This book would be incomplete were I to make no mention of that sudden and mysterious loss of erectile power which sometimes befalls men. Perhaps there are few men who do not know the secret dread of some day becoming impotent.
I remember a champion athlete – a magnificent man physically – confessing to me that he was afraid to marry, fearing that he would not be able to satisfy his wife. And perhaps the earliest sexual story that I remember was that of a soldier, in the time of the Civil War, who by a sudden and natural motion lost his power, which no effort of himself or his mistress could restore. All my life such tales have come to me. Tragic tales, some of them, as where a spiteful woman overwhelmed her helpless lover with shame and reproach; where divorce was demanded for this cause; where a marriage between two devoted lovers remained unconsummated to the end, the husband dying in a few years, perhaps of a broken heart. These and many others. Who has not heard of the pitiful case of Carlyle and his Jane Welsh, as told by Froude? And it has been hinted that the same cause lay back of Ruskin’s beautiful surrender of his wife to the artist Millais, and of the relation of Swift to his Stella and Vanessa.
The mystery of this thing lies in its suddenness and unaccountability. No wonder that in the superstitious it has suggested witchcraft. If it came only to cowards, to weaklings, to the sterile, to bashful boys and inexperienced lovers, it would not be so strange. But precisely these may never be troubled by it, while a Don Juan of experience and proud list of conquests; a hero of courage; or a Titan of genius, whose virile mind dominates his time, may suddenly be stricken by it, perhaps blasted for life. It may occur with one woman and not with another, at one time and not another, or it may appear permanent and incurable.
The very worst of it is the mental effect upon the victim. For ages the man human has dreaded to be called “impotent.” His manly power is the dearest attribute of man. There are no words to describe the agony, the shame, the bitter self-reproach, the helplessness, the awful despair; that may overwhelm an innocent, loving and otherwise perfect man when the fear comes upon him that his virility has left him and that he may perhaps always disappoint and appear a weakling in the eyes of the woman whose embraces may be dearer and more desired than aught else in life. Just as nothing else gives a man such pride, courage, inspiration and exaltation as to be able to perfectly embrace and satisfy the woman he loves, so nothing else has such power to crush, sadden, sicken and embitter a man as sexual failure. It drives many and many a man to solitude, old-bachelorhood, misanthropy, misogyny, insanity or suicide. How much of the bitterness and gall of Carlyle’s writings may have come from this and the agony of his volcanic and morbid soul under its torture, who can tell?
Now because of the sufferings of my sex from this cause and, incidentally, of the women who love them, I have written this chapter. And it is because I wish to speak a helping word that I preface it with the frank confession (which I would otherwise dread to make) that I have myself, at different times and places, suffered enough from this nervous inability to give me a vivid glimpse of its tortures and a true sympathy with its victims. Even a very few and fleeting experiences can do this. Therefore I have studied it, with a personal as well as general interest. And believe my conclusions are of value.
And first I want to correct many common misconceptions. Psychic impotence, though of course not normal, is not pathologic. It is not a proof of ill health. It is not an evidence of weakness, even of sexual weakness. I speak positively when I say that the man completely impotent at night may be absolutely potent in the morning, or vice versa, the man who fails with one woman may within the hour be a marvel of manly power with another. It is not a proof of a lack of love but often of the opposite. It is not in the least an evidence of sterility. A man quite sterile may have no trace of psychic impotence and the man troubled by it may be most virile. I knew a man who completely failed
with his wife for some nine or ten months after marriage, who finally became the father of four children and is now a grandfather. It is not a proof of inexperience, for it may occur at any time to any man, after any number of years’ experience. Thus Forel says: It is often produced suddenly at the time of marriage in persons who have hitherto been very capable, even in Don Juans.” I knew a widower, the father of two children, who married a second time, found himself impotent and never overcame it with that woman. At the time of his death, his wife, though she had been that for years (and their life otherwise was most loving) was still a virgin.
So let no man shame himself for this thing, and let no woman despise her lover for it.
