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This article by Melinda Sherwood was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 21,
1999. All rights reserved.
Women & Technology: Helping Hands
It’s not a treatment HMOs are willing to pay for today,
but until the 1920s, massaging women to orgasm was considered a viable
medical treatment for female "hysteria." When they could,
doctors pushed such drudgery off on midwives, but the therapeutic
stimulation of the female genitalia was such a lucrative business
(patients were sure to return) that new technologies were born to
enhance customer service.
It is thus that women developed an "intimate" relationship
with electronics, a relationship that Rachel Maines chronicles
in her book "The Technology of Orgasm: `Hysteria,’ the Vibrator,
and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction," by Johns Hopkins University
Press (1999, $21). Maines first submitted the contents of her book
to the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE)
in 1988. They thought it was a hoax. A decade later the IEEE is hosting
the controversial scholar and author on Friday, July 30, at 10:30
a.m. at the Technology Symposium at the New Brunswick Hyatt (see stories
An angry but educated feminist coming of intellectual age during the
1970s, Maines stumbled on the buried history of the vibrator while
trying to write a "serious needlework history come hell or high
water." Flipping through the turn-of-the-century Women’s Home
Companion, Maines’ eyes wandered to large ads selling household appliances
like blenders, fans, and yes…the electronic vibrator. "When
I saw advertisements as early as 1906 for equipment strongly resembling
the devices now sold to women as masturbation aids, my first thought,"
she writes, "was that this could not possibly be the purpose of
the appliances sold in the pages of the Companion."
This was the exact intent of the device, but long-held medical beliefs
and a stubborn perception of sex obscured its "sexual" nature.
Doctors started diagnosing women with "female hysteria" as
early as 1653. It was probably symptomatic of a social, rather than
physical disease, Maines writes. "When marital sex was unsatisfying,"
she writes "and masturbation discouraged or forbidden, female
sexuality, I suggest, asserted itself through one of the few acceptable
outlets: the symptoms of hyster-neurasthenic disorders." Sexual
frustration, to put it simply.
Since it didn’t fit the paradigm of sex at the time, stimulation of
female genitalia was considered nothing more than a medical chore
necessary to bring the hysteric behavior to a climax and rid it from
the body. "Since no penetration was involved," she writes,
"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 the
treatment." Genital stimulation, doctors argued, was the next
best thing to a horseback ride or journey in a bumpy train.
Female therapy received an injection of steampower at the beginning
of the 20th century. The devices, illustrated in Maines’ book, appear
in varied shapes and sizes, but the Cadillac of vibrators (it cost
$200 in 1904) was a footpowered model with various tendrils and oscillators
that look nothing short of alien. The vibrator entered its halcyon
days with the advent of electricity, which enabled up to 7,000 pulses
As Maines’ research and lecturing progressed, it became clear that
her days teaching were numbered. She was forced out of a part-time
position teaching at Clarkson University in northern New York by a
nervous administration. Even the technical advisory board of the IEEE,
to which she submitted her study in 1988, thought she was out to "titillate
rather than enlighten."
Maines has since run her own business, Maines and Associates, that
provides cataloging, inventory and research services to museum and
archives. Ten years ago, uptight critics misinterpreted her historical
work. Today, however, Maines’ ego has been massaged on more than one
occasion by writers at the New York Observer, and the New York Times.
She has offered proof that technology is sexy after all.
— Melinda Sherwood
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