This blog first appeared in Purple Clover.
The night when impotence first crossed my mind announced my fall from grace as a man.
I was 14 years old, a blissful stranger to the histrionics of the male erection. My own was something I took for granted; he was there, more or less constantly, rising to my beck and call. It never crossed my mind that an erection could be anything but automatic or become an embarrassment in the bedroom, causing mockery, disappointment and worse.
I was at a drive-in theater with my sister, watching "Carnal Knowledge," Mike Nichols's cautionary tale of what happens to dawgs who never grow up. Jack Nicholson, the sagging, middle-aged dawg, is seated on a throne-chair while Rita Moreno, playing Jack's hooker girlfriend, kneels before him, assuring Jack that he's a big man, powerful and strong, horse-like and virile as she coaxes, woos and worships his penis into some semblance of wobbly attention.
This pathetic scene seared itself into my brain. Seeing Jack in that gut-wrenching situation was like having my manhood cast out of the Garden of Eden. For the first time, I saw clearly that being a man came with a very definite downside; that anatomy could rebel against us and leave us out there, hanging; and that sex, which seemed like paradise until then, could also become a living hell.
Back then, we called it impotence, but 40 years later, the "I" word is rarely spoken, with its hints of powerlessness and shame. The wizards of Big Pharma and Madison Ave. have rebranded impotence into "E.D." -- a zippy-sounding condition caused mostly by "low T," its cool-sounding cousin. We're led to believe by the makers of Cialis and Viagra that E.D. is a malfunction, in fact, of something meant to work forever. This is the big lie behind E.D. Drug makers never use the word "aging."
We have entered the age of the entitled penis, the penis-in-denial, the penis-as-revenge against the Grim Reaper. Our artificial national erection has become a metaphor for what ails America: patriarchal fist pumping without end; avoidance of softness and vulnerability; the cultural denial of death; and the synonyous-making of manhood and manhood that leaves men's brains humming with one inner mantra. I get hard, therefore I am.
This ordeal is hardly new, of course. Since the first caveman first gazed at his woman, spread out on her pelt in campfire light, and realized that he'd rather be fishing, males have struggled with impotence. It's a side effect of our basic hydraulic; what goes up must come down.
Our flaccid forebears went to terrible lengths to turn this engineering around. As David M. Friedman points out in his book A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, Assyrian physicians forced their impotent patients to eat dried lizard and cantharides. "That second substance, made from crushed beetles, has an inflammatory effect on a man's genitourinary system that the ancients... mistook for revived vigor," Friedman notes.
Nicander, the Greek physician, instructed insecure men to eat the balls of hippopotami. Doctors in the nineteenth century treated impotence by jamming a hot rubber plug, or boule, into the patient's rectum while hot and cold water were shot, in alternating spurts, down his urethra. At other times, recalcitrant rods were attributed to witchcraft, shell shock, masturbation, feminism and the Oedipal complex.
Today, those of us who have not drunk the Kool-Aid know that aging is the issue. Natural selection. The evolutionary truth that hormones decrease for a reason and that is how nature intended it. Just look at the numbers. Five percent of 40-year-old men, and between 15 percent and 25 percent of 65-year-old men, experience impotence on a long term basis, according to studies done by the National Institutes of Health. Says the NIH, failure to achieve an erection less than 20 percent of the time is not unusual and treatment is "not a necessity." Only when a man can't "perform" (that dreaded word) more than 50 percent of the time is it considered a "problem requiring treatment."
In other words, men aren't meant to be Everhard batteries 24/7 'til the day we die. We're not meant to mistake ourselves for our erection (welcome as he always is) any more than females with mammary sag ought to feel less than whole as women. Getting older, we get sexier in lots of ways -- we're more honest, seductive and eager to please.
We recognize that we're not 19, but aren't stopped by the specter of youth. At this age, we know life's too short for that nonsense; though we're different, we're hardly out of the game. Our multi-orgasmic days may be numbered -- but once a night is a beautiful thing. The deflation of passion now and then is hardly cause for profound self-doubt. Any man who knows himself knows that.
Which brings me back to Jack in his chair. Jack's problem is that he won't know himself. He refuses to face himself in the mirror. In Jack's mind, he's still the strapping dawg; he will not adapt or grow or change. He's trapped inside his unfueled missile, waiting for takeoff that never comes. He still believes I get hard, therefore I am, while his soft-hearted friend (played by Art Garfunkel), a shy guy who treats women with respect, and has spent the whole of "Carnal Knowledge" urging Jack to grow up, falls in love with Carole Kane and rides off into the conjugal sunset. Art never confused his heart and his hard-on. He always knew he was both and more.