Impotence: A Cultural History

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As anyone who has watched television in recent years can attest, we live in the age of Viagra. From Bob Dole to Mike Ditka to late-night comedians, our culture has been engaged in one long, frank, and very public talk about impotence—and our newfound pharmaceutical solutions. But as Angus McLaren shows us in Impotence, the first cultural history of the subject, the failure of men to rise to the occasion has been a recurrent topic since the dawn of human culture.

Drawing on a dazzling range of sources from across centuries, McLaren demonstrates how male sexuality was constructed around the idea of potency, from times past when it was essential for the purpose of siring children, to today, when successful sex is viewed as a component of a healthy emotional life. Along the way, Impotence enlightens and fascinates with tales of sexual failure and its remedies—for example, had Ditka lived in ancient Mesopotamia, he might have recited spells while eating roots and plants rather than pills—and explanations, which over the years have included witchcraft, shell-shock, masturbation, feminism, and the Oedipal complex. McLaren also explores the surprising political and social effects of impotence, from the revolutionary unrest fueled by Louis XVI’s failure to consummate his marriage to the boost given the fledgling American republic by George Washington’s failure to found a dynasty. Each age, McLaren shows, turns impotence to its own purposes, using it to help define what is normal and healthy for men, their relationships, and society.

From marraige manuals to metrosexuals, from Renaissance Italy to Hollywood movies, Impotence is a serious but highly entertaining examination of a problem that humanity has simultaneously regarded as life’s greatest tragedy and its greatest joke.

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Editorial Reviews

C hoice

"This important, thought-provoking work should be read by scholars and students in gender and sexuality studies, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history. Essential."


"A fascinating book, but probably not a good idea for Father's Day."

New York Post

"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 pathbreaking history of masculinity."

— Nick Gillespie


"This important, thought-provoking work should be read by scholars and students in gender and sexuality studies, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history. Essential."—Choice

Sunday Times

“Diverting, enchanting and often hilarious. . . . We in the West live now in what may well be the most highly and explicitly sexualised culture in human history; not surprisingly, sex has never been more publicly contested. . . . McLaren provides not just a scholarly and witty grand tour d’horizon of two and a half millenniums of thinking and writing about impotency but, in the process, reminds us that, when it comes to sex, it really is all in the mind. I only wish the book had been twice as long.”

— Michael Bywater

Canadian Journal of History

"An excellent contribution to the history of sexuality, masculinity, and gender; it should be a welcome addition to libraries and history seminars across North America."

— Michelle K. Rhoades

Journal of American History

"By focusing on a solitary concern . . . McLaren is able not only to chart a fascinating history but also to unsettle our contemporary notions of normal/natural male sexual performance and capability."

New England Journal of Medicine

"There is much in this book to interest both the general reader and the specialist medical practitioner."

— Yvonne M. Marshall

Chronicle of Higher Education

"McLaren's chapter on Alfred Kinsey and the sex therapists Masters and Johnson is absolutely superb—as is his final chapter on the production and aggressive marketing of Viagra. This is contemporary history-writing at its best."

— Camille Paglia


"Erudite, cogent, and timely, Impotence earns a place on the list of excellent books on sexuality."

— E. James Lieberman

Publishers Weekly
Men have been complaining about failed erections ever since Ovid, but as University of Victoria historian McLaren (Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History) shows, their significance, and with it our conceptions of masculinity, have changed over the centuries. In the medieval world, for example, the primary concern was with whether a man was capable of consummating his marriage; it would take centuries for the physical and psychological causes to take center stage. And though everything from excessive masturbation to coitus interruptus was put forth as an explanation, just about every era, from the ancient Greeks to modern antifeminists, has found some way to put the blame on women. (In the 19th century, doctors claimed men could be put off not just by women who were reluctant but those who were too eager.) After considering the early 20th-century "quack" remedies of gland injections and vacuum pumps, McLaren devotes his final chapter to the cultural changes wrought by Viagra and other drugs created to treat "erectile dysfunction." Far from eliminating the fear of impotence, he suggests such medications may actually lead to more anxiety, as pharmaceutical companies attempt to convince men that sexual activity is vital to their well-being. Perhaps one day McLaren will write about those problems with the wide-ranging verve of this lively history. 8 illus. (Apr.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

