For Some Men, Erectile Dysfunction Is Totally Chill

In the US, there is an expectation for men to become erect and have penetrative sex throughout their lives. One study finds that, elsewhere in the world, men are happy to be rid of their hard-ons.

Jan 18 2017, 5:00am

Recent research by Emily Wentzell, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, examines the way that erectile dysfunction's (ED) designation as a medical problem is a consequence of culture and profit-motivated industries. "Ideas about what counts as good and manly sex are cultural, not natural or universal," Wentzell explains in an interview with Broadly. "There is money to be made off promoting the idea that manly men should have life-long penetrative sex, by selling pharmaceuticals—hence the widespread marketing of ED drugs."

In the United States today, it is generally taken for granted today that penises which cannot become stiff enough to penetrate others are failures of health, belonging to men who qualify for medical treatment. Wentzell's study points out something that may seem obvious: Erectile function is tied to conceptions of masculinity and social standing. However, as Wentzell once wrote in an older article about impotence in America, "this way of understanding non-normative erections is culturally and historically contingent," meaning the reasons we view "less than ideal erections" as medical problems are dependent upon social norms, and not some innate truth about the human body or the function of men.

"Focus on penetrative sex as the ideal kind of sexuality to engage in throughout the life course represents US cultural ideas about virility and of the male body as, ideally, a machine that never stops functioning the same way, despite illness or aging," Wentzell says. There are many different justifications given for erectile dysfunction. Today, these range from deeming it a behavioral-based issue to a psychological problem to something purely biomedical. But there are older accounts. Ages ago, Wentzell explains, it was surmised that witchcraft could account for limp dicks. Modern interpretations on the so-called problem, Wentzell says, have been motivated by industries with financial interests.

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