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The Technology of Orgasm ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction

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For centuries, women diagnosed with “hysteria”–a “disease paradigm,” in Rachel P. Maines’s felicitous phrase, thought to result from a lack of sexual intercourse or gratification–were treated by massaging their genitals in order to induce “paroxysm.” Male physicians, however, considered the practice drudgery, and sought various ways of avoiding the task, often foisting it off on midwives or, starting in the late 19th century, employing mechanical devices. Eventually, these devices became available for purchase and home use; one such “portable vibrator” is advertised in the 1918 Sears, Roebuck catalog as an “aid that every woman appreciates.” The Technology of Orgasm is an impeccably researched history that combines a discussion of hysteria in the Western medical tradition with a detailed examination (including several illustrations) of the devices used to “treat” the “condition.” (Maines is somewhat dismissive of the contemporary, phallus-shaped models, which she describes as “underpowered battery-operated toys,” insisting that “it is the AC-powered vibrator with at least one working surface at a right angle to the handle that is best designed for application to the clitoral area.”) Don’t expect any cheap thrills, though; the titillation Maines offers is strictly intellectual.

It will surprise most readers to learn that the vibrator was invented in the late 1880s as a time-saving device for physicians, who had been treating women’s “hysteria” for years with clitoral massage. Denying the sexual nature of the treatments, doctors instead saw the technique as a burdensome chore and welcomed electric devices that would shorten patients’ visits. Maines, an independent scholar in the history of technology, presents a straightforward account of the mechanism from its beginning through the 1920s, when it came into disrepute as a medical instrument. Going far beyond a mere summary of therapeutic advances, however, she wryly chronicles the attitude toward women’s sexuality in the medical and psychological professions and shows, with searing insight, how some ancient biases are still prevalent in our society. Maines’s writing is lively and entertaining, and her research is exhaustive, drawing on texts from Hippocrates to the present day. Proving her point about how women’s sexuality is still perceived as an unapproachable subject in some quarters, Maines describes her travails in vibrator historiography, including the loss of her teaching position at Clarkson University. A pioneering and important book, this window into social and technological history also provides a marvelously clear view of contemporary ideas about women’s sexuality.

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