Whatever it is, it depends nearly always upon the action and reaction of the two natures brought together upon each other when in a state of sexual nervousness, or upon some strong mental or subjective impression, checking or diverting the normal nerve stimulus which causes the potent expression of manly power. Thus even with those already in successful embrace, a keenly enjoyed joke, a startling sound from without, an argument, an angry word, or a preoccupying conversation, may suddenly and completely cut off the current.
But usually it seems to arise from autosuggestion, or from some suggestions derived, unconsciously or consciously, from the woman. I say “unconsciously” because I am persuaded that there is much that passes between two lovers of which their brains and conscious egos know nothing. I am inclined to believe that there is a telepathy and clairvoyance between their subjective minds and even between their sexual systems of which their consciousness takes no note. I am satisfied that the sexual nature of the woman may love a man when her mind is convinced that she does not love him – that her sex may desire him while her heart refuses. She may feel an almost irresistible impulse to yield herself to a man whom her soul fears and loathes. Or she may love a man mentally, spiritually, even with a heart-love, to whom her sex is cold and indifferent. Human life is nowadays very complex.
And this is why it is that the most sensitive, refined, intuitive men are the most likely to suffer from psychic impotence.
[paragraph continues] The coarse, sensual, selfish man, concerned only with his own passions and their glut, is little likely to feel it. The man who asks only opportunity, not consent, the man who can rape, is safe from it. But the man who reverences womanhood, the man who adores his mistress, the man deeply and passionately in love, so that every thought and suggestion from his loved one sways him like a compelling power, is easily overcome. We must remember that there is probably no time when a strong man is so utterly suggestible as when he is completely in love. His whole nature is then melted, sensitive, impressible (especially by Her) to a degree otherwise impossible with him.
This is why usually coarse men temporarily exalted by a great love may spend a whole evening in the close companionship of a beloved and reverenced woman and never consciously think of sex. This is why a man hitherto perfectly successful with prostitutes and voluptuous women (who appeal only to sex-passion) when he comes to the bridal-bed with some shrinking and nervous and spiritual girl, who knows nothing of sex and to whom the heart love is everything, may suddenly find his sex efforts imperfect. The very nervousness and fright of his companion, her ignorance, her excitement, her dread of the unknown thing about to happen, all this may react on a man and quite unnerve him, and all the more in proportion to his real love for and rapport with her. Often at such a time the excitement, fatigue and dread of the girl have taken away all sex desire from her and she only fears being hurt, and this sex negativeness may infect her lover subconsciously and demagnetize him. Even where the beginning is all right a single cry of pain from the bride may unman the groom. How can he go on and hurt her!
A woman should know that impotence is often the greatest proof a man can offer of the depth, purity and spirituality of his love for her, of his tenderness and consideration and of the probability of his being a life-long lover.
For we must remember that heart-love, spiritual love, that dear and tender at-one-ing and companioning which romantic love now idealizes and desires, represents an evolution. The original love was simply fierce sexual passion, hungry, physical, selfish, concerned only with its own gratification. And to this day these two loves are generally
combined in very various degrees, with the coordination between them by no means perfect. It is often difficult to get just the right balance and proportion and requires the wise cooperation of both, something not likely to occur at first – especially in the new, strange conditions of a first conjugation between hitherto sexual strangers, particularly if the woman has for many years known nothing of or repressed the sex-life, and has become moody, abnormal and hypersensitive, or lacks normal sensation, or if the man is very sensitive and deeply in love. There is likely to occur an unbalance and dislocation of the sexual elements with strange results.
Very often it would be better if, for the first night, or for many nights, there was no effort made toward sexual congress, but only toward full expression of the caressive heart-love, until such time as both were consciously ripe and could no longer be denied.
