A long, hard look at a taboo

Maturing Masculinities: Aging, Chronic Illness, and Viagra in Mexico
Emily A Wentzell
2013, Duke University Press
213 pages, paperback

THERE are brave academics, and then there are scholars with real cojones. Emily Wentzell is one of latter, a woman anthropologist who has taken as the focus of her work a supremely male preoccupation: erections. And if you can excuse the pun, she has grabbed her topic with both hands to produce a small masterpiece that will be of great value both to Mexicanists and scholars of masculinity everywhere.

Maturing Masculinities takes a bold look at one of the most taboo means by which so many men calibrate their masculinity – the engorged penis. It examines how older Mexican men with erectile dysfunction cope with a condition that is so pertinent to their self-definition. Based on interviews conducted by Wentzell with more than 250 male patients in the urology clinic of a government-run hospital in Cuernavaca, this study paints a poignant picture of how these patients cope. To do so in a country like Mexico, where machismo reigns, especially among men of older generations influenced by traditional ideas, is no small achievement.

Viagra and its equivalents are popular treatments for erectile dysunction in Mexico, where macho stereotypes that prize sexual prowess exert a strong grip on the gendered self. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Wentzell’s subjects demonstrate considerable divergence from such stereotypes, viewing their difficulties as a chance to demonstrate more mature, age-appropriate outlooks. The author discovers that, rather than reaching for the pills to make them more virile, many collaborate with wives and doctors to adapt to their new reality.

This enables the scholar to explore both more nuanced “composite masculinities” as a way of understanding how men incorporate physical change into their self-identifications, and the role women play in helping them to define their sexuality. Wentzell deserves considerable praise for producing a genuinely pioneering, courageous and original work that is of real value in its field. – EC