McLaren (history, Univ. of Victoria, B.C; The Trials of Masculinity: Studies in the Policing of Sexual Boundaries, 1870–1930) follows up his earlier studies on human fertility with this lively academic study of male impotence. Using an array of relatively obscure historical, sociological, and medical research sources, McLaren shows how the concept of male sexual potency has changed; once seen mainly as a function of siring children, it is now regarded as an important component of a healthy emotional state. McLaren offers a dynamic survey of masculinity, perceptions of impotence, and the never-ending search for help with male sexual dysfunction. He starts with the Greek and Roman view of male potency, then moves to the understanding of impotence during the early Christian era, the Age of Reason, the 19th century, the Freudian era, and the rise of modern medical research as exemplified by the famous Kinsey and Masters and Johnson studies. The author ends with a timely, thoughtful analysis of the contemporary approach, driven by the major drug companies. Not a clinical guide to managing male sexual dysfunction, this work is instead a more complete cultural history of impotence than is found in any medically oriented approach to the topic. Highly recommended for all medical school libraries and academic libraries supporting the helping professions.
—Dale Farris

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226500768
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 350
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Angus McLaren

is a leading figure in the history of sexuality, professor emeritus of history at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and the author of several books, including

The Trials of Masculinity: Policing of Sexual Boundaries, 1870–1930


A Prescription for Murder

; and

Impotence: A Cultural History



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Read an Excerpt

By Angus McLaren
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-50076-8


Manhood in Greece and Rome

Ovid's Amores and Petronius's Satyrica provide the two most famous literary accounts of the ancients' view of impotence. In Amores 3.7 the Latin poet amusingly describes his inexplicable inability to perform with a woman he has long lusted after.

Yes, she was beautiful and well turned out, The girl that I'd so often dreamed about, Yet I lay with her limp as if I loved not, A shameful burden on the bed that moved not. Though both of us were sure of our intent, Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

Following this disastrous encounter the narrator is enraged to find his refractory member suddenly full of vigor.

But notwithstanding, like one dead it lay, Drooping more than a rose picked yesterday. Now, when he should not be, he's bolt upright, And craves his task and seeks to have his fight. Lie down in shame and see you stir no more! You've caught me with your promises before. You've tricked me, got me captured weaponless, And I've endured great shame and sore distress.

Coming across such a familiar scenario it is tempting to assume that men in ancient Greece and Rome regarded impotence in exactly the same way as do men in the twenty-first century. Indeed it would be easy to produce a history of impotence by simply totting up every reference to what today we might interpret as concerns for erection. The obvious danger of such an approach is that one begins with the assumption that there actually exists such a thing as "impotence" that can be tracked over time. Even in our scientific world different people mean different things in employing the term. Accordingly there is all the more reason to be sensitive to the fact that earlier cultures constructed, explained, and gave special significance in quite different ways from ours to what could in general terms be described as male sexual failures. To make the story even more complicated, it also has to be admitted that we cannot know if such failures actually existed; relying on written sources produced by the literate elite, all we really we know is how such events (or nonevents) were culturally represented.

Some sense of the importance of cultural framing is given by a reading of Petronius's Satyrica. His hero Encolpius tries to bed Circe, but at the crucial moment he too goes limp.

Three times I whip the dreadful weapon out, And three times softer than a Brussels sprout I quail, in those dire straits my manhood blunted, No longer up to what just now I wanted.

