The fall of man

For ages, impotent men cowered in shame and submitted their penises to terrible remedies. Yet in time, a new cultural history shows, relief would arise for their private misfortunes.

Published May 21, 2007 12:12PM (EDT)

"We are right to note the license and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely when we do not want it, 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."

So wrote Montaigne of the penis, the organ whose misbehavior is the subject of Angus McLaren's "Impotence: A Cultural History," an exhaustive (and exhausting) survey of male sexual failure in the Western world. That title is chosen carefully -- over the currently favored term "erectile dysfunction" -- because, as McLaren points out, the definition of impotence has changed over the centuries. So have people's ideas about what causes it and what can be done about it.

The one thing that never seems to change is how bad impotence makes a guy feel. In the 17th century, the French writer Louis de Serres reported that the afflicted "must be despised, can succeed to no office, lose the support of the powerful; and finally are regarded as imperfect and defective monsters." John Marten, an 18th-century British surgeon and author of the infamous anti-masturbation tract "Onania," insisted that an impotent man must be "a useless Member of the Commonwealth in which he lives, and One, whom the Fair Sex would avoid, unless it were to look at him, Point and Laugh with their Fans before their Faces." A 19th-century psychiatrist insisted that even should such man manage somehow to reproduce, the results would be lamentable: "Has a being so degraded any right to curse a child with the inheritance of such a wretched descent? Far better that the vice and its consequences should die out with him." And in the 20th century, a follower of Freud observed that this private misfortune inevitably led a man to suffer "a total inability to hold his head erect and look the whole world in the face."

No wonder, then, that to find relief from this terrible condition, men have been willing to submit to a barrage of icky, silly, smelly, expensive, painful and dangerous remedies -- most of them completely useless (apart from the not inconsiderable placebo effect). But of what "condition," exactly, are we speaking? "Impotence" as a sexual term only came into common usage in the 17th century, and as McLaren puts it, "there has never been a universal, biologically determined standard of male potency," which makes it pretty hard to define its opposite. Different societies have had different ideas about what makes a man a real man, and that means their idea of what constitutes an inadequate man has varied, too.

For example: An ancient Greek or Roman man would have been considered potent if he always penetrated (and dominated) his sexual partners. But, if those partners happened to be boys, the same man would have been labeled impotent by early Freudian analysts. They regarded anything less than "successful vaginal intercourse" as a sexual failure. In the classical world, who you did it to mattered less than the way you did it; an elite male always took and never gave pleasure. Receiving fellatio from another man carried relatively little stigma, but nothing was more shameful than performing cunnilingus. A rampant, inarticulate stud seemed less manly to the ancients than a self-disciplined, aristocratic orator because theirs was a culture where self-mastery and certain privileged skills counted for more than brute force.

This didn't keep Romans, when engaged in the aforementioned skilled oratory, from including impotence among the worst insults you could fling at an enemy. They also defined potency as the ability to sustain an erection without much coaxing; older men were often taunted for requiring lots of assistance from their slaves' mouths and hands. A superior, virile man exerted perfect control over his body and his subordinates -- be they wives, servants or male or female slaves. Manhood was, as McLaren puts it, a kind of performance rather than a "natural" state.

By contrast, in early Christian Europe, fathering lots of children was the foremost means of proving one's manhood. A guy could be capable of getting it up and in, but if no offspring resulted, it didn't quite count. At the same time, some of the young religion's most influential thinkers mistrusted any kind of sex, and a model of celibate manliness -- the Soldier for Christ -- emerged as a counterpart to the lusty patriarch of a sprawling brood. Where the Romans had seen marriage as a coldblooded business contract (with adoptions readily used to make up for reproductive shortfalls), the Christians "moralized" sex and therefore matrimony. This, as McLaren sees it, marks the beginning of "the modern view of sex as the essence of one's being."

The very first Christians thought the world was going to end at any moment, so they viewed any attachments to the fleshly life as perilous distractions. A vogue for "spiritual" or "Josephite" marriages had husbands and wives vowing to remain virgins even after their nuptials, and Margery of Kempe successfully appealed to Christ to make her husband impotent during Holy Week to keep him from polluting the sacred days. If you had to have sex, it was imperative to do it only for the sake of reproduction, with one (opposite-sex) partner to whom one was lawfully wed for the entirety of one's life. As St. Paul put it: "Better to marry than to burn."

Nevertheless, the newly converted barbarians of Northern Europe clung to the custom that only consummation made a marriage. This meant that the only way out of an unwanted union was to claim that the "marriage debt" had never been paid. This loophole, McLaren explains, resulted in a rich irony: Celibate churchmen found themselves engaged in long, complicated debates about the finer points of sex and potency. Was it enough merely to be able to get an erection? Or did penetration have to be achieved as well? Was ejaculation necessary?

