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Impotence: A Cultural History.

Impotence: A Cultural History, by Angus McLaren. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2007. xi, 319 pp. $30.00 (cloth).

Angus McLaren's latest work is a smart contribution to the history of sexuality, taking on a topic present in television ads, at sporting events, and in the daily news cycle. McLaren begins his work on impotence by asking the obvious: "Who today hasn't heard of Viagra?" (p. xi). McLaren argues that out knowledge of the little blue pill is a testament to current discussions of impotence and its cure. Our modern interest has historical precedents, and McLaren wastes no time in moving the reader to the purpose of his study. McLaren is not interested in simply identifying historical discussions of impotence, but in understanding how past cultures and societies addressed male sexuality and male sexual function, if at all. While the evidence required for a study of this kind can appear gossipy and fun, McLaren does not allow "hard" evidence complied from insults, comments, and literary devices to distract readers from the purpose of his study. He regularly redirects the reader's attention to his analysis of the meaning behind the words. "The goal of this study," he reminds readers, "is to locate impotence in the context of changing social expectations and cultural givens" (p. xii). His analysis of the shifts in the meaning assigned to sex, masculinity, and impotence drives this work.

In Impotence, McLaren studies cultural reactions to men's inability to maintain an erection. McLaren addresses manliness in Greece and Rome, progresses through early Christianity, and closes with a final chapter on the twentieth century entitled "Viagra: Hard Science or Hard Sell?" Early chapters provide readers with an introduction to commentary and insults prevalent in the ancient world. The Romans preferred big penises while the Greeks preferred more "dainty" specimens. Plato, we learn, "personified the Penis as 'disobedient and self-willed, like a creature that is deaf to reason'" (pp. 3-4). In Petronius's Satyrica, readers learn that the hero tried to engage in sexual activities only to find that "Three times I whip the dreadful weapon out/ And three rimes softer than a Brussels sprout/ I quail, in those dire straits my manhood blunted/ No longer up to what just now I wanted" (p. 2). While these worries may seem familiar to readers, McLaren is quick to diffuse any temptation to assume commonality. He argues persuasively that the "modern ear" does not always consider the cultural context or historical period in discussions of human sexuality, especially when the topic seems familiar (p. 2). He uses early chapters to remind readers that what seems familiar really is not and emphasizes throughout this work that social needs and expectations framed discussions of impotence.

In later chapters, McLaren focuses his study on impotence from the nineteenth century through the twentieth. Here he highlights changing notions of masculinity and men's health, while also addressing the significant role women played in discussions about impotence. In chapter rive, McLaren notes that Victorian notions of sex and marriage set rigid rules for men's behavior and sexual relations with their wives. The author argues that, while experts claimed men were inexperienced and under great pressure to perform, they simultaneously blamed women for sexual passivity and sexual aggression. Victorians believed that married women's actions played on men's nerves. If women behaved too passively, husbands lost interest in the act, resulting in impotence. If women behaved with sexual aggression, men were thought to feel threatened and once again could not perform the sexual act of penetration. In this chapter, McLaren demonstrates persuasively the extent to which men's and women's experiences intertwined when faced with ideas about sex and impotence.

After World War I, middle class commentators set out to redefine masculinity. In doing so, McLaren explains that they sexualized marriage for both men and women. One might think that acknowledging women's desires as healthy and normal might promote healthy relations and relieve men of Victorian pressures to consummate a marriage on the wedding night. However, even as twentieth-century pundits argued that women had sexual desires, others continued to blame women for men's inability to perform. Expected to respond to their wives' desires, men experienced even greater pressure to please their mates. If they failed, their manhood remained in question. Rather than stabilizing perceptions of the male body, this period, McLaren argues, saw an increased interest in the instability of the male body. Notable in this chapter is McLaren's discussion of Marie Stopes. Stopes is known primarily for her work advocating birth control, and McLaren explores in detail her role in "redefining male potency" (p. 169). By doing so, McLaren underscores the important role modern women played in discussions about impotence.

McLaren's final chapters trace shifts in modern western perceptions of impotence. In the second hall of the twentieth century, researchers utilized surveys and sex therapies to identify common sexual habits and failures. In chapter nine, McLaren focuses on the work of Masters and Johnson and Alfred Kinsey. Kinsey's research into male sexuality had an odd effect: it propagated sex therapy as a cure for impotence. McLaren argues that this development added new pressure for men to perform or fix their sexual deficiencies to meet the perceived "norms" in sexual behavior. McLaren also points to other factors that appeared to exacerbate men's worries about impotence. He notes that "women had always been blamed for intimidating men, but in the 1960s a particular kind of women--the feminist--was singled out for attack" (p. 220). McLaren demonstrates that men saw the women's liberation movement as a threat, while the introduction of the birth control pill furthered male worries. Women on the pill could "shop around" for the best lover, and some men felt increased pressure to perform and to please. As a result, a new wave of impotence appeared in the 1970s. Well-meaning sex therapists aided men in their anxieties by arguing that if men did not please women at least half the rime during sex, they suffered from some form of impotence.

If there are complaints to be made about McLaren's work they are very minor. McLaren does not dwell on how Cold War politics might have influenced discussions about masculinity, nor does he examine American expectations of masculinity in relation to the Vietnam War. In addition, a thorough discussion of the modern feminist movement would have provided a more clear understanding of experts' and individual men's reactions to women's liberation. However, the book as a whole is an excellent contribution to the history of sexuality, masculinity, and gender; it should be a welcome addition to libraries and history seminars across North America.

Michelle K. Rhoades

Wabash College
COPYRIGHT 2008 Canadian Journal of History
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Author:Rhoades, Michelle K.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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