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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

per minute.

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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