Men are so exercised by the thought of impotence that they will believe virtually anything. During the 1920s and 1930s various medicines and contraptions were patented that promised to fill 'weak and nervous men' with 'rampant vigour'. Though most of these inventions were denounced by the medical profession, their popularity was proof, if proof were needed, that the impotent man was infinitely suggestible and infinitely exploitable. Doubts about sexuality breed states of conviction. Suction pumps, Erector-Sleighs, Gassensche Spirales, Gerson's Constriction Bandage and Virility ('a double cylinder connected to a bellows to produce a vacuum that . . . "gives great bulk to the penis and makes it look grotesque"') were all available and purchased, even though, like most of the cures for impotence that Angus McLaren describes in his panoramic study, there was very little 'evidence' that they worked. And yet it was, and still is, difficult to staunch the flow of more or less magical solutions for the perennial problem. 'The market is flooded with various appliances which are guaranteed to be sure cures,' a progressive physician grumbled in 1912. 'It goes without saying that most of them are worthless frauds.' What has also gone without saying, McLaren shows, is that the untold history of impotence is a history of many things, most obviously of gender relations, but less obviously - and this is implicit in his book, rather than spelled out - of our will to believe. Impotence raises the question of what wanting to believe something is a solution to, as well as making us wonder what counts as a solution. Erection on demand is a strange cultural ideal but a persistent one, and it tells us a lot about what we want to be.
LRB 5 July 2007 | PDF Download