Women who wanted out of their marriages on grounds of their husbands' impotence were obliged to argue that their sacred desire for motherhood was being frustrated; a total absence of sexual gratification was no grounds for annulment. But claims of potency and impotence had to be proven, as marriage was too serious a spiritual contract to be lightly broken. The unfortunate men in question were subjected to bizarre trials. Sometimes prostitutes were brought into court to arouse them; in other cases, they had to produce erections on their own -- usually in another room -- then bring the judges in to view the evidence. Needless to say, the pressures inherent in this sort of scenario led to lots of false positives, and if an "impotent" man divorced and then fathered children in a subsequent marriage, he was sometimes forced to go back to his first -- and now only legitimate -- wife.

As you might expect, many experts through the ages have written on the mystery of why some men are unable to sustain erections or to impregnate women. Countless theories have been kicked around over the years. Perhaps the most persistent is based on a concept that McLaren calls the "spermatic economy," the belief that a man possesses a limited amount of some kind of vital, masculine substance and if he squanders it -- especially in improper ways -- he will eventually run out. Even the Greeks and Romans believed that men lost something when they ejaculated during intercourse and they also thought that women gained by the exchange. Women, being made of a lesser, passive, cooler material, benefited from an injection of their partners' finer, livelier, hotter elixir. Women needed sex for their health, and if not restrained could become insatiable, especially since they lacked the male virtue of self-control. So men had to be careful, or they'd be sucked dry.

Sorcery was an equally popular explanation, especially since it let the sufferer entirely off the hook. He wasn't impotent because he'd overindulged with hookers or his own right hand -- he was the victim of a spell! You could jinx a groom on his wedding night by knocking on the bedroom door and breaking off the point of a knife in the wood as you called his name. If he answered, the bride would remain a virgin. According to McLaren, women were almost always fingered as the culprit in these cases, and tying knots in a piece of string while performing various incantations was the preferred method. The witch responsible might be a rejected lover trying to spoil her ex's new marriage, or she could be a wife determined to keep her husband from straying, but whenever a man had difficulty getting it up, he always had the option of blaming a disgruntled or vengeful female.

Although women had no recognized right to sexual satisfaction in marriage, authorities still worried about this factor. The frustrated wives of impotent men were, they feared, liable to run amok and precipitate a general moral decline. Women needed regular sex to keep them from destabilizing society with their rapacious lusts, so it was in everyone's best interest to find a cure for their husbands' difficulties. "Impotence" features a fairly mind-numbing catalog of the various remedies so-called physicians have recommended over the years.

From the ancients, people retained the idea that "hot" and irritating substances like chilies, cantharides (ground up beetles, aka Spanish fly) and nettles would replenish the store of masculine warmth. Phallic-shaped foods like leeks and celery, or foods producing flatulence were also recommended. (Erections were thought to be powered by abdominal gas.) Moderate quantities of alcohol or opiates were sometimes prescribed. Or you could piss through your wife's wedding ring or wear "the right molar of a small crocodile" as an amulet. Men laboring under an evil spell sometimes found that simply killing the witch brought relief.

The placebo effect is so powerful with any impotence cure that any one of these wacky prescriptions could be said to "work" at least part of the time. At the time something approaching real medical science emerged, doctors still sometimes knowingly recommended bogus remedies, often with excellent results. The earliest discussions of the placebo effect, McLaren claims, were in connection with impotence and its "cures."

Many doctors, alas, were all too eager to capitalize on men's anxieties, and some went so far as to whip up hysteria among the general populace. Marten and his "Onania," mentioned above, kicked off a 250-year masturbation panic whose toxic effects we experience even to this day. This most commonplace and innocuous of sexual activities was demonized by both doctors and quacks as the cause of a panoply of ills, ranging from cancer and schizophrenia to chronic fatigue and, of course, impotence. Men were led to believe that they could "use up" all of their sexual resources in their onanistic youth, only to find themselves coming up short on their hallowed wedding day. One French physician sought to document this principle by availing himself of the services of several prostitutes until reaching the point where his penis no longer responded to their attentions -- all for science, of course.

Some of the impotence cures advocated during the height of the masturbation panic of the 19th century were outright "punitive," to use McLaren's word. Blistering, cauterizing, spiky catheters, surgery and other tortures were used on men who had been persuaded that the sin of "self abuse" caused their sexual dysfunction. The merely uncomfortable treatments included cold baths, electrical belts, Spartan diets, hard beds and vigorous exercise. Some of this actually made a little sense -- impotence is sometimes a side effect of obesity -- but most of it functioned as penance in the guise of medical care.

