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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.2 (2000) 382-383

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Book Review

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

Rachel P. Maines. The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction. Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology, no. 24. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xviii + 181 pp. Ill. $22.00.

While researching her dissertation on the historical role of women in the textile arts, Rachel Maines discovered that the vibrator was marketed as a home appliance starting in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Scouring periodicals such as Needlecraft, Home Needlework Journal, Modern Women, McClure's, and Woman's Home Companion for information on needlework, she encountered advertisements that promised women a relaxation aid guaranteed to "throb within you" and restore "the pleasures of youth" (p. 19). Indeed, because they promoted bright eyes and flushed cheeks, men were encouraged to give vibrators to women as gifts. Though Maines has no doubt whatsoever that such tools were utilized by some physicians and some customers to produce sexual release in women, the vibrator in these decades was socially camouflaged as a medical instrument. By the 1930s, for reasons that can only be guessed at, this particular use of the vibrator disappeared from the respectable household and medical press. Only in the 1960s did the instrument reemerge, now openly marketed as a sex aid.

This refreshingly gutsy historical study shines a clarifying light on the history of sexuality in the West, explicating both theory and practice, while speculating on experience. Indeed, in terms of its ability to illuminate historical and contemporary understandings of certain aspects of female sexuality, it packs more punch in its spare 181 pages than any other study I have read in the last several years. Not only does it muster new evidence, but it offers an extended rumination on the history, cultural implications, and social effects of our culture's androcentric sexual model. The author is not content with simply equating this with patriarchy [End Page 382] in the abstract; she separates out into specific contexts how male-centered understandings affected representations of women, interpretations of their physiology and psychology, their experiences of sex, and medical treatment.

Ironically, perceptions of the link between female orgasm and female sexual pleasure dropped out of medical understandings of female sexuality by the nineteenth century. Historians, taking their cues from the medical literature, have consequently emphasized a more complex, protean, and desexualized definition of hysteria than seems to have prevailed in the ancient and medieval world. By the nineteenth century, earlier understandings of hysteria were clouded by the Victorian notion that women, "naturally" desiring children, either gained enough spiritual enjoyment out of intercourse to make orgasm unnecessary, or were generally indifferent to sexual desire altogether. However, Maines demonstrates that throughout much of the history of Western medicine, a body of classical, medieval, and Renaissance literature diagnosed hysteria as little more than a physiological response to the thwarting of normal female sexual urges. For this reason it tended to present primarily in women who were single, widowed, unhappily married, or religiously celibate. Treatment, recommended by Galen and Avicenna and passed down through the centuries to a variety of physicians, was genital massage to orgasm, performed preferably by a midwife (physicians found the task tedious), or by a physician when the responsibility could not be delegated. Though practitioners spoke of arousing women "to the paroxysm," only a few labeled the response an orgasm. Such treatment continued in the nineteenth century, with dominant assumptions about female passionlessness conveniently masking its erotic components for most (though clearly not all) patients and practitioners. The invention of the electromechanical vibrator in the latter half of the century made treatment faster and more efficient. Indeed, many physicians welcomed the introduction of machines to perform what Maines calls "the job nobody wanted" (p. 1).

Contemporary sex studies have demonstrated that perhaps upward of 70 percent of women do not regularly reach orgasm by intercourse alone. Maines argues persuasively...


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