UVic Torch -- Autumn 2007
Autumn 2007,
Volume 28, Number 2

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Impotence: A Cultural History
By Angus McLaren
University of Chicago Press, 350 pages, $30 (US)

But Impotence truly hits its stride when McLaren challenges a culture’s definition of “manliness.” Is masculinity the “impenetrable penetrator,” as the Romans claimed? The wan, sexually restrained businessman of the 19th century? The man who fathers numerous children, or the man who succeeds in giving his partner multiple orgasms with or without penetration? And why, as McLaren points out, do women so often take the heat for men’s bedroom fiascos?

More than a tale of men defeated and deflated, Impotence is also a history of women and the evolution of femininity. Whether accusing so-called witches of stealing their virility, or blaming sexually aggressive feminists for an “Impotence Boom,” men have fought to remain the dominant partner. Women haven’t shouldered all the blame—they’ve shared it to a lesser degree with stress, the Oedipal complex, and the “dangers of self-abuse.”

Whatever the supposed cause, there have always been inventors and quacks ready to exploit men’s sexual anxieties. Indeed, fear-mongering did not end with the Victorian-era suction machines and bizarre surgeries. In order to peddle their wares, today’s pharaceutical firms use marketing to reinforce the notion that men should measure their manliness, both figuratively and literally, by the strength of their erections.

“We have a false sense of being in an emancipated world,” says McLaren during a phone conversation. “Society is more susceptible to the influence of the media.” Enhancers like Viagra, Cialis and Levitra have raised the standards of “normal” virility for all men, not just aging baby boomers. Although the occasional failure to perform is not unusual, even men in their early 30s are hedging their bets by popping a pill before the big date. Not surprisingly, “female sexual dysfunction” has become the new buzzword, with Viagra-like drugs on the way.

“Given the voracious pharmaceutical corporations’ pursuit of profits,” McLaren warns, “it is in their best interests to induce sexual anxieties in as many consumers as possible.”

Few ailments have influenced how men perceive their place in society like Impotence. And no author before McLaren has recounted these perceptions with such insight and detail. The celebrity psychoanalyst and writer Adam Philips, best known for hobnobbing with Britain’s literary elite, writes in the London Review of Books that Impotence is a history not only of gender relations, but “of our will to believe.” Whenever man finds himself in those dire straits, belief will lead him to new cures, new scapegoats, and new ways of defining himself by his blunted manhood. Impotence may have had a rousing history, but it also—alas, poor Petronius—has a future.

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