No Joke

Adam Phillips

  • Impotence: A Cultural History by Angus McLaren
    Chicago, 332 pp, £19.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 226 50076 8

Men are so exercised by the thought of impotence that they will believe virtually anything. During the 1920s and 1930s various medicines and contraptions were patented that promised to fill ‘weak and nervous men’ with ‘rampant vigour’. Though most of these inventions were denounced by the medical profession, their popularity was proof, if proof were needed, that the impotent man was infinitely suggestible and infinitely exploitable. Doubts about sexuality breed states of conviction. Suction pumps, Erector-Sleighs, Gassensche Spirales, Gerson’s Constriction Bandage and Virility (‘a double cylinder connected to a bellows to produce a vacuum that … “gives great bulk to the penis and makes it look grotesque”’) were all available and purchased, even though, like most of the cures for impotence that Angus McLaren describes in his panoramic study, there was very little ‘evidence’ that they worked. And yet it was, and still is, difficult to staunch the flow of more or less magical solutions for the perennial problem. ‘The market is flooded with various appliances which are guaranteed to be sure cures,’ a progressive physician grumbled in 1912. ‘It goes without saying that most of them are worthless frauds.’ What has also gone without saying, McLaren shows, is that the untold history of impotence is a history of many things, most obviously of gender relations, but less obviously – and this is implicit in his book, rather than spelled out – of our will to believe. Impotence raises the question of what wanting to believe something is a solution to, as well as making us wonder what counts as a solution. Erection on demand is a strange cultural ideal but a persistent one, and it tells us a lot about what we want to be.

Augustine and Montaigne agree that what are called in this book ‘the workings of the penis’ are unpredictable. In Augustine’s De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione, McLaren tells us, it is the ‘autonomy of the penis’, not sex itself, that is the problem: ‘At times the urge intrudes uninvited,’ Augustine writes; ‘at other times, it deserts the panting lover, and, although desire blazes in the mind, the body is frigid. In this strange way, desire refuses service … it solidly opposes the mind’s command.’ Whatever the mind is, it cannot control the penis. There is a penis-mind split. The penis divides men against what they think of as themselves, presumably because these selves are used to controlling things; if they weren’t, penises would seem less ‘autonomous’ and more like a lot of other things in nature that do things in their own way, and often for reasons we can discover. Montaigne thinks the penis is like other things – our faces, our voices, our pulses betray us quite as much – but acknowledges that it still seems to have a mind of its own. At least, it does things that we might associate with sentient creatures: ‘We are right to note the licence and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely when we don’t want it to, and which so inopportunely lets us down when we most need it; it imperiously contests for authority with our will; it stubbornly and proudly refuses all our incitements, both mental and manual.’ Montaigne’s 16th-century penis is like a person who doesn’t know his place, an arriviste, one of the new upwardly mobile who won’t take the traditional hierarchy on its own terms, a kind of picaresque hero. Augustine’s penis is more like a deity, at once essential and beyond comprehension; something a man can’t help but have a tormented relationship with; something that isn’t always there when he needs it.

Impotence wants us to consider what people might have been writing about when they were writing about what we now call ‘male sexual dysfunction’, whether indeed there is such a thing as impotence when we look at it over the long haul. It is sometimes suggested that soon we will know the cultural history of everything but the cost of nothing, that so-called cultural histories in their sweep and detail are for the most part ambitiously (or just pretentiously) speculative but insufficiently scholarly and often insensitive to the suffering the grand theories claim to account for. Yet when they are read, say, as science fiction – read for the plausibility of their descriptions of possible worlds – they can be both entertaining and instructive if for no other reason than that they put together, as Impotence does, texts and quotations from different times and places that are linked nowhere else. Impotence is as much an anthology of intriguing source materials as it is a ‘study’, as McLaren puts it, of the fact that ‘every age has turned impotence to its own purposes, each advancing a model of masculinity that informed men if they were sexual successes, and if not, why not.’ Stories about impotence, as he shows, are powerful indicators of prevailing assumptions about the form and function of sexual relations. ‘Nothing is more revealing,’ McLaren writes, overstating the case, as is the way with cultural histories, ‘of a culture’s social and ideological preoccupations than the enormous pains it takes in goading men on in the often painful pursuit of the “normal” and the “natural”.’ The ‘normal’ and the ‘natural’ are inevitably the targets of cultural history, suspended in inverted commas to expose their rhetorical (i.e. ideological) intent as though readers were in danger of forgetting the new consensual norm that all norms are ‘constructed’. One of the strange effects of ‘cultural history’ is to put so many key words into inverted commas.

