History, Reviews

Review: McLaren, Impotence

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Today, the topic of male sexual impotence is inevitably discussed in terms of biology where drugs like Viagra are seen as the answer for one of the perennial problems of mankind. But in a review this month in the New England Journal of Medicine Yvonne M. Marshall takes note of Angus McLaren’s new book, Impotence: A Cultural History for challenging the way we think these days about this age-old affliction. Marshall writes:

Advertisements for Viagra would have us believe that impotence—or at least erectile dysfunction—and the compromises in lifestyle that it leads to could soon be a thing of the past. Almost a decade after the drug went on the market, however, we are still waiting, and Angus McLaren’s historical analysis of impotence indicates that the wait is unlikely to end any time soon. His goal is “to understand the main tendencies that have historically structured representations of masculine sexual inadequacy,” and he shows that what constitutes impotence is culturally and historically variable. It is specific to particular times and places and is not merely a question of biology—regardless of what Pfizer might claim.…

The review coninues:

There is much in this book to interest both the general reader and the specialist medical practitioner. McLaren draws on an extraordinarily wide range of literature and references it closely in detailed endnotes that allow the reader to follow up on specific points of interest. The great strength of the book is the diversity of the material that is brought together and summarized.… Some will choose to read this book from cover to cover, but I suspect that many more will productively dip into its wide array of cultural perspectives and historical moments and select those that are most pertinent to their own interests. However readers approach this book, they will not put it down unrewarded.

Read a special feature drawn from the book: “Two Millennia of Impotence Cures.”