Again, this sounds very familiar to the modern ear. The cultural resonance of impotence is only made clear when Petronius goes on to deal with the possible causes, cures, and import of the problem. Encolpius is humiliated not simply because he is unready for sex, but because he appears less able than a cinaedus, a passive homosexual whose status is lower than his. Encolpius's lack of erection is thus shameful inasmuch as it signals a loss of both masculine and social status. And why does he suffer such a fate? Is it because of his boyfriend whom Circe says he should drop? Is it due to an unhealthy regimen that he seeks to ameliorate by continence, diet, and a restriction on wine? Might he be bewitched? An elderly crone helps him counter the evil eye. In chapter 138 when he is finally cured, it is by a sadistic old priestess who buggers him with a leather dildo smeared with oil, pepper, and nettle seeds.

In providing a comic account of impotence, Petronius is not attempting to document all the ways in which his contemporaries viewed the problem. Nevertheless a reading of his masterpiece reminds us that to appreciate earlier societies' understandings of the workings of the body we have to make a conscious effort to avoid assuming that they shared our views and values. Certain acts employed by the Greeks and Romans no doubt either curbed or encouraged potency, but what mattered was not so much the act as the social construction of meanings given to it and the individual responses to such meanings. How are we to understand the ancients' discussion of impotence? The construction of both the problem and the cure directly related to their notions of sex and gender. To place the issue of impotence in its social setting we begin this chapter with an analysis of the roles assigned to men and women in the ancient world, then turn to Greek and Roman attitudes toward intercourse and procreation; we will examine the many ways in which they sought to control desire, and review how their notions of manhood accommodated biology and behavior.

To be a man in the ancient world a vigorous character was essential. The Romans were positively fixated with an ideal of the self-controlled, aggressive, virile male. They had an extravagant concern for winning recognition through public achievement. According to what has been called the Mediterranean notion of manliness, men had to appear strong and active. A man manifested proper male behavior by expressions of his righteous anger, powerful desires, and personal autonomy. Even humor was seasoned with a strong element of sexual aggression, as opponents in law and politics were commonly abused as soft or effeminate. Hence the poet Catullus threatened to rape or bugger his critics.

Of course, given that almost all the sources available to us were written by men, the portrayal of the aggressive, virile, emotionally cool male was obviously an ideal or cliché rather than a reality. The ancients admitted as much in stressing the importance of performance. One might be born male, but to prove one's manhood one needed to walk and talk in a certain way. Rhetorical skills, for example, played a key role in establishing gender identity. Gender was in effect learnt. "Masculinity in the ancient world was an achieved state," one scholar has noted, "radically underdetermined by anatomical sex." There were few hard rules. Though gender norms existed, deviations were accepted. Male reputation and honor were not predetermined; men learned how to manipulate community expectations and the norms of masculinity to their own advantage.

Notions of assertive male behavior were projected onto the genitals. Thus Plato personified the penis as "disobedient and self-willed, like a creature that is deaf to reason, and it attempts to dominate all because of its frenzied lusts." Indeed the assertion that masculinity was for the ancients not simply determined by anatomy sounds counterintuitive, given their acceptance of public male nudity, the attention paid to male genitalia, and the displays of the phallus. Greek nurses molded the baby's body, even using swaddling to shape the scrotum and stretching to elongate the foreskin. To judge by illustrations and statuary, the ideal penis was small, thin, and had a pointed foreskin. The Greeks believed a dainty penis was not only more attractive but more serviceable in reproduction, since its semen, not having to travel as far, would suffer less heat loss. They represented Satyrs with huge penises as sign of their ugliness. The Romans, however, preferred big penises, or at least that was the case of the emperors when choosing their favorites.

In the ancient world the erect penis was a symbol of maturity and power. The Romans celebrated a boy's first ejaculation. Representations of the penis were found everywhere. Artificial penises were used on the comic stage of Athens until the fourth century BC. A phallic stele of Hermes stood at the doorway of every Greek house and during ritual processions the men carried an enormous phallus through the community. In Roman gardens, instead of a scarecrow, a representation of the god Priapus, complete with erect penis, threatened intruders with rape.

