History of Science 2220 Lecture Notes - Lecture 14: Orgasm, Cuckold, Gladiator
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January 30, 2013
o Examining the cultural conceptions, understanding the social meanings of the issue.
o Earliest recordings date to the 7th Century B.C. – men being concerned about their
inability to perform. This came from Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).
o Today, erectile dysfunction is blamed on poor circulation.
o Impotence was culturally and socially constructed. (Remember: Leprosy was also a
socially constructed disease.)
o If socially constructed, to get a disease is less of a process of getting sick, then it is about
how we describe that illness (myths, fiction to explain why that disease has come about,
as well as to explain potential cures).
o Goal: Locate impotence in the changing societal expectations and understandings. Note
that it will always be linked to sexual inadequacy and inability to reproduce.
Impotence in the Ancient World
o A world in which penetration proved manhood – crucial to the social role of men and
expectation. Could have been penetration of a woman, or a young boy.
o Romans were fixated with the idea of a self-controlled man, always appearing strong and
o Role of the penis:
Small, thin, and pointed in the ancient world.
Greek nurses would mold a baby’s penis after birth to take ideal shape. Dainty
was considered attractive and beneficial in reproduction.
Romans preferred large size. Erection was a symbol of maturity and power.
Images were so popular, and recently, discoveries were made in the Coliseum
from the gladiator time, of penises on the wall.
Ancients relied on vocabulary to describe male genitals. Often described as a
tool, spear, ram, or snake. The flaccid form represented failure – a man either had
to penetrate or be penetrated. Penetration was essential to the notion of a healthy
and sexually active male.
In terms of defining manhood, you could not be penetrated and still be considered
Impotence was attributed to either old age or youth. It was a given that aging
came with potency.
Commentators warned men that they could become “old before their time” if they
overindulged – masturbation. Humors: Balance was key, and comes into play
once again. Being excessive in aggressions released too much fluid and caused an
imbalance. If impotence was a result of old age, treatment would consist of
arousing books or pictures, as well as services of youth (dancing girls), and think
about diet – quite literal. They would look for foods that resembled the penis (i.e.
asparagus, nuts, beans, wine, etc.).
January 30, 2013
Impotence in Early Modern Europe
16th and 17th Centuries.
Believed to be caused by witchcraft, and considered quite humorous. To be impotent at
this time was to be humiliated and the centre of jokes. These jokes would even be written
down, and published on a regular basis.
Coined a variety of terms for the sexually incompetent male: fumbler (most popular),
fungler, weak doing man, good man do little, Jonny cannot.
o Samuel Pepys (1680’s) wrote a series of pamphlets poking fun at impotence.
Women were thought to be passive though naturally inclined to lustfulness. If sexually
frustrated, they would fall ill – introducing the theory of the insatiable female. The
insatiable/unsatisfied female was justified in looking elsewhere when their husband was
unable to perform. The cuckold (man that’s been cheated on) was the main butt of jokes.
Impotence in the Age of Reason
17th and 18th Centuries
Impotence went through 2 transformations:
o Now being described as a physiological problem.
o Treated with greater and greater reserve – it was inherently tragic.
Revived the notion of impotence due to masturbation.
Became one of the most feared symptoms of masturbation. Worried doctors claimed that
orgasm exhausted the body. Doctors also claimed that it was worse than normal sex
because it destroyed pro-creative powers.
Most influential attacks on masturbation were made by a Swiss doctor, S.A.D. Tissot
(1728-1797), stressing the psychological and physical afflictions. In 1760, he wrote a
monograph, reflecting the idea that by the 18th C, doctors are abandoning their belief in
the humors, and focusing on the nervous origins of disease. He’s influenced by his
contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Believed that nervousness was spawned by the
artificiality of society – men needed a balanced regime! The state of being healthy
required energy, and to squander energy in sexual excess would wear the man out.
Calling for a moderate lifestyle. Claimed it was possible to identify these men – pale
skin, feminine, etc.
Nineteenth Century Manhood
Commentators of the time attributed impotence to a range of issues, and doctors blame
modern life as the culprit in exhausting men. Neurasthenia (an umbrella term describing
the stresses of modern life) explains physical manifestations in the man’s body due to
various aspects of life – depression, physical fatigue, insomnia, malnutrition, etc.
George Beard (1839-1883)
o 1860’s claimed an overstimulation in modern life contributing to the ill-health of
men. Modernity (standard time, railway, light, electricity, etc.) are having a
negative impact on the health of men. These technologies are creating a crisis in
men’s health, posing physical and emotional demands.