The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” The Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. – Review

The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” The Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. – Review – book review

Joani Blank

The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” The Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, by Rachel P. Maines. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, 173 pages. Cloth, $22.00.

Many years ago, at a family wedding, I met a woman from upstate New York who, when she learned that I had a professional interest in vibrators, told me that a friend, Rachel Maines, had been doing historical research on the history of vibrators for a number of years. Maines’ research had revealed that “[I]n the Western medical tradition genital massage to orgasm by a physician or midwife was a standard treatment for hysteria, an ailment considered common and chronic in women” (p. 1). Further, Maines had begun to document that around the turn of the century, these same physicians started using vibrators as a labor-saving device, in part because they found manual stimulation of their patients time-consuming and tiring, and in part so that they could treat more patients each day, enriching themselves in the process.

At that time, Maines had already lost her teaching position at Clarkson University following publication of one article on this touchy subject in a library journal. A few years later, in 1989, another article on the subject was published in Technology and Society. This time, the article was taken to be a fake, a parody of the type of article usually appearing in that publication, although the short article had “fifty-one footnotes to more than 160 sources, some of them in Latin and Greek” (p. xvi). I used Maines’ article as a source for a few brief paragraphs in my own book about vibrators, and in the years since I have occasionally referred journalists who asked about the history of vibrators to her for more information.

Nevertheless, I was not expecting the publication of the present volume, and am delighted by the careful and comprehensive treatment of the subject. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that, until the publication of this book, to the best of my knowledge, no sexologist had ever explored this phenomenon. Nor, apparently, has it been part of the knowledge base shared by psychiatrists and other psychotherapists, the professionals primarily charged with diagnosing and treating hysteria in the modern era until the demise of the diagnosis less than fifty years ago.

Maines presents evidence that genital massage, whether done by the hand, by water under pressure directed, at the genitals (i.e. hydrotherapy), or utilizing the electro-mechanical vibrator starting around the mm of the century, was widely known among physicians but never discussed publicly. Given the mores of Victorian times, it is not difficult to understand why a code of silence ruled out public discourse as well as most private conversation about this and virtually all other sexual matters. But it might surprise contemporary readers to learn that although dirty jokes about vibrators abound, the use of line voltage (as opposed to battery-operated phallic) vibrators for masturbation by women is still largely a secret to almost all but the women who use them.

It is rare that a small university press book with such a narrow focus is the subject of both a review and an illustrated feature article in The New York Times. But the impact that The Technology of Orgasm made when it was published earlier this year suggests that the public is hungry to know more about all aspects of sexuality, not just that the publisher thought it a clever marketing ploy to put the word “orgasm” in the title.

Now I confess that history was my worst subject in both high school and college. I do not even enjoy historical novels. But I found reading this historical work effortless, even fascinating. I do not believe this is because I have been immersed in vibrator lore for more than 20 years, or because I am the owner of about 70 antique vibrators. Instead, I am astonished, and a little amused, that it took an historian not at all identified with sex research to bring this wealth of historical information about the release of sexual tension, and about women’s arousal and orgasm, to the attention of sexologists at the same time it became known to the general public.

As I read this book, I found myself wondering what additional insights a sexologist’s look into the same historical record might reveal, and what alternative theories might arise to explain these historical facts. Some of these musings came to me in the form of questions, others as speculations. For example, from many of the earlier sources Maines learned that both doctors and midwives practiced genital (presumably clitoral) massage, yet only male physicians are referred to when it comes to using hydrotherapy or vibrators. What happened to the midwives? Did they more readily acknowledge that what they were doing was Sexually arousing their patients but, unlike male physicians, did not feel that the treatment was beneath them? Did they stop these treatments altogether when they realized what they were doing? And what was the attitude of the few women doctors practicing in the early years of this century in respect to genital massage?

