Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

Book Review by Nathalie Muller

Maines, Rachel P. The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. ISBN: 0-8018-59417


 

While doing research in the 1970's on needlework, Rachel Maines first encountered vibrator ads, and was immediately fascinated by the topic. Twenty years later she wrote the first techno-historical account about this controversial device. And controversial vibrators still certainly are anno 1999: Alabama senator Tom Butler recently sponsored a legislation which makes it illegal to "distribute any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs." Violators risk a $ 10.000 fine and a one-year jail sentence! There go sexual civil rights down the drain! Needless to say that viagra is easily available for men, but viagra is accepted because of its medical pretext, and because of its perpetuation - or rather preservation - of phallocentric culture. And the latter is of course not flaccid and limp.

If you expect to find a sassy and sexy book, then I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. The Technology of Orgasm is very much a traditional history of technology book, with an audacious subject matter. It is indeed the subject which has the potential to make it an exceptional and courageous book, yet its conventional form still remains too traditional - to my taste - to convince. I was expecting to find a cultural analysis of the vibrator as technological artefact, but Maines actually spends 2/3 of her book, discarding the artefact and concentrating on pathology instead of technology. She goes through a very impressive amount of historical data in order to illustrate the aetiology of hysteria throughout the centuries. Now hysteria (from the Greek hyster for womb) has from 4BC till 1952 (when removed from the modern disease paradigm by the American Psychiatric Association) been associated with defunct female sexuality. In order to cure hysterical (read sexually or orgasmically deprived) women, physicians used to treat women by massaging their genitalia until the occurrence of hysterical paroxysms (read orgasm). Now obviously this was a time-consuming and tedious chore, the physicians didn't particularly relish, so they often recommended marriage as a "cure" to their patients, or tried to assign midwives the job of "vulvic massage", or sought for technological solutions. Masturbation was of course a no-no, since the only socially accepted form of sexuality was hetero-sexual reproductive coitus. By the mid-19th century the first (table-sized!) vibrators start appearing in doctors' practices. Indeed, the vibrator can be summed up as a "capital and labour-saving" innovation, which would not only increase the efficiency and rapidity of vulvic massage treatments (with a vibrator orgasm could be induced in a few minutes, while manually it could easily take up to an hour). But would also significantly augment the physician's income, since its time saving properties allowed the physician to treat more patients a day.

The main thesis of the book builds on the assumption that the vibrator has been a socially camouflaged technological artefact, first hailed as a medical instrument curing hysteria and other diseases, then as a household appliance providing relaxation and a healthy glow for the average housewife, and finally as a masturbation aid. Maines is careful to retract every argument back to what she calls "the androcentric sex model" (where penile penetration and male orgasms are all that matter and where female sexuality is pathological or unimportant). That's why, for example, physicians got away with massaging their patients' privates, because clitoral stimulation wasn't perceived as sex since no penetration was involved. The speculum and the tampon were, Maines notes, much more controversial because these artefacts penetrated the vagina. However, by over-emphasising the one-sidedness of the androcentric sex model, Maines ends up offering an alternative model which is just as restrictive as the androcentric one. This has to effect that she desexualises her subject more than anything else, and thus actually almost ends up practising that what she is criticising. By focusing on disease paradigms she loses track of the pleasure paradigm, hence utilising herself a camouflaged sexual discourse.

It's a pity that she doesn't spend more time discussing the development of the artefact itself. Issues such as design, gender factors in design, user groups, technological diffusion, etc are not sufficiently addressed Possibly this is due to the fact that it is not really known who really used the things. What can be said with security, though, is that it was a very popular household item, with ads appearing in respectable women's magazines such as Modern Priscilla, Womens' Home Companion, McClure's, and Good Housekeeping. By the turn of the century there were more than 20 vibrator models available, running on electricity, batteries, foot-power or water-power. The prices could vary from a mere $ 15 to $ 200 for the Cadillac of the vibrators, the Chattanooga. The vibrator was the fifth household appliance to be electrified, 10 years before the vacuum cleaner and the ironso that tells you about consumer priorities. Now what is particularly interesting about the vibrator is that its trajectory has traversed 3 very different realms in the gaining of technological momentum, yet the grey zones between medical device, household appliance, and sex toy are not really examined in depth. According to Maines the vibrator lost its propriety once it started to turn up in stag movies in the 1920's, yet this seems somehow as a too simple explanation to convince. It's also here that her narrative ends, for she doesn't ponder on contemporary uses/designs of the vibrator at all, or the significance of the vibrator in recent women's/feminist history. No mention of Bette Dodson who ran her notorious masturbation workshops in the 1970's with the aid of vibrators, no mention of the importance of women sex shops as feminist enterprises selling and crafting toys by women for women, and no real mention about how vibrators are now marketed and represented in the media.

Only in the last 15 pages she gets to the socio-cultural issues, which are really pertinent, and which make SCOT (social construction of technology) approach studies so interesting. But probably that's another book, and probably a cross-over between Susie Bright and Bruno Latour will have to write it. Ironically enough this book turns the reader a bit into a hysteric: you crave more, you think you're going to get it, but you're left quite unsatisfied. However, a peek at the Good Vibrations site (www.goodvibes.com) will have you all up and buzzing!

Despite all the criticism, this book has to be read as a unique historical account, which contains a great deal of valuable historical data. And again, it has to be stressed, a woman who like Rachel Maines risks her academic career to pursue her own research interests into "devious topics" still deserves a medal in my book!

 


 

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Nathalie Muller (Nathalie.Muller@skynet.be) is a writer based in Belgium. This is her first review for Cybersociology Magazine.

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