Advice

Long, Sad History of Trying to ‘Cure’ Impotence

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Priapus-Statue

“While you’re alive I’m hopeful rustic guard / Come. Bless me, stiff Priapus: make me hard:” This is a (poetically) translated prayer to the Greek god of livestock, fruit trees, and dicks, and is among the first and least terrifying erectile dysfunction cures that we’ve seen throughout history.

As long as men have had ego problems, it’s been profitable to at least pretend that you can cure impotence. The ancient Greeks ushered in one of the first real ages of medical thinking, and with it the first age of bullshit ways to get a hard on. Pliny the Elder recommended a dizzying number of concoctions involving leeks, dried lizards, asparagus, rooster genitalia and pretty much the only ingredient these “aphrodisiacs” had in common was wine, which, to be fair, they put in pretty much everything back then.

If history is to be believed, men would have never stopped looking for ways to get and keep an erection, regardless of the risk of penis rupture, straight-up poisoning, or goat testicle absorption. The things we do for love. Well, maybe not “love.”

“Natural remedies” were the peak of technology until the Industrial Revolution, that magical time between when people knew the word “science” and before they understood anything about actual science. It’s around this time that the first mechanical options start to come to the fore. There were the “Penis Training Wheels,” two rubber rings connected with plastic rods, then covered with a condom, meant to get men used to the motion of sex. The downside was after sex, he had to extricate the apparatus from his partner. Then there were the penis pumps, which gave a man an erection by creating a vacuum surrounding the dick, causing all the capillaries to engorge with blood. At best this gave him an erection for the duration that his penis was inside the pump, and no longer. At worst, it stretched his capillaries to the point where his lil’ dude looked and felt like a drained water balloon.

The real grisly stuff, though, was surgical. Quack doctors start popping up selling the promises of new medical science while delivering mostly staph infection and horrible death. These surgeries general followed the formula of “Find a Virile Animal, Extract its Sexy Parts, and Graft Them Into a Human Being.” The most famous quack of this time is indisputably Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, who made literally millions of dollars in the ’20s transplanting goat testicles onto both men and women as a way to increase libido. By the late ‘30s, though, medical regulation organizations became more prominent, and these practices fell to the wayside. But it wasn’t until 1991 that a drug meant to treat angina became instead the first FDA approved drug to treat erectile dysfunction. That’s, of course, Viagra. And it’s been the gold standard of treatment ever since, despite what those little packets of caplets at the bodega cash register tell you.

Good thing we found it, too. If history is to be believed, men would have never stopped looking for ways to get and keep an erection, regardless of the risk of penis rupture, straight-up poisoning, or goat testicle absorption. The things we do for love.

This article owes a large portion of its facts to excerpts from Impotence: A Cultural History by Angus McLaren, University of Chicago Press.

Aaron and Josh are two guy friends who have a podcast in which they try to answer questions about dating, romance, relationships, sex, and the vagueries of human interaction. (Their motto: “If you’re not a straight cismale, then we (may) have the answers you’re searching for.”) They write a weekly post on The Date Report expanding on some of the topics covered in their weekly podcast.

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