The ancients moreover employed an elaborate vocabulary to describe the male genitals. "People will laugh aloud at you," warned an early Greek epigram, "if you venture to sail unequipped, a rower who has lost his oar." In common parlance the erect penis was described as one's equipment, tool, spear, ram, goad, or drill. In its flaccid state it might be called a snake or rope. A woman accordingly cursed her younger rival "may you find a snake in your bed." The Romans believed the sparrow to be lecherous, so in Latin "sparrow" was a synonym for penis. In Catullus 2 and 3 the narrator talks about his girlfriend's sparrow being dead, that is, himself as impotent. In literature the phallus was frequently personified, especially the impotent prick as in Ovid's Amores 3.7.

The flaccid penis represented failure since for the virile in the ancient world sex could only mean penetration. A man had either to penetrate or be penetrated. Martial (Epigram 3.73) for example accused Gallus of not being able to stand and thereby implied that he was a fellator. The real man was an "impenetrable penetrator." The special resonance this concept held can only be fully appreciated when it is recalled that this was a resolutely inegalitarian society in which elite men always had at their disposal submissive and sexually available male and female slaves. Sexual relationships were embedded in social relationships. Respectable men necessarily took the accusation of being sexually passive as the gravest insult, implying as it did that one was no better than a slave. Male character assassination fed on such innuendos that one was "soft." In the musings of philosophers such as Seneca as well as in popular lampoons, graffiti, and satires appeared the same expressions of distaste for effeminacy.

The genitals represented the man. Potency represented power, hence the number of literary references to the penis as a weapon. Loss of potency meant loss of manhood and defeat. Catullus in one poem refers to a groom whose "short sword hung like a strip of limp beet / between his legs, never / cocked navelwards." In Petronius's Satyrica the narrator lamented, "I was a ready soldier, but I had no weapons." The poet Martial wielded the inability to have an erection as amongst the most wounding of charges to hurl at his opponents. He derided one victim (Epigram 11.46): "You no longer rise, Mevius, except in your sleep, and your penis begins to piss onto the middle of your feet; your shriveled cock is stirred by your weary fingers and, thus solicited, does not lift its useless head." In stating that cunts and asses could no longer serve Mevius, Martial implied that mouths were his last resort. And indeed Martial made just such a charge (Epigram 11.25) against Linus. "That over-active cock, well known to girls not a few, has ceased to stand for Linus. Tongue, look out!" Finally Martial asserted (Epigram 11.61) that Nanneius was so weak that even his tongue was impotent.

Penetration was central to the ancient world's notion of healthy male sexuality, but whom might the man penetrate? Historians are largely now in agreement that the concept of sexuality is a discourse-a way of organizing and controlling desires-that only came into being in modern times. Consequently we have to be wary of ahistorically reading back into the ancient world our notion of "sexuality," in particular the idea that every individual would have a sense of self as being either heterosexual or homosexual. To guard against such presentist thinking, historians of ancient Greece have recently spoken of an age of presexuality, an era in which there was no such thing as "sexual identity." It has been similarly suggested that Greek homosexuality should be more precisely called pseudohomosexuality or male-to-male intercourse, since few in the ancient world had the concept of a desire for only one sex.

In the Mediterranean world a man who penetrated and dominated either men or women proved his manhood. The man who sought to please or was the passive partner of either man or woman was considered effeminate. Failure to be aroused by either girls or boys concerned the ancients. Martial scoffed (Epigram 12.86) at the man who despite having thirty boys and thirty girls could not get his cock to rise. Strato had a laugh at himself in ending a poem with a pun on the name of Hector's son and the word for failing to make erect (12.11): "Yesterday I had Philostratus for the night, but was incapable, though he (how shall I say it?) made every possible offer. No longer, my friends, count me friend, but throw me off a tower as I have become too much of an Astyanax." And later (12.216) he complained: "Now you're upright, damn you, and stiff, when nothing is here. But when there was something yesterday, you heaved no breath at all."

