThe Sleep of ReasonThe Smart Girl's Guide to PornThe Story of SexThe SurrenderThe Ten Minute Sexual SolutionThe Tenth CircleThe Transformations of GwenThe Transformations of GwenThe Trauma MythThe Ultimate Guide to Sex and DisabilityThe Vagina MonologuesThe ValleyThe Violence of CareThe Virgin BlueThe Virginity ClubThings Tom LikesThinking KinkThinking XXXToo Hot to HandleTransTransTransgender Children and YouthUltimate JudgementUltimate SexUndoing GenderUnlikelyUntangling the WebVirginVirgin NationVirgin Sex for GirlsVirgin Sex for GuysVirginity LostWhat Women WantWhat's Happening to My Body? Book for BoysWhat's Happening to My Body? Book for GirlsWhat's Happening to Tom?What's Wrong with Homosexuality?When Jeff Comes HomeWhen Sex Goes to SchoolWhen the Piano StopsWhere Do We Fall When We Fall in Love?Who Has What?Who's Been Sleeping in Your HeadWilhelm ReichWired for IntimacyWomen and Child Sexual AbuseWomen and MadnessWritten in the FleshZen Sex
Me husband can dance and caper and sing
And do anything that's fitting for him
But he cannot do the thing I want
Because he has no courage in him
(English folk song, Trad.)
If there is one ray of light in the history of impotence, it is that the taboo nature of the topic throughout most of western history has given rise to a rich vein of humor, in jokes, songs, anecdotes, and in the preposterous claims made about the causes of impotence, and its possible remedies. Why do women fake orgasms? Because men fake foreplay. Angus McLaren's research covers over two and half millennia and provides enough memorable quotes to hold the reader's interest throughout this book, if the more serious scholarship becomes a little taxing. Actually, it doesn't become taxing at all. Impotence. A Cultural History is a highly readable and informative account of an issue that has taken on new significance in the past decade as the pharmaceutical industry has emerged as the dominant player in the age old issue of impotence.
The book begins in the classical periods of Greece and Rome and ends in the 21st century, showing that views of impotence, like constructions of masculinity, have varied according to the cultural norms of the times. If the currently dominant view that impotence is a medical condition (erectile dysfunction), with a demonstrated basis in pathophysiology and a drug to treat it, this is not the end of the affair, but simply one more installment.
Impotence. A Cultural History is presented in ten evenly spaced chapters. The first covers both Greece and Rome, showing the vast differences in the place of the erection between those cultures and our own. McLaren draws on surviving literature, aware that this necessarily reflects the interests of the ruling elite. For the ancients, sexual performance through the erect penis was as much about social status as about sex; its purpose was utilitarian rather than the demonstration of intimacy. The theme of performance anxiety, albeit for very different reasons, is established in this chapter and remains evident throughout the book. From Rome, the focus fastforwards to the late middle ages, by which time the Christian church has assumed authority to speak, a role that brought contradiction and conflict. The view of the Church was that impotence was a serious matter because of the potential threat it posed to the institution of Christian marriage. Failure to perform could lead to annulment. Demonic theories held that impotence could be caused by a disgruntled spouse; men might be called upon to demonstrate their prowess to panel of clergy.
Two more chapters advance the narrative to the 19th century. The early modern period saw a rise in the comic representation of impotence, illustrated by the story of the parson who discovered a lady consorting with her coachman.
"When the parson told the husband, the latter explained she was hard to satisfy and that he paid the coachman twenty pounds a year for that service. The shocked parson protested that he should have been told: he would have done it for ten."
McLaren quotes from numerous poems, showing how humor provided one means of engaging with issues of masculinity. There are also reports of court cases and examples of advice given to non-performing husbands. By the end of the early modern period impotence came to be subjected to rational analysis, and the dominant discourse moved towards a scientific construction.
