Impotence: A Cultural History

Impotence: A Cultural History

Impotence: A Cultural History

Impotence: A Cultural History


As anyone who has watched television in recent years can attest, we live in the age of Viagra. From Bob Dole to Mike Ditka to late-night comedians, our culture has been engaged in one long, frank, and very public talk about impotence- and our newfound pharmaceutical solutions. But as Angus McLaren shows us in Impotence, the first cultural history of the subject, the failure of men to rise to the occasion has been a recurrent topic since the dawn of human culture.

Drawing on a dazzling range of sources from across centuries, McLaren demonstrates how male sexuality was constructed around the idea of potency, from times past when it was essential for the purpose of siring children, to today, when successful sex is viewed as a component of a healthy emotional life. Along the way, Impotence enlightens and fascinates with tales of sexual failure and its remedies- for example, had Ditka lived in ancient Mesopotamia, he might have recited spells while eating roots and plants rather than pills- and explanations, which over the years have included witchcraft, shell-shock, masturbation, feminism, and the Oedipal complex. McLaren also explores the surprising political and social effects of impotence, from the revolutionary unrest fueled by Louis XVI's failure to consummate his marriage to the boost given the fledgling American republic by George Washington's failure to found a dynasty. Each age, McLaren shows, turns impotence to its own purposes, using it to help define what is normal and healthy for men, their relationships, and society.

From marraige manuals to metrosexuals, from Renaissance Italy to Hollywood movies, Impotence is a serious but highly entertaining examination of a problem that humanity has simultaneously regarded as life's greatest tragedy and its greatest joke.


Who today hasn't heard of Viagra? the little blue pill has garnered billions for the Pfizer corporation and made male impotence—now reconfigured as erectile dysfunction—a topic of public discussion. What most participants in the current debate ignore is that impotence has a history. Have men always suffered from impotence or the fear of it? Strictly speaking they have not, given that the Oxford English Dictionary states that the word “impotence” to denote an absence of sexual power only came into common usage in the seventeenth century. Nevertheless in preceding centuries men lamented their loss of “courage,” lack of desire, and debilitated loins. and more important than the changes in vocabulary were the changes over time in the ways in which male sexual incapacity was culturally conceptualized and the social meanings it was given. the purported causes of impotence (the term we will resort to for simplicity's sake) varied and so did its impact. in Mesopotamian texts from the seventh century bce, historians have found references to men consuming roots and plants to restore their potency. They also recited protective spells to counter sorcerers' attacks on their virility.

Get excited! Get excited! Get an erection!
Get excited like a stag! Get an erection lik[e a wild bull]!
Let a lio[n] get an erection along with you!

Centuries later the inquisitors of sixteenth-century Venice reported that by tying three knots in a rope while repeating a spell, a jilted lover could sexually incapacitate the man who had abandoned her. in nineteenth-century England quacks claimed that the main cause of impotence was masturbation. “As in man, so in woman, this pernicious habit takes away the inclination for . . .

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