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  • Impotence: A Cultural History
  • Wendy Gagen
Impotence: A Cultural History. By Angus McLaren. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. 350. $30.00 (cloth).

Impotence: A Cultural History is an energetic and detailed look at the cultural history of Western impotence. McLaren aims to create a history that stretches from antiquity to the modern day, focusing on the social construction of "masculine sexual inadequacy." That phrase might gladden the hearts of scholars who are concerned with the problem of the centrality of masculine normativity. Here is a history where this inadequacy only seems to strengthen masculine hegemony and to highlight its malleability. This is one of McLaren's claims, and it is clear that poor sexual performance was as often traced back to the woman as to the man, strengthening traditional gender roles—a consistent, if unsurprising, theme that runs throughout the text. He also shows how impotence acted to reinforce dominant masculine ideals, creating a moment within which to measure normal masculine behavior. In short, he shows us that a history of impotence can create a complex picture of sexuality that brings into focus the interplay of a number of both consistent and period-specific factors that shaped sexual inadequacy and thus masculinity.

McLaren begins with a foray into classical sexuality. From the beginning we see ambiguity concerning sexual adequacy: men had to be potent but not too virile, since they also had to be in control. Not much has changed, I hear you cry! What is fascinating is that because adoption was sanctioned, virility as expressed through procreation was not necessarily a central concern. When comparing this attitude to that in the Christian West, we see that begetting children took center stage, so men (and women) were intimately searched to ascertain whether intercourse did or could take place. Male impotence became as much an economic, political, and social threat as one to personal pride. Religious leaders drafted texts clearly delineating what consummation was, and it seemed they spent much time thinking about it. By the early modern era in Europe, such ideas were firmly in place, and McLaren begins to explore the comical side of impotence. But among the jokes resurfaces real fear about performative masculinity and its impact on society at large. After the English Civil War, for example, Cavaliers suggested that Puritan men had risen up against the state because they were unable to satisfy their wives, hinting at the damaging effect that impotence could have on England while also highlighting the dullness of those Puritan men. This chapter indicates the increasing importance of both male ability and pleasure, which certainly seem lacking in the previous two chapters.

By the time we enter the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, self-pleasure is on the agenda. Masturbation in youth was seen as a problem that resurfaced in later life. Controlling the behavior of youths through fear of [End Page 417] sexuality can also be seen in McLaren's successful investigation of women. Respectable women defeated men in bed. For a woman to get a husband she should be respectable, but once married she should not be so respectable as to put him off. (I have a horrified and yet sneaking admiration for the proverbial Victorian wife who read while her husband tried to have sex with her. I do hope she chose reading material with sarcastic care.) In the main, however, here was another moment when male inadequacy was to be thwarted, in part, by regulating female behavior. As the nineteenth century rolled on, the psychological element behind understanding impotence took hold. A "failure of will," whether from deviant desires, uninterest, disgust of women, or the rigors of life, helped to rationalize and compartmentalize male performance. If impotence might serve as a sign of civilization, much can be said about the malleability of hegemonic masculinity.

As McLaren breaks into the twentieth century, he charts the ever-increasing public discussions over male sexuality. Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger offered their critiques of male performance in the bedroom—joined by a chorus of unimpressed women. McLaren reminds us that in reality the majority of texts shaped by psychoanalytic ideas saw masculine performance as a way to strengthen male...


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