Whether or not, as McLaren suggests, ‘the notion of impotence … can serve as a heuristic device in rethinking the history of Western sexuality,’ it can get us to ask some interesting questions: ‘Why such a concern for the erection? … Who were erections for? … What precipitated ideas of masculine vulnerability?’ And so on. So the question is not merely ‘what is impotence?’ – as though all the descriptions that can be found might have something in common – but rather: why did people come up with the idea of impotence at all? What had to happen to people to make them think that an idea of impotence was needed? One only has to imagine a culture in which the flaccid penis – the penis that didn’t have to do anything – was the desirable object, to see that erections are doing a lot of ‘cultural’ work for us (one of Martin Amis’s characters says that they are called hard-ons because they’re hard to get). Or, to lower the stakes slightly, why should it be a problem that penises do not always do what men and women want them to? As always, a good Darwinian answer is available: erections are the precondition for reproducing the species (or the genes). But then sperm-banks and artificial insemination might free us from thinking that erections are such a big deal (as Augustine and Montaigne intimate, impotence is as much a sign of arousal as of its opposite). McLaren, in other words, is right to think that impotence makes you think, and right to be surprised that, unlike ‘hysteria, pregnancy, orgasms and breasts’, impotence has never had the history it deserves.

There is, perhaps inevitably, a certain amount of brisk generalisation – ‘Unlike the ancients who were proud of the body, the Christians found themselves embarrassed by it’ – and sometimes a playing fast and loose with chronology, but in the early chapters of the book, about the Greeks and Romans and the early Christians, McLaren has succinct things to say about what might be called the beginnings of recorded impotence. For the so-called ancients, real men had to be potent, but sex was dangerously depleting: ‘to have sex demonstrated one’s vigour; to have it too often threatened exhaustion.’ It was shameful to be impotent not because one thereby failed to satisfy the man or woman desired, but because impotence revealed a lack of male vitality. ‘Normative male desire, the ancients believed, was fuelled by aggression and anger … Penetration was likened to a beating, representing the domination of one partner and the submission of the other. Men were explicitly taught to use sex not for intimacy but control.’ In the ‘Greco-Roman world’ there was an essential link between male sexuality and anger, and in the literature of the period women were usually blamed for men’s inabilities. (The ancients in this account are everything we moderns are not supposed to be.) Potency mattered because of ‘the enormous importance of every free man marrying and having children’; and most of the literature McLaren cites – Martial most obviously – shows that men’s usual response to the fear of impotence was ‘to consume an inciting herb or beverage’. You would never guess from this account of ‘manhood in Greece and Rome’ that a foreign or distant culture is being described. The ancients – the ‘impenetrable penetrators’, as McLaren calls them – get just over 20 pages, as a warm-up act for the more pressing story McLaren has to tell about the arch-enemy (which is also to say the arch-promoter) of sexuality: the Christian religion.

As a foil for the early Christians, the ancients allow McLaren to make some useful distinctions. ‘For the Greeks and Romans,’ he writes, ‘desire was not often discussed as a problem, though performance was. In Christian Europe desire increasingly was viewed as a danger – something to be restrained.’ This turned impotence into a mixed blessing, a problem for the holy sacrament of marriage and procreation, but a liberation, however painful, from the temptations of the flesh. ‘Demonstrations of sexual prowess had been central to the Roman concept of masculinity,’ McLaren says, whereas ‘for Christians it was not unmanly to be celibate.’ No one doubted, or indeed doubts, that sexuality is the kind of thing that needs to be under surveillance, but the question is what purpose the supervision of sexuality serves; what exactly it is that we are being persuaded is more important than sex. ‘The ancients sought to police sexuality for the conservative purpose of subjecting every individual to a family patriarch; the Church sought to police sexuality for the radical purpose of freeing Christians from the entangling world of secular ambition and family squabbles.’

Whether or not this is true – and such formulations necessarily oversimplify – it describes the arrival of a radical dismay about sexuality, a cosmic loss of confidence in the body or, as Christians then called it, this world. ‘In Greco-Roman culture,’ McLaren says, ‘the erect phallus had been a sign of power. For Augustine the erection was both the sign of man’s fallen state and the means of transmitting original sin.’ Potency became the problem that was once the solution. In the Middle Ages, ‘positive discussions of sexuality were crowded out by references to sin, lust and lechery.’ Impotence mattered to the Church only as a threat to the sanctity of marriage, and what marriage represented in terms of social stability. If there could have been such a thing as the happily impotent man, McLaren intimates, he would have been the hero of the medieval Church. The Church’s attempts to prove, in public, a husband’s impotence as grounds for divorce give rise to some of the book’s more lurid and bizarre examples of how exciting men can find other men’s impotence. The pleasure men get from seeing other men not getting pleasure is something McLaren tries not to make too much of.

