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Impotence: A Cultural History.

Impotence: A Cultural History. By Angus McLaren. (Chicago, Ill.: Chicago University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 332. $30.00.)

It is impossible to open an e-mail account today without encountering a tidal wave of words about potency, or lack of it. The historian of the future would be forgiven for concluding that the erect, pleasure-giving penis was the key preoccupation of the early twenty-first-century West. Angus McLaren's timely and intriguing book will set them right on that score. McLaren casts his net wide, and this is both the work's strength and at times its weakness. The historical range is important and necessary to give a sense of both change and continuity in the West's obsession with impotence. However, the treatment across the ages from classical antiquity through Christianity's gradual hegemony, to the rise of sexual science via Freud that fostered a cultural preoccupation with (male) sexual performance, is at times a little unbalanced. In terms of quantity, the majority of the book (more than half) is concerned with impotence from the nineteenth century onwards. Nevertheless, the latter chapters that deal with impotence in modernity are especially detailed, articulate, and informative, so this, ultimately, does not "grate."

McLaren identifies from the outset the complex meanings that are associated with the preoccupation with sexual performance; the relationship with definitions of masculinity (which both shift and stay the same); the misogyny that seems always to wait in the wings; the intertwining with a wider framework of sexual morality whether its logic is religious or secular. The role played by the cultural focus of this work strengthens and binds the sometimes selective evidence, and it is here that McLaren's details bond into something that keeps the past relevant to the present: impotence as a joke; females being rapacious and demanding while being "passive"; sexual performance as a marker of physical decrepitude. The book is especially strong in identifying the growing link between impotence as a fearsome but ever-present phenomenon and sexuality that is both masculinist and phallocentric.

In parts the author is uneven in his treatment of historical detail: like the topic itself, the text has a curious relationship to the history of sexuality. At times he treads familiar paths (the role of the Church; masturbation phobia and the two-seed theory); at others he tends to impose a pattern on complexities that are best understood as fragmented and complex. The weakest chapter is on the eighteenth century, in which the role of bourgeois morals especially in relation to women's sexuality is overstated. However, he redeems himself, for this reviewer, in the chapters that deal with the early twentieth century. His discussion of Marie Stopes and Freud illuminates some unfamiliar commonalities and shows how complex, yet how inevitably negative, was the impact of what both saw as "civilization" on the sexual performance of both men and women. The final chapter deals with the emergence of the "little blue pill," and here McLaren shows clearly the interaction between "anxiety-making" and commercial clothed-as-scientific imperatives. The reader is left with the uncomfortable yet inescapable conclusion that impotence is itself a potent weapon in social control.

Gail L. Hawkes

University of New England

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Author:Hawkes, Gail L.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
Words:523
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