The Technology of Orgasm

by katystreet

By Rachel P. Maines.

Maines starting doing research on the vibrator in the 80s, primary source research in which she collected advertisements, found original vibrator models, and poured through medical literature, and I agree that it seems absurd that no one should have done so before her. In the introduction she recounts the various polarizing responses from the academic and medical community to her research, which also investigated the medicalization of female sexuality via the medical “condition” hysteria. One of my favorites is how IEEE thought her article on the vibrator was a joke:

Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator, Rachel Maines, ‘Technology and Society’, IEEE 1989

“The Technical Advisory Board (TAB) of IEEE was threatening to withdraw the publication charter of ‘Technology and Society’ on the grounds that since there couldn’t possibly be anyone named Rachel Maines who had actually written this article, it must be some sort of elaborate practical joke on the part of the co-editors. … As one TAB member expressed it, ‘It read like a parody of an IEEE article. It contained dozens and dozens of obsolete references.'”

The book, too, is fairly academic. However, I was hoping the focus would be more on the vibrator itself. Instead, about half the book is about hysteria and the medical literature around it. To be fair, this is fascinating, the way that society was so invested in the androcentric view of sexuality that sexual intercourse was essentially the only “real” sexual act, which produced problems for women given that they rarely achieve orgasm through intercourse alone. In various studies, even in the early 1900s, when most women (generally some 60% or more) did not orgasm through intercourse, those women were removed from the study given that they were outside the norm. Never mind the fact that 60% is clearly a majority. But this had been the Western tradition since Aristotle: women did not enjoy penetration that much, which meant there was something wrong with them, not something wrong with the sexual act.

“Ninetheenth-century physicians noted that their hysterical and neurasthenic women patients experienced traditional androcentric intercourse mainly as a disappointment.”

Earlier, though, physicians would treat hysteria, which was a kind of catch-all disease for women being sexual or rowdy, with massage of the genitals. This was not something the physicians liked to do because it was difficult and tiresome, though it was also extremely profitable as these women often were never fully “cured” but required repeated treatment.

“Since no penetration was involved, believers in the hypothesis that only penetration was sexually gratifying to women could argue that nothing sexual could be occurring when their patients experienced the hysterical paroxysm during treatment.”

The invention of the vibrator not only was generally more effective (and faster) than manual massage, it eased the labor on the physicians. The problem was when they became small and cheap enough to be sold to women directly. In the 1920s vibrators made it to the porn scene and soon hysteria would become an obsolete medical invention.

However, we’re still dealing with the repercussions of centuries of belief that women must also find the peak or best or only real sexual act to be penetration. Given that it is the center of conception, and that we still don’t understand the biological underpinnings of female orgasm, I can appreciate the confusion. However, the data simply does not pan out: in every case in history, most women did not achieve orgasm through penetration alone.

Still, I wanted the book to get a little more detailed on the mechanics of the various vibrator inventions. But maybe what I need is a book on the vibrator written by an engineer, not a historian.