It was in early modern Europe that people apparently began to be amused by impotence. The ‘fumbler’, the man unable to satisfy his insatiable wife, became the subject of songs and ballads. It is, unsurprisingly, women who are consistently blamed for men’s impotence, women as insufficiently exciting or as too exciting, women as too sexual or not sexual enough. But why things took a comic turn in the 17th century, and why impotence was not a laughing matter for long (‘sometime in the early 1700s … the new view was that if impotence had to be discussed, it should be subjected to rational analysis rather than to religious dictates or bawdy popular beliefs’), are questions McLaren doesn’t consider. Seriousness without superstition was the Enlightenment treatment of choice for what McLaren calls, in a chapter title, ‘Impotence in the Age of Reason’. His most difficult task in writing this book was to get the tone right, and in his understandable wish not to be too jokey or too earnest he errs, rightly, on the side of sobriety. So he arrives at the Age of Reason with palpable relief; here ridicule and women’s frustration with men are replaced by inquiry and commerce. Science, we realise, is a cure for shame.

‘The discussion of impotence,’ McLaren tells us, ‘went through two striking transformations’ in the 17th and 18th centuries (his periodisations, inevitably, are a bit fuzzy). And these two transformations effectively set the tone for the rest of the book. First, impotence began to be described as a physiological rather than a theological problem; people started to write about the way the body works rather than about original sin; and this promised a human solution to a scientific (as opposed to a moral) problem – in hindsight not quite such an obvious advantage as it might have seemed then, even though taking God out of the picture was a good start. And second, as McLaren says, ‘Western European culture was becoming more secular-minded as well as more commercially-minded. A market emerged for practitioners peddling products guaranteed to cure a range of sexual ailments.’ Where once there was gravity and grace, now there was supply and demand. Impotence was a functional flaw and anyone who was interested, and interested in making a profit, could get to work on it. Instead of having one – ineffable – cause, it now had as many causes (and solutions) as people could come up with. Once getting rich and coming to our senses – i.e. coming to science – became more of a draw than being saved, Viagra, McLaren implies, was always on the cards.

And yet the opening up of impotence to scientific and pseudo-scientific inquiry was accompanied by what McLaren calls ‘greater and greater reserve’ in its public discussion. Impotence, at least among the privileged and the literate, the only people who left records, changed genres. ‘In the mid-1660s,’ McLaren writes, ‘the upper classes shared the common view that impotence was inherently funny; by the mid-1700s, the elite seized on the notion that it had to be regarded as inherently tragic. It was, the elite declared, a private sorrow that only the vulgar would seek to subject to public scrutiny.’ At the same time, the medical profession began to take the view that ‘males and females were not on the same continuum but were “opposite” sexes’; the woman’s pleasure was not required for procreation; some doctors even contended that women’s sexual pleasure was not attainable. Men deserved help and respect, and needed to stop worrying about women’s pleasure, and women needed to stop making demands (and worrying about their own pleasure). McLaren describes in interesting detail a ‘two-pronged campaign of defending the pleasures of [male] sexuality while condemning dissatisfied women’. Accordingly, two new ‘models’ of masculinity and femininity emerged: on the one hand, the sensitive man; on the other, the chaste woman. The term ‘masculinity’, McLaren reminds us, was first used in English in 1748, implying, as he says, a new self-consciousness about what manliness might be. Impotence was no joke, and women might be another species.


In the 19th century, according to McLaren, gender differences were both privileged – over differences of rank, status, profession, race and religion – and increasingly rigid. Marriages were, as he says, ‘more privatised and romanticised, which in turn produced higher expectations and crueller disappointments’, and the more privatised the relationship, the more humiliating its exposure: ‘a culture that craved privacy found discussions of bedroom disasters especially distasteful.’ There was a great deal of pressure on the ‘active male’ to perform his part of the contract. In McLaren’s view, all the male commentary that emerged in this period about frigidity, hysteria, nymphomania and menopausal madness was a way for men to displace talk about their own sexual anxieties. In other words, when men were talking about women’s sexual desires they were talking about their own fear of impotence. Writers from the 19th century onwards – and for McLaren this includes writers of every kind, literary, scientific, journalistic, as well as practitioners of the new art of advertising – were describing a mounting dread: ‘acknowledging the fact that men appeared to be increasingly incapacitated’, they ‘sought to reassure their readers that masculinity itself was not at risk’. As women begin to speak, men begin to shrink. In Victorian medical texts women were described not as passionless but as needing arousal, as ‘sexually dormant’. By the 20th century, the division of sexual labour had changed, leaving the men more threatened and the women more confined. ‘While women’s revulsion of male desire was blamed for impotence, women’s sexual demand was, interestingly, just as culpable for destroying a man’s virility.’ And when men’s sexual partners were not being blamed for their impotence, their mothers were. From the late 19th century onward, the impotent man had been damaged by a woman, or was homosexual, or both. To begin with, impotence was all to do with original sin, then it became a physical problem, and then it became a psychological one. The more it became a psychological issue, having to do with temperament and personal history, the more something about women seemed to be the problem.