All this coincided with the Victorian cult of sainted womanhood and a swooning idealization and romanticization of marriage. The 19th century had its own version of the sensitive man, and several of its leading intellectual lights -- notably John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle -- had notoriously disastrous sex lives. They expected so much from marital intercourse that they tended to fail at it. Ruskin, the era's great art critic, is rumored to have been so surprised by his wife's pubic hair (a detail omitted in painted and sculpted nudes) that he was unable to consummate their marriage. Other men, like the patient described by one American physician, could not reconcile the new, exalted, purified image of respectable womanhood with sex: "She was too good, too delicate for a mere animal like him ... he could not desecrate her beautiful body by any such vile act."

Blaming women for sexual fiascoes never really went out of style, however. In the Victorian era, a wife could be accused of turning her husband off with either her coldness or her unseemly enthusiasm. You have to sympathize with the man whose wife, during their intimate moments, "essayed to divert her mind by reading, asking him from time to time if he were through." Yet she was only fulfilling the view, held by most experts, that decent women were devoid of sexual feelings. A wife who expressed too much "appetite" risked seeming bestial and unwomanly, an intimidating sexual vampire of the type that stalked the nightmares of the age's most artistic and imaginative poets and artists.

This was also the century in which stress and the demands of a productive bourgeois life supposedly exhausted men to the point of sexual indifference. (Working class and non-white men were considered exempt.) In the 20th century, Freud would carry this psychological approach further, claiming that all impotence resulted from the individual's inability to reconcile his primitive urges with the dictates of civilization. He argued that a man's unresolved Oedipal desires for his mother or other forbidden figures prevented him from achieving "successful vaginal intercourse" with an appropriate woman. So narrow were some Freudians' definitions of "normal" sex that all sorts of unlikely things -- fetishism, homosexuality, premature ejaculation -- constituted impotence in their book.

In counterpoint to the Freudians' "it's all in your head" view of impotence were a host of crackpot therapies involving glands. A gruesome craze for grafting animal and even human testicles (from executed prisoners, mostly) onto impotent men was in vogue long enough for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write a story about a man who turns into an ape after one such operation. The discovery of hormones seemed to promise real help. Unfortunately, the fact that women as well as men produce testosterone, and that the male sex hormone has virtually no effect on potency and even decreases sperm count, stumped the experts. It undermined the long-cherished idea that men and women are completely different biologically and that whatever causes masculinity must necessarily be hot, active, lusty and, well, virile.

The final chapters of "Impotence," covering the last 50 years of sexual liberation, feminism and Viagra, are the most interesting. McLaren's long historical view lends substance to his argument that our current, "enlightened" take on sex hasn't necessarily made things easier for the average guy. The idea that manliness consists of being able to sexually satisfy a woman -- not merely penetrate and impregnate her -- increased the pressure. So did the rise of sex therapy, with its notion of sex as a body of sophisticated techniques requiring planning and practice -- sex as work, in effect. A mid-20th-century preoccupation with "simultaneous orgasm" as the pinnacle of marital love and a necessity for any truly happy couple set many couples up for disappointment and insecurity. With the advent of feminism, women who gained the ability to support themselves economically had one less reason to settle for a sexually unexciting spouse.

Viagra seemed to promise relief at last, but as McLaren points out, only half of the men who tried it ever bothered to refill their prescriptions. As reassuring as it was for intimacy-averse guys to be offered a purely mechanical solution to their sexual problems, many found it somehow still wasn't enough. The female partners of Viagra users, for example, consistently report a lower success rate than do their men, and there are ample reasons to believe that more erections aren't really what women want -- especially given that only a minority can reach orgasm through intercourse. Although the massive marketing campaign for the drug presented it as a romance-reviving gift to the woman in one's life, the idea of being "pill fucked" (as one disillusioned gay man memorably described it) hardly fits conventional notions of romance. The very thing that makes Viagra appealing to certain men -- the reduction of sex to hydraulics -- can make it a turnoff to their partners.

McLaren compares Viagra and other "male enhancement" drugs to elective plastic surgery like breast implants; both "treatments" amount to "doing something 'unnatural' to meet an internalized ideal." Pharmaceutical companies have harvested gigantic profits by capitalizing on -- and fueling -- men's anxieties. He suggests, provocatively, that all this only reinforces an antiquated "overvaluing of the erection" and "fixation on penetration as the essential sign of manhood" that have circumscribed male sexuality since time immemorial.

The focus here isn't really on great sex. "A flaccid penis," McLaren writes, can "give pleasure and result in orgasm" -- surely a revelation to many. What it can't do, however, is fulfill the fantasy of ever-rigid, ever-aggressive, ever-dominant manhood. Until that changes, potency -- and therefore impotence -- will always be about a lot more than just getting it up.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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