Upright men

Impotence: A Cultural History
By Angus McLaren
University of Chicago Press
$30, 344 pages

When former Senator Bob Dole, the failed presidential candidate, was hired as the pitchman for Viagra in 1998, he was hardly the first leader to attempt to straddle politics and impotence.

As Angus McLaren notes in his erudite, entertaining, and insightful study of what’s now been medicalized as “erectile dysfunction,” Charles II’s “lack of success in siring an heir led to the Hapsburgs’ loss of Spain” and “rumors about Louis XVI’s initial failure to consummate his marriage” to Marie-Antoinette “fed the public unrest which . ..resulted in the French Revolution.”

The outcome for Dole was less dire, though perhaps not much more dignified: He became the butt of comedians’ jokes and scored a cameo in a Pepsi commercial in which the World War II vet and prostate-cancer survivor ostensibly became aroused while watching a Britney Spears video. (“Easy boy,” he counseled a barking dog in the ad).

The ambivalent response to Dole was and is telling: “Western culture,” writes McLaren, a history professor at Canada’s University of Victoria, “has simultaneously regarded impotence as life’s greatest tragedy and life’s greatest joke.” In discussing impotence from Roman times (when a hard man was good to find, regardless of the object of his affections) to the Middle Ages (when Church officials would order suspect husbands to perform in front of clergy) to our current era of little blue pills (whose furious rise in sales has already started to decline), McLaren has written a path-breaking history of masculinity.

Where previous scholars have generally understood “maleness” as “natural,” he stresses that it has often been explicitly tied to sexual capacity. Hence, men’s centuries-long anxiety about sexual failure — and a quickness to blame any performance issues on women, who, when they weren’t casting spells on former lovers, were frustrating the stronger sex either by being too responsive or not responsive enough.

Impotence threatened not just a man’s relationship with a dissatisfied partner but with his core sense of gender identity and his larger place in society. That’s why even Viagra and other drugs may actually not liberate men from exaggerated expectations. The sexual revolution and its chemical handmaidens have “had the unintended consequence of inflating rather than diminishing the cultural fixation on the erection,” argues McLaren.

The new normal defines real men as ready for action at all times, at all ages, effectively limiting the range of acceptable male identities even as it provides succor to the roughly 10 percent of men who report at least occasional bedroom difficulties (almost always for non-physical reasons). Impotence leaves us with far more to think about than vaguely terrifying mechanical marvels such as the Vital Power Vacuum Massager and bogus patent medicines such as Dr. Lecoy’s Invigoroids. “Whom were men’s erections for?” asks McLaren.

It turns out that, regardless of sexual orientation, they may be for both sexes. This just might explain why Dole’s wife, now a U.S. senator from North Carolina, was always curiously absent from his Viagra (and Pepsi) ads. She mattered far less in the situation than we might have thought before reading this excellent book. 

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