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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 600-602

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Book Review

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

The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction. By Rachel P. Maines. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. xviii+181; illustrations, figures, notes/references, index. $22.

With its provocative title, Rachel Maines's book has several stories to tell. One centers on the social framing of women's sexuality and controversies surrounding the nature and treatment of hystereoneurasthenic disorders. Another, of particular interest to historians of technology, concerns the development of the electromechanical vibrator in the 1880s, a device used by physicians to help women reach orgasm and by women themselves to achieve sexual stimulation and satisfaction. As Maines argues, hysteria--a term derived from the Greek term for "that which proceeds from the uterus" and which included such symptoms as fainting, irritability, anxiety, depression, headaches, and insomnia--was categorized from ancient to modern times as a disease and a pathology, even though the "symptoms" themselves [End Page 600] were often but signs of women's sexual tension and lack of achieving orgasm, that is, "consistent with the normal functioning" of female sexuality. Maines's chief argument is that throughout much of Western history the "androcentric model" of sexuality was largely responsible for defining these concepts of female sexual pathology and for shaping the development of the instruments designed to cope with them (pp. 2, 112).

About halfway through the book Maines begins to focus on the technologies of orgasm. Historically, a customary treatment for women's hysteria and other neurasthenic disorders was exercise and genital massage, usually performed by a physician or midwife. But vulval massages were time-consuming and fatiguing, and, Maines writes, "Physicians had both the means and the motivation to mechanize" (p. 3). By the end of the nineteenth century, physicians had welcomed the newly developed electromechanical vibrator because it helped produce orgasms rapidly and efficiently and helped raise the physician's income by increasing the number of patients that could be treated. Vibrators were considered medical rather than sexual instruments because they were applied externally; they were used by doctors for sexual treatment until the 1920s.

The book describes and illustrates a variety of early mechanical, "hydriatic," steam, and electromechanical devices used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to provide body massages and hydrotherapies, culminating in the vibrator, which Maines defines as a mechanical or electromechanical device with interchangeable rubber vibratodes to manipulate skeletal muscles. Vibrators were used to help women achieve "hysterical paroxisms"--orgasms produced in clinical settings--as well as for a variety of other purposes for both men and women, including relief from arthritis and constipation, and for home massage. Early advertisements also hinted at other uses, using thinly veiled "orgasmic phraseology"; the Swedish Vibrator Company of Chicago, for example, described its product as "a machine that gives 30,000 thrilling, invigorating, penetrating, revitalizing vibrations per minute" (pp. 103, 108).

The first modern vibrator marketed internationally to physicians was designed by British physician Joseph Mortimer Granville in the 1880s as a portable, battery-powered device with several interchangeable vibratodes (Granville, interestingly, intended it for male skeletal muscles and opposed using it for women, especially for hysteria). By 1904 there were dozens of models, including lamp-socket plug-in versions and others powered by air pressure, water turbines, gas turbines, and batteries. At a time when electric irons, electric sewing machines, and toasters were being introduced, portable vibrators were also marketed as household appliances; in 1918 a Sears, Roebuck electrical-goods catalog advertised "Aids That Every Woman Appreciates," including a vibrator attachment for a home motor that also drove attachments for buffing, churning, beating, grinding, and operating a fan. [End Page 601]

Maines's tone is at once sober, scholarly, and thoroughly bemused at the polarized attitudes produced by her subject. This is a writer who obviously relishes the provocative aspects of her research. Her book's strength lies in its tackling a subject that has received little attention from historians and...


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