- The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction
Even before Johns Hopkins University Press distributed review copies of The Technology of Orgasm, historians circulated rumors, descriptions, and notices of the upcoming work. Rarely do histories, particularly histories written by independent scholars, receive that kind of advance attention. Rachel P. Maines’ book, however, deserves this level of attention for merging the histories of medicine, technology, and sexuality, for balancing fine scholarship and fine writing, and for opening an area of scholarship—the history of the vibrator—with an account that remains accessible to the lay audience.
Maines finds that rather than being an invention new to the twentieth century, vibrators have a long and distinguished history. According to Maines, Western conceptions of sexual intercourse, developed in ancient Greece, have focused on penile penetration of the vagina to male orgasm, and this very definition of sexual intercourse serves to deprive women of orgasm by ignoring clitoral stimulation. Women’s sexual dissatisfaction within this model became medicalized under the rubric of hysteria, for which the medical community recommended genital manipulation. Maines demonstrates the ways that this cultural conception of female bodies brought its own maladies which in turn spawned a regimen of treatments.
The remedy of genital manipulation followed other broad patterns of technological adaption and implementation; physicians and midwives relied upon manual manipulation and water propelled stimulation, steam-powered devices, and finally electrically powered devices. Spa therapies used jets of water aimed at women’s genitals to induce spasms and crises followed by periods of lassitude and insensibility. As Maines’ illustrations make clear, the popularity of the [End Page 755] baths gains new implications when understood within the context as a treatment for hysteria. With the arrival of steam as a power source, doctors could treat hysteria in the office using new devices developed for this purpose. These vibrators functioned as time and labor saving devices for the medical community by mitigating the onerous job of manual manipulation; they allowed doctors to treat faster with less technical expertise. The most recent permutations of such devices, the electro-mechanical vibrator, further streamlined the treatment of hysteria by making equipment cheaper and more portable. Consumers at the end of the nineteenth century began buying their own devices rather than repeatedly pay for expensive doctor’s treatments, and the personal vibrator quickly made its way into the American home.
The Technology of Orgasm has much to recommend it. It demonstrates the ways that models of gender and sexuality relate to technological change. It illustrates the surprising consequences of technological innovation by showing that one of the first home-based battery appliances was the vibrator. It emphasizes just how deeply time and labor discipline spread as a system of thought, one that affected sexual bodies as well as factory bodies. Maines uses material culture, advertisements, and the medical literature to demonstrate this emergence of the vibrator. Many historians have seen sources such as advertisements for home massage devices, but few have questioned what they mean. By looking at evidence in new ways, Maines demonstrates that social history can continue to generate new and important findings about the past.
However, Maines does not connect these artifacts with personal accounts. We know the devices existed, but we do not know what women thought about using them. By staying with the prescriptive literature, Maines allows the theory of sexuality to overwhelm lived sexual experience. For example, because she relies on medical literature for and by doctors, Maines focuses on the medical establishment’s treatment of middle-class women. While Maines acknowledges this tendency in her work, her focus encourages the assumption that Victorian sexuality was repressive, that women did not like sexual intercourse, that women did not find satisfaction in intercourse, and that women engaged in sex in the unsatisfying “missionary” position.
This gap in the sources is multiplied by gaps in the secondary literature about sexuality. Maines responds to the dearth in reliable data about women’s sexual lives by relying upon...