The remaining chapters cover the past two centuries. Here, McLaren provides some extended discussion of constructions of impotence and masculinity that are more familiar because most still have considerable currency. McLaren takes issue with the view that excessive desire can be thought of as equally problematic in men and women. The lustful male is not the equivalent of a nymphomaniac; he is the ideal man, she the violation of the ideal woman. This gendered difference in ideals of sexuality is a theme throughout the book. The Victorian era, whatever its reputation for prudery, saw the development of numerous quack cures for impotence. The emergent medical profession was in the difficult position of wanting to differentiate itself from the quacks, but of having little to offer apart from reassurance. There was no shortage of theory, however, with excessive indulgence blamed for poor performance. Seminal fluid was said to operate according to its own economy and could simply become exhausted through over use. Masturbation, therefore, was frowned upon, linking religious morality with medical science.
In another of McLaren's telling anecdotes we learn of a novel justification of what we otherwise know as premature ejaculation. Spanish scientist Gregorio Marañón argued that quick love making was a matter of design. Evolution led to:
"abbreviating the reproductive act, diminishing its duration, and leaving the normal man free time to work for the progress of Humanity. In the cases of frogs, which have nothing better to do, coitus lasts for several weeks."
McLaren provides an extended discussion of the career of Marie Stopes, Scottish feminist crusader, author, and in this account, schemer and manipulator. Stopes' life is in itself a compelling story. Here McLaren's attention is on her role in advocating for women's sexual needs, especially through her marriage manual. Freud is discussed, although more in terms of his influence on others than in terms of his theoretical work. McLaren concludes that the early twentieth century upheaval in sexual mores, for all its attempts at revolutionary change, left issues pretty much as they were: sex was about penetration, homosexuality was an aberration, and women were the responsive partners of dominant men. The eugenics movement and study of the sex glands attempted to establish a normative science of sexual performance, leading to some unlikely alliances of interest, for example between sexual reformers and racial supremacists.
McLaren then explores the impact of Kinsey in the middle of the century, and Masters and Johnson slightly later. This is a marvelous chapter which traces the emergence of a more psychological and interpersonal understanding of sexuality, and the rise of the 'sex therapist'. The pendulum swung away from biological models. People were encouraged to talk to therapists, doctors, even to their partners. With so much talk of impotence, there were concerns about an increase, much as there were following each of the world wars. But McLaren argues this was as likely to be an artifact of increased interest in sex, as it was to be a real increase. He quotes one skeptic to the effect that: "If more people played baseball, more would inevitably report difficulties in hitting the ball". Of course greater participation in sex really would lead to more people experiencing problems, but in a less liberal context they would simply keep it to themselves.
In what could be regarded by Pfizer as a marketing coup, the final chapter is entitled Viagra, although with the subtitle Hard Science or Hard Sell? Anyone with an email account knows there is a fair bit of hard sell, but what about the science? McLaren does a superb job of outlining both the social context of the Viagra phenomenon and the triumph of the medical-pharmaceutical complex in establishing ownership of impotence. This is not a simple matter of unilateral medicalization, even although doctors and pharmaceutical companies have actively pursued the agenda of impotence as a disease best referred to by the opaque term 'erectile dysfunction'. The public, though, and men in particular, are also active in the process of medicalization, readily buying into the quick fix of the little blue pill. Rosenfeld and Faircloth reached a similar conclusion in their Medicalized Masculinities. Viagra, though, is not the success story it is sometimes thought to be. Many patients don't return for a repeat prescription. The market has expanded though, something else noted by Rosenfeld and Faircloth, and Viagra is used by some groups as a recreational drug.
The final line of the book states that "[Impotence] is not history". One does get the sense from McLaren's book that the currently dominant medical view is far from invulnerable. Whatever future developments take place, one also gets the sense that Impotence: A Cultural History will be important reading for anyone with a serious interest in this area.
© 2008 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien RN, MPhil, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland, firstname.lastname@example.org
Comment on this review