victorian man with two women

The Curious and Dirty History of Erectile Dysfunction (ED)

Key facts:

  • The ideal of a virile man stems from ancient Greek and Roman cultures.
  • Women were often accused of causing ED in their partners.
  • The Kamasutra is one of the few historical sources that paid attention to female sexual pleasure.
  • Royal dynasties relied on their king’s ability to have erections and produce male heirs.
  • Even in Christianity, impotence was considered grounds for divorce.
  • In Medieval times, women were accused of casting “impotence curses” on men.
  • Ancient ED treatments included consuming the genitals of fertile animals.
  • Luckily, modern men have easy access to effective ED medication, such as ViagraLevitra or Cialis.

Treating erectile dysfunction today is as easy as taking a pill. Yes, it may still feel a bit awkward asking your family doctor for help with your most intimate problems. But these discomforts are nothing compared to what our ancestors had to go through to manage ED.

Lack of an erection could have disastrous consequences for men living in ancient times. Many of those affected resorted to dubious or even dangerous methods to treat their sexual dysfunction. Let’s explore the approaches to ED throughout history.

Ancient Roots of Modern Masculinity

Our ideal of a virile and sexually potent male stems from ancient Greek and Roman cultures. They depicted men as full of vigor and passion. Boys had to prove their strength and courage. Male sexual exploration was welcome and accepted. 

Interestingly, the main difference between the two cultures was their approach to penis size. The Greeks valued a small member and thought it guaranteed better fertility. The Romans praised prominent penises, and their artwork was full of phallic symbols.

Ancient roman soldier.
Ancient Romans had to prove their worth as men

Blaming Women for ED

The majority of ancient cultures were, to put it mildly, not woman-friendly. They saw females as inferior to men or not fully human. At the same time, people believed women had the power to cause erectile dysfunction in men.

Ancient Romans, for instance, thought that women sucked the lifeforce out of their lovers. This provided men with a face-saving explanation for why older men and those with many sexual partners had erectile difficulties. 

Ancient Hindus took a different approach. Not all women were to blame — just the ugly ones. According to their texts, a man could develop impotence after intercourse with a “disagreeable” partner. 

Being a royal wife was a risky business in most cultures too. Greek historian Herodotus described the story of the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis’ wife Ladice. The king accused her of cursing him with impotence and threatened to kill her. Luckily, the story goes, her prayers to the goddess Aphrodite brought her husband’s potency back and saved her life.

ED and Female Pleasure

The idea of male superiority had many implications in the bedroom. Since potency was key to successful conception, men’s sexual functioning and pleasure were perceived as necessary parts of a marital union. But female satisfaction, not so much. Very few cultures deemed the female orgasm necessary for conception.

We’ve all heard of the Kamasutra (also spelled Kama Sutra) – an ancient manual for lovemaking. Most of us associate it with acrobatic sex positions, but the book is so much than that. It also offers advice on how to satisfy one’s lover and solve intimate problems.

Kamasutra lists several “apadravyas” (prostheses) to be worn on (or in lieu of) the penis to satisfy the woman. This approach was unique as it stressed the importance of female pleasure in the sex act — a rarity in human sexual history!

Ancient statues.
Ancient cultures of India recognized the importance of female pleasure

Erectile Dysfunction and Fertility

Most ancient cultures assumed that men were the main agents of fertility. This was certainly the case in the Ancient Near East. People who lived in that region assigned great importance to semen. Women’s role was reduced to nourishing the life created by the man.

Greco-Roman cultures had the same approach, placing the responsibility for making babies on men. Women were vessels, designed to carry and give birth to children. Those beliefs remained alive for centuries and influenced world history.

ED and Royal Bloodlines

All major European monarchies relied on male lineage. Kings were expected to produce male heirs to maintain their bloodlines. Talk about pressure to perform in bed!

Royalty members were not exempt from ordinary health problems. Many kings battled erectile dysfunction. For example, Henry II of France and his wife, Catherine de Medici, remained childless for 11 years.

Historians are not certain whether the king had ED, but they managed to find proof of genital anomalies. His penis bent when erect (Peyronie’s disease?) and his urethra was dislocated (hypospadias). All this made intercourse and ejaculation difficult. Thanks to helpful advice from a court physician, the royal couple was able to adapt their sexual practices and conceive their first child.

King on a throne with sword.
Royal bloodlines depended on the kings’ ability to produce male heirs

ED as Grounds for Divorce

It’s hard to imagine today, but sex was all about reproduction for most of human history. Reliable hormonal contraception was only introduced in the 1960s! While modern couples are focused on avoiding unwanted pregnancies, most ancient cultures encouraged people to have many children.

Inability to have intercourse and conceive was treated with the utmost seriousness in Christianity. For instance, Pope Gregory II allowed for the dissolution of marriage if the husband was impotent. 

Sixteenth-century France saw a wave of divorce trials on the basis of male impotence. One famous case concerned a French nobleman named Marquis de Langey. In order to prove his ability to have intercourse, he was ordered to copulate with his wife in front of a panel of experts! 

The stress of the situation must have made it impossible for him to get hard. The couple divorced on grounds of impotence. Interestingly, the Marquis remarried and managed to father seven children!

Dangerous and Curious ED Medicines

The history of human knowledge is the history of curiosity and experimentation. Some healers believed the lifeforce of fertile animals might help men get their erections back.

Through the ages, men suffering from impotence were given most curious prescriptions, like these: 

  • Eating a roasted wolf penis
  • Consuming the genitals of rabbits
  • Drinking the semen of eagles. (How in the world did they obtain it?)

In some cases, the ingestion of the whole animal was prescribed. Here’s one recommendation from ancient Mesopotamia:

“If a man loses his potency, you dry and crush a male bat that is ready to mate, you put it in water which has sat out on the roof and you give it him to drink; the man will then recover his potency.”

The men who tried those strange concoctions must have been pretty desperate!

Drinking eagle semen was thought to cure impotence, according to ancient Mesopotamians

The Magical Side of ED

Throughout the ages, people used magic to either cure or, conversely, cause erectile dysfunction.

Mesopotamian healers known as Asipu practiced their own version of sex therapy. They massaged oils into penises and supported their ED treatment efforts with magical incantations.

Impotence curses were widespread in Medieval times. If doctors could not find a physical cause of a man’s problems, they blamed magic. Typically, women were accused of witchcraft, with dire consequences. Thousands burned at the stake in the Middle Ages.

The infamous German witch-hunting book called “Malleus Maleficarum” (“The Hammer of Witches”) provides stories of alleged impotence magic. There was, for example, a young Bavarian couple from Ratisbon (also called Regensburg). He wanted to leave her, but she refused to accept this. According to the book, the young woman made her lover’s penis disappear! No penis, of course, means no erections — and no future lovers!

Modern ED Treatment is Much Simpler

Despite centuries of scientific and medical progress, erectile dysfunction is still a problem around the world. Luckily, men with ED have it much easier today. 

Instead of consuming wolf penises or chanting magical incantations, all you have to do is make an appointment with a doctor and get a prescription for Viagra or other ED medication.

With, getting help for erectile dysfunction is easier than ever. We offer a free consultation with a U.S.-licensed physician from the comfort of your own home. Check out our ED medication guide and call 1-800-467-5146 to get help now.  

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