Saved by the pill
Apr 26th 2007
Is it life's greatest tragedy, its greatest joke, a disease or just bad luck? Impotence, along with its causes and remedies, has been bothering people since the dawn of medicine, literature and art. As Angus McLaren's comprehensive survey shows, the way people treat impotence says a lot about their attitudes to other things: the desirability of sex, masculinity and its obligations, and the bumpy progress of science towards a roughly accurate understanding of coitus and its causes.
From classical times onwards, the crucial link was between sexual potency and virility, rather than reproduction or pleasure. The failure of the male erection was seen as a shameful lapse, regardless of the purpose to which it might have been put. Christianity, which became increasingly sex-shy from St Augustine onwards, changed the focus. Celibate clerics made themselves experts on the minutiae of sexual dysfunction: without the right kind of sex, a marriage was invalid. Impotence was ultimately a theological question.
The bawdy Middle Ages, as Mr McLaren explains in his admirably deadpan prose, "once again made impotence a laughing matter". The Enlightenment saw it as a subject of intellectual enquiry, and groped towards the notion of different female and male sexualities. That in turn gave way to Victorian prudery, together with a determined focus on the need for manliness in marriage. Coy and euphemistic by today's standards, Victorian marriage manuals were the first widely available books to try to unlock the secrets of the body's sex drive.
In the modern era Mr McLaren changes gear, highlighting three approaches to impotence: Freud, feminism and pharmacology. Is impotence the result of Oedipal guilt? Is it fair to blame a pushy woman for her husband's impotence? In what sense can a little blue pill "treat" the "disease" of impotence? Every age, he argues, 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?"
Proper male sexual performance—how long, how often, in what circumstances—is now a demandingly calibrated affair. Women used to fake orgasms; Viagra and other pills now give men pretty much the same means to simulate sexual satisfaction that they do not feel but feel obliged to indicate. Today's standards, partly influenced by the pervasive influence of pornography, may be wildly unrealistic, but that leaves plenty of lucrative scope for the pharmaceutical industry.
Reading a scrupulously scholarly work about something as intimate as sex risks being unsatisfying. Words like "love", "tenderness", "romance" and "passion" appear seldom, if at all. The reader gets the impression that Mr McLaren may be embarrassed by such soppiness. But the effect is rather like reading a book about music written by someone who knows everything about the history of acoustic physics and the construction of musical instruments, but has little regard for the beautiful noises that people actually hear.