The Greeks sustained a somewhat ambiguous pederastic model of chaste courtship in which the honor of both male partners could be retained. This culture accepted what we might describe as homosexuality though such relations were at times a source of anxiety. In Rome who penetrated whom was crucial. Anal rape was feared. There were no discussions of the boy's pleasure, indeed the assumption was made that the passive male could not be pleasured. Those who brandished accusations of effeminacy tended to liken passive men to slaves and women. Yet the worst thing a man could be accused of-even worse than servicing another man by fellatio-was, as noted in Martial (Epigram 2.28), that of servicing a woman by cunnilingus.

The ancients' concerns for potency can only be fully understood when viewed in the context of a culture that lauded male dominance and feared the mythical, sexually voracious female. This culture supported a specific sort of sexuality that assumed inequitable, often violent, relationships in which women and slaves were necessarily subordinate. Men in the ancient world were supposed to be sexually aggressive. They were believed to swell with both anger and desire, doctors viewing the two passions in men as related. Women were objectified, and their use by men-like the taking of food-was often presented by writers as little more than a hygienic necessity.

The position women enjoyed in the Greek family is still very much a subject of debate. Those who opt for the darker view of the Attic character stress the themes of male dominance and violence that permeated the ancient myths. The countless references to patriarchy and misogyny in much of Greek literature are difficult to ignore. Zeus had, according to Hesiod punished man for Prometheus's theft of fire by creating woman and endowing her with crafty speech, thievish habits, and a licentious mind. Semonides, in what has been considered the earliest work in European literature devoted to women (c. 640 BC), portrayed the female as rivaling in vice the sow, vixen, bitch, ass, ferret, mare, and monkey. Male mortals were, for their part, candidly outspoken defenders of a sexual double-standard. "We have," asserted an Athenian orator, "courtisans for pleasure, concubines to look after the day-to-day needs of the body, wives that we may breed legitimate children and have a trusty warden of what we have in the house." The public tolerance and, in the Greek case, the lauding of male homosexuality undercut the importance of heterosexual intercourse. Poets praised the buttocks of both beautiful boys and women, but the vagina was not lauded like the boy's anus.

Depending on whether one looks at the portrayal of women in the law, theater, or medicine one comes away with distinctly different views of their status. Perhaps the best that can be said is that for a variety of reasons men and women often lived quite separate lives. Males dominated the public world of the political forum, the gymnasium, and the symposium. Women oversaw the domestic sphere. The difference in the age of spouses presupposed different outlooks on life. In the Greek cities men married at close to thirty (when their own fathers, if still alive, were preparing to make way for the next generation) whereas brides were often in their early teens. The Romans assumed that family order was best assured if an age gap of about ten years separated the bride and groom.

Aristotle regarded late marriage as healthy because, "to abstain from early marriage conduces to self-control; for women who have sexual intercourse too soon are apt to be wanton, and a man's body also is stunted if he exercises the reproductive faculty before the semen is full grown." He believed semen and the menses started and stopped at the same ages, but men only became fertile at twenty-one. He contradicted himself later, acknowledging men could be still be potent in old age. An older husband presumably could more easily control a young wife, but Aristotle voiced the fear that she might prove sexually demanding. To dissuade men from entering into marriages in which there would be too great an age disparity, Plutarch claimed the Athenian law allowed the wife a legal right to demand her husband be physically capable of fulfilling his conjugal duties at least three times a month.


Excerpted from Impotence by Angus McLaren Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction

1. The Impenetrable Penetrator

2. When "Desire Refuses Service": Impotence in the Christian West

3. The "Infirmity of Others": Laughing at Fumblers in Early Modern Europe

4. "Shameful to Wives, Ridiculous for Husbands, and Unworthy of Tribunals": Impotence in the Age of Reason

5. Neurasthenia, Decadence, and Nineteenth-Century Manhood

6. Marketing Manly Vigor: Victorian Medicine versus Quackery

7. Sigmund Freud, Marie Stopes, and "the Love of Civilized Man"

8. Sex Glands, Rejuvenation, and Eugenics between the Wars

9. The "Impotence Boom": From Kinsey to Masters and Johnson

10. Viagra: Hard Science or Hard Sell?

Conclusion Notes Index

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