The great danger of an initial failure with a nervous, sensitive and impressible man, is that he may be seized with panic, a terror that the heaven opening to him may be closed forever; that his dear one must be disappointed; that she may despise and cease to love him, perhaps even come to loathe him; or that he must live on under the shame of her pity and unsatisfied longings; that his masculine fellows may come to know of it and ridicule him as no man – and all the other terrors that an excited imagination can conjure up; and that this fear and conviction may be stamped in and fixed by auto-suggestion upon his subconsciousness, making his fear a fact. Sometimes the counter-suggestion of hypnotism, in these cases, becomes the only cure.
One of the most mysterious variants of this trouble is where the woman’s desire is unusually, perhaps abnormally strong and passionate, and the man thrilled with an equal desire, finds himself helpless. This is difficult to explain, but I think it will usually be found in these cases that the woman is one who by reason of’ her changeable moods, previous cruelty, or something of that sort, has produced a subjective fear in the man. In such temperaments, if not immediately answered and satisfied, the woman will sometimes fly into a nervous rage, covering her disappointing partner with shame and, cruel reproach, or withdrawing
her favors in cold contempt. Even if not conscious of this fear it may affect a man, or it may exist as a race-memory, and act on his subconsciousness. In some cases I think the sudden nymphomania of the woman causes disturbed nervous vibrations which upset the nervous balance of the man. But I admit there are some examples of this form, for which I have as yet no explanation. The consoling fact is that this form is usually very ephemeral and occasional only.
Sometimes the heart-love is so strong and motherly in a woman, that the man comes completely under its dominance, and though the two may have great happiness and even sensuous joy in each other’s embraces, the local sex-organs fail to become completely aroused. This is particularly likely to happen in a woman no longer young, who is near the turn of life, and is quite normal.
Now as the causes of this thing are mostly psychic, so should the remedies be. Nourishing diet, especially of shellfish, milk, eggs, may assist; running, horseback riding and muscle-beating over the lower spine, nates *, hips, thighs, and abdomen, by way of a local tonic; with abundant sleep. But the chief need is to establish the right relation between the psychic natures of the lovers themselves. Especially does this depend upon the woman. If she is patient, tender, loving, considerate; if she can prove to him that she is so happy in his tenderness, his unity, his devotion, that the sex-union is really a very secondary and comparatively unimportant matter with her and she can wait any necessary time for its consummation without distress; especially if she daintily and wisely cultivates in herself a touch of the coquettish, sensuous, voluptuous – appealing subtly and luxuriously to his passions and their stimulus – success is seldom long in coming.
There is nothing that so arouses, supports and sustains the normal sex-passion in a man as for a strongly-sexed woman to fill her aura toward him with a strong, steady, self-controlled appeal – tender, loving, admiring, yet deliciously sensuous and esthetically voluptuous; pure, yet deep, warm, alluring. To most men this is an instant and permanent cure. The lover is lifted as a strong swimmer is by some deep and briny tide, and floats deliciously at ease, bathed in bliss, and in the consciousness of perfect power.
But a nervous, hysterical, moody woman; now frantic, now frigid; often plays strange pranks with the sex-power of a susceptible man.
And the man must, whatever happens, maintain his courage, self-respect and faith in his own manhood, and love and work wisely on till the tide comes in.
More and more as man becomes less dominating, less simply carnal, more sensitive, refined and at one with the woman he loves, will power to initiate, direct and sustain his sex-life and love-expression, to make, mar or mould him emotionally, be hers. And woman should be very glad that this is so. The love-life should be hers. This power is her opportunity, her shield, her glory, and the evidence of the greatness of her soul is in the wisdom of her use of it.
And just as this spot is the most vulnerable in a man’s whole life, the place where he can be most deeply and incurably wounded, even so is the depth and eternal quality of his gratitude to the woman who continues to love him despite his weakness, and assists him back to pride and power.
I remember one beautiful instance of this that came to my knowledge. A handsome and brilliant young man, weakened in this way, attracted the sympathy of a woman who devotedly called out, cultivated and restored his power. And though she was very plain, a woman of many faults, un-popular, and many years his senior, he adhered to her ever afterward with a faithfulness and gratitude that nothing could mar. He no doubt felt that she had done more than save his life – she had made it worthwhile to live.