The other problem, of which women were a part, was ‘modern life’. If more men had trouble in dealing with women’s sexual demands, late 19th-century commentators argued, it was because many had already been exhausted by the stresses of modern life. One way or another, male potency was always the first casualty, and the quest was on to find a treatment for impotence in which the problem of women and the problem of modern life didn’t figure; a treatment in which you could get to the (physiological) heart of the matter with a minimum of talk, or physical harm. ‘In displacing the need for invasive operations, years of psychoanalysis, or purchase of useless penile supports,’ McLaren writes, ‘the hormonal treatment of impotence was obviously attractive.’ All sorts of things from monkey glands to other people’s (and other animals’) testicles were injected or engrafted in pursuit of the new grail of reliable potency. Terrible things happened in the process, and little good came of any of it, except, presumably, the hope temporarily generated. Great lengths were gone to. The first experiment in grafting ‘an entire testicle’, McLaren tells us, ‘was performed by Dr Lydston on himself, on 16 January 1914’. There was what McLaren calls ‘one small mishap’: ‘The awkward position necessary to the work and the distance of the field from the operator’s eye were such that the tunica vaginalis inadvertently was cut.’ Fortunes were made, but once again the wish for potency mattered far more than the available evidence. McLaren tells a good story about what are, in effect, a lot of very bad stories about the way impotence brought out what now looks like the worst in so many people.

McLaren’s story now becomes a story of consumerism aided and abetted by science. Indeed, the book is worth reading for the last chapter alone, which describes the horrifying help that Viagra provided for what a Time article of 1988 reported as the nearly ten million men in the US alone who suffered from chronic impotence. By 1995 – after what McLaren calls the emergence in the 1980s of ‘a new paradigm, a swing towards the medicalisation of male sexuality’ – it was estimated that American men were spending between 600 and 700 million dollars annually to ‘assure their virility’. Impotence is big business. Or rather, fear is. ‘Profits could only be made,’ as McLaren remarks, ‘by making more and more men unsure of themselves.’ If we overvalue erections and have a ‘fixation on penetration’, McLaren suggests, the drug companies can have their way with us. ‘The irony is,’ he concludes, ‘that the new drugs, in focusing more attention on the erection, have put it more at risk.’ We have been encouraged to believe that porn films are telling us the truth about sex, that all men should aspire to the condition of porn stars. These are difficult and deranging standards to be measured against. And it is this, above all, McLaren suggests, that Viagra can help us with. It is not encouraging, though it is worth taking seriously, that Viagra ‘immediately became the fastest selling pharmaceutical in history’, sales topping one billion dollars in 1999. And yet only half the men who tried it renewed their prescriptions – which still means that a considerable number of men went on with it – and the research that has been done, unsurprisingly, suggests that women have been rather less happy about it than men. For anything to change now, so late in the day, soft is going to have to be the new hard.

‘Unlike other cultural histories that plot the rise and fall of a particular issue or concern,’ McLaren writes at the end of his informative book, ‘this work has traced a preoccupation that in some ways has remained a constant.’ Rise and fall seem apposite here, but it is the ‘in some ways’ that is inevitably going to be contentious in a cultural history that should be about how and why things change. McLaren’s book may be about attitudes and meanings, causes and cures, but impotence is something that comes, as it were, in the form of differing descriptions, that has had various meanings attached to it; and though these meanings have consequences, the condition seems essentially the same. And this means, in a sense, that differences of description are not really differences at all. They are not allowed to change things much. So having, as he says, ‘established that impotence has a past’ (and ‘no doubt also … a future’), McLaren has not made clear exactly what it is that he has established. Indeed, one of the many interesting things about this book is that it inevitably raises the question of what the individual sufferer might gain now from knowing that his condition has a history, and knowing what that history might be. Impotence has always been an issue, McLaren tells us, and this much we might have guessed. The story he tells, however, is not one in which modern science triumphs, in which science succeeds where symbolism has failed, but one in which the penis holds it own against progress. Viagra makes men hard, but not potent.