The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology)

Pinned on August 9, 2013 at 9:36 pm by Lisa Stephens

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The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology)

From the time of Hippocrates until the 1920s, massaging female patients to orgasm was a staple of medical practice among Western physicians in the treatment of “hysteria,” an ailment once considered both common and chronic in women. Doctors loathed this time-consuming procedure and for centuries relied on midwives. Later, they substituted the efficiency of mechanical devices, including the electric vibrator, invented in the 1880s. In The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel Maines offers readers a stimulating, surprising, and often humorous account of hysteria and its treatment throughout the ages, focusing on the development, use, and fall into disrepute of the vibrator as a legitimate medical device.

For centuries, women diagnosed with “hysteria”–a “disease paradigm,” in Rachel P. Maines’s felicitous phrase, thought to result from a lack of sexual intercourse or gratification–were treated by massaging their genitals in order to induce “paroxysm.” Male physicians, however, considered the practice drudgery, and sought various ways of avoiding the task, often foisting it off on midwives or, starting in the late 19th century, employing mechanical devices. Eventually, these devices became available for purchase and home use; one such “portable vibrator” is advertised in the 1918 Sears, Roebuck catalog as an “aid that every woman appreciates.” The Technology of Orgasm is an impeccably researched history that combines a discussion of hysteria in the Western medical tradition with a detailed examination (including several illustrations) of the devices used to “treat” the “condition.” (Maines is somewhat dismissive of the contemporary, phallus-shaped models, which she describes as “underpowered battery-operated toys,” insisting that “it is the AC-powered vibrator with at least one working surface at a right angle to the handle that is best designed for application to the clitoral area.”) Don’t expect any cheap thrills, though; the titillation Maines offers is strictly intellectual. –Ron Hogan

From the time of Hippocrates until the 1920s, massaging female patients to orgasm was a staple of medical practice among Western physicians in the treatment of “hysteria,” an ailment once considered both common and chronic in women. Doctors loathed this time-consuming procedure and for centuries relied on midwives. Later, they substituted the efficiency of mechanical devices, including the electric vibrator, invented in the 1880s. In The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel Maines offers readers a stimulating, surprising, and often humorous account of hysteria and its treatment throughout the ages, focusing on the development, use, and fall into disrepute of the vibrator as a legitimate medical device.


Comments

john.vancleve@gallaudet.edu says:

A great read: sophisticated, learned, and funny. “The Technology of Orgasm” is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. Maines’ ostensible purpose is an examination of the history of vibrators and other mechanical means to induce female orgasms. This subject is covered in depth and apparent thoroughness, but her real focus is “androcentric” definitions of female sexuality and their cultural and technological repercussions.

Jessica Jernigan says:

hysteric paroxysm for centuries, troubled — or troubling — women were diagnosed with “hysteria.” the classic treatment for this vague malady was inducement of the “hysteric paroxysm” — known to us contemporary types as the orgasm. according to rachel maines’s wryly hilarious history, the first mechanical vibrators were labor-saving devices for doctors tired of inducing orgasm in their patients manually. who knew? this book is clearly her dissertation & primarily intended for academics, but i found it mind-blowing & frequently quite amusing. i frequently recommend it to friends & colleagues looking for a quick, smart, engaging read.

Joan Jacobson says:

Social history buffs MUST read Anyone who reads social histories, biographies of Victorian women or historical fiction must eventually ask this question, “What the heck is neurasthenia and how come nobody ever gets it anymore?” The plague of wealthy Victorian women simply disappeared without a trace in the 1920s. Why? Finally — here’s your answer.


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