Sunday, May 13, 2007


Angus McLaren is a professor of history at the University of Victoria and the author of, most recently, Impotence: A Cultural History.

He applied the "page 69 test" to Impotence and reported the following:
In the first part of chapter 3 of Impotence: A Cultural History I examine the reasons why in the seventeenth-century male sexual failures were considered a joking matter. On page 69 the discussion turns to the possible legal consequences.

"In some American colonies unconsummated marriage were considered neither complete nor valid. And unlike Britain, the civil courts in the New England colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut allowed divorces. Although sterility and impotence were often regarded as the same thing, married couples did not have to be fertile, but they were expected to be able to provide each other with “due benevolence.” The community recognized the importance of pleasure and sexual performance. When a woman claimed that her husband was impotent an examination might take place. In a 1728 Pennsylvania case the Examiners reported: “Being met in a proper Room for the intended Examination, the forsaid George Miller retired to a Corner of the same; and in a short space of time returned & presented himself before us; He then having a full Erection of the Penis, with some Semen virile (vel similline quid) newly emitted upon the Palm of one of his Hands, and also at the extremity of the Glans issuing out of the Urethra.” A review of eighty seventeenth-century New England divorce petitions found that in fourteen references were made to male sexual incapacity. These were serious charges inasmuch as the man, if he were found impotent, could not remarry."

Page 69 provides a fairly representative portion of my book. We tend to think that only since Viagra has impotence become a topic of public discussion, but I demonstrate that the failure of men to rise to the occasion has been a recurrent preoccupation in western culture. In investigating the history of impotence we discover that male sexuality has a history. Countless studies have tracked the ways in which women’s sexuality was “constructed” or repressed or policed. In contrast next to nothing has been said about how normative standards of male performance were established. Fiascoes in the bedroom have been attributed at one time or another to witchcraft, masturbation, homosexual desires, shell-shock, sexual excesses, feminism, and the unconscious. The arrival of new explanations did not necessarily displace older ones. Even in a scientific age some would still attribute failures to irrational forces. As was made clear in songs, plays, novels, and movies, western culture has simultaneously regarded impotence as life’s greatest tragedy and life’s greatest joke. A history of impotence not only allows us to locate these discussions in their cultural context; it provides a compelling way in which to understand male power and the configurations of male desire. What precipitated ideas of masculine vulnerability? How was male anxiety assuaged? What sorts of women were regarded as posing a threat to virility? In seeking to answer these questions we are led to see how cultures constructed their particular notions of sexuality’s pleasures and dangers, its private and public functions. Every age turned male sexual dysfunctions to its own purposes; every culture created, combated, and in some fashion cured the forms of impotence it found most alarming.
Visit the publisher's page for Impotence and read excerpts from Impotence and view a 1920s advertisement for the The Vital Power Vacuum Massager.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue