Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 3, October 12, 2000


Book Review

The Technology of Orgasm:
"Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction

By Rachel P. Maines
Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999
196 p.  $22.00 ISBN 0-8018-5941-7

Click here to buy this book

Reviewed by by Gina Ogden, Ph.D.

When did God make men?  When she realized vibrators couldn't dance. Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm, uses this quip to underscore the major differences she sees in how women and men experience sexual pleasure, and how peripheral male partners can be for some women.  In short, she says, vibrators turn many women on, some for the first time.   But when women use them, male partners can become jealous and cranky, especially male partners who already feel like so-so lovers.  Indeed, the mere mention of vibrators seems to threaten some men even outside the bedroom.  When Maines presents her research at universities and scholarly meetings, male colleagues often try to censor her talks.

Here lies a central theme of this impeccably researched and interestingly illustrated book of vibrator history: Who controls women's sexuality?  Over the centuries, the males in dominance have exercised control over sexual expression in the Western world not only by brute force, but more insidiously by defining the norms of sexual expression. Consequently, every one of us who grows up in this culture is conditioned  to think of "sex" first and foremost as intercourse—which current research shows works brilliantly for men, but more often than not leaves women wondering: "Isn't there supposed to be something more?"
Much sexual control has been precipitated and maintained throughout history by organized religion, which has paralyzed women with a flood of moral proscriptions.  Nice girls don't touch themselves down there. Nice girls don't get hotly aroused.  Nice girls aren't lesbians.  Etc., etc., etc..  These kinds of thou-shalt-nots have narrowed women's sexual choices and helped keep many locked in passionless or abusive relationships.  The institution of medicine has also attempted to control women's sexuality.   It has done so by making it a disease; by diagnosing various female sexual "dysfunctions," and then setting about finding the "cures" that will make women dependent on physicians and more suitable partners for men.  The various so-called dysfunctions change their labels with the times—yesterday's "frigidity" and "nymphomania" are today's "inhibited sexual desire" and "sexual addiction."  Whatever the labels may be, they all pathologize women who deviate from the cultural norm.

It is this medical control of women's sexuality that is the particular focus of Maines's book.  She outlines the history of hysteria (from the Latin word for womb) as a disease paradigm from the ancient world through Freud, and beyond.  "Wombe Furie is a sort of madness, arising from a vehement and unbridled desire of Carnal Imbracement," observes a seventeenth century medical text.  Its sure-fire remedy was sexual intercourse.  That failing (if, for instance, a woman's husband was impotent or if a woman was a nun), removing the symptoms of  "unbridled desire" became the special responsibility of her doctor.  He (sic) was expected to bring her to orgasm using a manual technique dating from the 1500s, and probably far earlier.  Thus evolved an extraordinary phenomenon between physicians and certain of their women patients—periodic therapeutic masturbation sessions.  Today, this kind of relationship would be labeled sexual misconduct, and it would hopefully land the doctor in deep trouble.

Maines relates that bringing hysterical women to orgasm manually required special skill from the physician.  He had to calibrate the intensity of massage, and have the staying power to sustain treatment long enough for results—sometimes as much as an hour.  Ingenious methods were used to supplement the therapeutic hand.  These included douches, rocking chairs, a wind-up clockwork "percuteur," which paddled the vulva, and a steam powered  "Manipulator," which rhythmically massaged a woman's pelvic area through a specially designed hole cut into a padded table.   A great boon of the industrial revolution, then, turned out to be the evolution of electric vibrators.  These devices were portable, and they tended to work more effectively than fingers and more reliably than wind-up and steam-driven apparatuses, which often ran down before the conclusion of treatment.  Perhaps most importantly for the overworked physician, electric vibrators shortened the time he would have to spend manipulating each patient's genitals.

If you think all of this is bizarre, the medicalization of sexual normality is with us in full vigor today.  Spurred by the success of Viagra, the trend in medical circles is increasingly to regard sex as a disease—that is, any kind of sex that doesn't measure up to the intercourse-followed-by-orgasm standard agreed to by the medical powers that be.  It is no secret that this standard leaves out many women, for instance, women without partners, women with women partners, many post-menopausal women, and women who don't enjoy penile penetration for whatever reasons.  But by medical standards, all of these women are considered to be suffering from some sexual disorder or other.  To offer an example of what feels like modern day hysteria, a new professional society has been formed under the auspices of B.U. Medical School.  Its name is: Female Sexual Dysfunction Society (FSDS).  I'm not joking.  It makes one wonder exactly what you have to do to join up.  Is there a hazing process?  Can you get discounts with a family membership?  Are you rudely dropped if you get functional?  What happens if they find out you own a vibrator?

Maines's book has powerful implications for our twenty-first century lives, if only to illustrate the depths of silliness to which the
medical profession will stoop to retain sexual status quo.  On a more positive note, Maines points out that in the second half of the 20th century, it is the very vibrator developed to keep women sexually dependent on physicians that has helped women rediscover the depths of their own sexual responses.  Now that women have taken the vibrator into their own hands, she opines, it transcends the sphere of mere technology and carries the power of a totem.

The research in this book is original and impressive.  The drawings and photographs of early vibrators are true treasures, many brought to public light for the first time.  The footnotes and references chronicle a little known chapter in women's sexuality and the economic implications of sexual exploitation.  There are 177 footnotes in Chapter 4 alone—these run the gamut from an 1892 medical article: "Effects of Railroad Travel upon the Health of Women" and an 1893 Scientific American piece on electric rocking chairs to Redbook and Esquire articles of the 1980s.  My personal favorite is a 1910 magazine ad for the American College of Mechanico-Therapy: "Your Hands Properly Used are all You Need to Earn $3000 to $5000 a Year."

How did a museum scholar and sometime college professor like Maines happen to choose the history of vibrators as a subject to investigate?  It began in 1976, when she was researching the history of needlework for a women's conference.   She noticed a curious number of vibrator ads in the pages of the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century magazines she was reading.  On a hunch, she traveled to the Bakken Library and Museum of Electricity in Life in Minneapolis to see the landmark collection of early vibrators there.  When she found that many of these still worked, it seems she became hooked on following up.

I enjoyed this book, learned from it, and will refer to it as a resource.  However, I think the book is marketed to seem more all-inclusive than it is.  It is not about "the technology of orgasm," as its title states.  It is about the medical pathologizing of women, the genital aspects of orgasm, and the technology of vibrators.  There is far more to orgasm than genital stimulation and muscle spasm, however delightful these may be.  Depending on how you define orgasm (and sexologists have so far been unable to agree on one, all-encompassing definition), there are also whole-body orgasms, thought orgasms, heart orgasms, love orgasms, and orgasms that reveal God, Goddess and the entire unifying principle of the universe.  The title of this book also implies that the reader is going to learn about sexual satisfaction.  But if you ask enough women, they will tell you that having an orgasm or two or ten is only one aspect of sexual satisfaction.  They will say that sexual satisfaction is a layered and multidimensional experience, often fully as emotional and spiritual as it is physical. In addition, there are a couple of notable omissions in this book.  Lesbians are mentioned only twice, in passing.  And the narrative leaves out a prime educational source of vibrator culture for women in America since the 1970s, namely, the women's sexuality boutiques with their wildly positive illustrated catalogues of vibrators and other paraphernalia.  For starters, there's Good Vibrations in San Francisco, Eve's Garden in New York City, and Grand Opening! in Boston.  I have sent clients of all ages and stages to these boutiques, which are managed by knowledgeable staff who fully appreciate the products. Whether you're an aficionado or a nervous newbie, a trip to one of these can be eye-opening at least, and some of the best sex education going.

Still, nobody ever researched the history of vibrators before.  Rachel Maines has accomplished that, and the result is both scholarly and entertaining.  Bon appetit!

(First published in Sojourner: The Women's Forum, December 1999 as VIBRATORS 'R US: WOMEN IN SEARCH OF SEXUAL CONTROL.  Reprinted by permission of Sojourner Feminist Institute.)

Gina Ogden Ph.D. is the author of Women Who Love Sex: An Inquiry into the Expanding Spirit of Women's Erotic Experience, reissued in a 1999 edition.  She lives in Cambridge, Mass and is a visiting scholar at the Northeastern University Women's Studies Department, where she is writing a book about women's sexuality and spirituality.

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