One scholar, on hearing a presentation delivered by Maines, “pointed out that doctors who failed to recognize the orgasm in their patients must never have seen one in their wives” (p. xv). I have heard other cynics make the same amusing commentary on these historic findings. But other assumptions are, perhaps, just as valid. Maybe those married physicians whose wives were orgasmic did recognize that their patients were also having orgasms. Maybe the women patients were much more reserved than the wives, when they experienced orgasm in the doctor’s office, not moving very much and remaining quiet. Maybe the patients’ and wives’ orgasms seemed so unlike one another that the physicians honestly did not recognize them as the same phenomenon. Context creates meaning, and it is a very rare woman who becomes sexually aroused when her gynecologist inserts his or her fingers or a speculum into her vagina, while in a sexual interaction she may well derive sexual pleasure from similar sensations. So it is conceivable, perhaps likely, that many male physicians of the time did not include clitoral stimulation in their lovemaking, and that their wives were either nonorgasmic or were readily orgasmic with intercourse alone. In these cases, neither response would necessarily resemble the paroxysm which brought relief to their hysterical patients.

Undoubtedly, there were also physicians who knew exactly what this phenomenon was, and who were sexually aroused by it. Indeed, some of the physicians may have felt rather like successful lovers; after all, with the aid of the vibrator they were able to provide partners (i.e., patients) with reliable, intense, and rapid orgasms. Alternatively, rather than functioning as a labor-saving device used to perform an onerous task, perhaps the mechanical vibrator served to distance its user from his own arousal which he knew was inappropriate or about which he felt guilty. Also, because using a vibrator dramatically reduced the time required to produce orgasm, perhaps the duration of his feelings of embarrassment or guilt were reduced when he used it rather than his hand to stimulate a patient.

I have some difficulty with Maines’ frequent use of the term androcentric to describe heterosexual sexual interactions, presumably focused on vaginal intercourse. Certainly modern sexology has taught us that many heterosexual women, perhaps as many as two thirds, are not orgasmic with intercourse. That leaves hundreds of thousands of women here in North America (never mind the rest of the planet) who are reliably orgasmic with intercourse alone. These women, as well as many others who are not orgasmic with intercourse, enjoy penetrative sex fully as much as their male partners. I daresay hardly any of those women would complain about intercourse being androcentric. Also, we know that many lesbian couples use fingers, dildos, and other objects for penetrative sex, and we can hardly call sexual activity androcentfic when both partners are women.

Maines describes the popularity of health spas offering hydrotherapy, and tells us that physicians were warned not to be too readily available to do such treatments, lest they exhaust their energy providing services to women who insisted on receiving vibration therapy more frequently than was considered good for them. So, although Maines focuses our attention on male control of female sexuality, we can be quite sure that most women found the treatments highly pleasurable. Furthermore, it was understood that the first line of defense against hysteria was for a woman to have regular intercourse with her husband. If married, she was assumed to be sexually satisfied; if not, she was at risk for hysteria. It follows that sexual satisfaction was the goal of women seeking treatment for hysteria. Yet apparently, no one dared speak or write about the association of the two.

Masturbation was even more heartily disapproved of early in the century than it is today, especially for women. Societal disapproval aside, we can be fairly sure that some women masturbated. And it is quite inconceivable that others, having once experienced orgasm at the hands of a doctor in his office, would not instantly figure out how to do it for themselves at home, even decades before the invention of the vibrator.

Taken as a whole, this story is but one example of the medicalization of sexuality in Western society. It brings to mind numerous other ways in which we have used the medical model to try and understand our bodily functions, and to sanitize and simplify our sexuality. It is probably inadequate to the task of explaining to us how our sexuality works to remind us who we are, both individually and collectively. The power of sexuality to creep out from under the attempts of sexual scientists to contain and explain it accounts for both the fascination and the critiques with which The Technology Of Orgasm has been received, both by sexuality professionals and the general public. Yet the historical voice is an important one, still rarely heard on matters of sexuality, adding richness to our thinking on the subject and, I hope, warmly welcomed into our conversations.

Reviewed by Joani Blank, MA, MPH, 5514 Doyle St #6, Emeryville CA 94608-2502; e-mail: jeblank@ic.org.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group