According to recent American research 40 per cent of men don’t feel much like sex and regard lovemaking with their partner as a duty, more work than play. It is no accident that the first self-help manual on this nettlish topic recently appeared in the United States. ‘Making sure you’re properly equipped’ plays an important part in it, but that is easier said than done. There is also a career to be worked at, a mort­gage to repay. Eating out and sports club membership are expensive, and you have to pay for all that.

It may also be that the man has gone off the idea because his wife has got a promotion and not only earns more but also works longer hours so that he has to ‘hold the fort’ at home. Or that the man loses his urge because they have to do it every Saturday night, when he’s tired. Only stands to reason, doesn’t it, after a hard week at work, people over on Saturday evening, when he has to get up early Sunday morning to go jogging with the guy next door?

The enlightened feminist Yvonne Kroonenberg (1951-) explains in her book Alles went behalve een vent (You Can Get Used to Anything Except a Man, 1990) why postmodern man may sometimes not be in the mood. In her view it is open to question whether men are that horny or whether they just say they are. She knows plenty of women who complain of the reverse. She tells Anke’s story. Anke is married to Henk, a heavily built, pleasant guy, who prefers playing about with his computer to playing about with his wife. They had been to doctors, so-called sexologists, who suspected obscure inhibitions in his sexual feelings. But Henk shrugged his shoulders and said:

An orgasm is nice, but it’s such a business getting there. I don’t enjoy just banging away at Anke, so to create a party atmos­phere, I need to stroke her and make sure she comes. Only then do I want to fuck and I don’t like the idea of going straight off to sleep afterwards, so we have a little afterplay. It’s all great fun, but not something for every day.

Another man tells the author that he has a big problem with ‘objectiv­ity’. When he’s with a woman, he observes himself. He sees his white buttocks going up and down and is always mortified. That’s why he’d rather stop altogether. . .

The fact remains, though, that women can also be partly respon­sible for the man’s erection problems. A slovenly appearance, bad breath and excessive hair growth are all factors that can lead to male impotence. The nineteenth-century doctor Smit, mentioned above, formulated the problem as follows:

A scolding, bad-tempered woman can make a man so cool that he loses the desire to fulfil his marital duties, and he gradually becomes incapable of intercourse with her. Revulsion at messi­ness, dislike of particular things, can extinguish the effect for particular people, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. Women and girls who do not keep their bodies clean, whose private parts exude a strong, unpleasant odour, or whose breath is bad, who neglect to wash their feet, particularly when they sweat heavily, etc. often become the objects of aversion and disgust. Someone who was keen to embrace a woman of pleasure, saw a louse running over her body, and immediately became impotent. Another heard a girl making water, and was forced to leave without finishing his business. With a third a feeling of embarrassment produced the same effect. He was in the full vigour of his youth, and fully prepared to enjoy a common whore. But the latter conceived the idea of checking her lovers’ health in advance, and wanted to see his manhood.

The young man, as yet unfamiliar with such behaviour, found it so strange that his vigour turned instantly to impotence.

If a man develops erection problems, for instance because he has lost his job or has learned that he is infertile, the key to the solution of the problem is the way his partner reacts. The modern view is that women are just as responsible for the success of intercourse as men. This contrasts with the beginning of the twentieth century, when sexologist Premsela wrote the following:

Sexually, every woman achieves what her husband makes of her. He – and he alone is her teacher in this. That education requires time and knowledge, and in the first instance time. I read somewhere that the honeymoon of the copper wedding in a good marriage is better than that of an ordinary wedding.

In this respect husband and wife are unequal partners and it is principally the man – the leader in the sexual relationship – who must take account of this fact. He must not jump the gun and must realize that he can only achieve results gradually.

Premsela is quite persuasive, but the reverse is equally true: sexually every man achieves what his wife is able to make of him. Several centuries ago the French surgeon Nicolas Venette (1633-1698) summarized the situation in a single sentence: ‘If a woman’s hand does not succeed in making the penis stiff, no other treatment will be successful. . .’.