Just Hysterical

by Rachel P. Maines

You may already know that electrification of household products began in 1889. You may also know that the first product to go electric was the sewing machine, and that the next decade brought juice to the fan, teakettle, and toaster. What you probably don’t know is that next in line – ten years before the vacuum cleaner and the iron – was the vibrator. This delicious piece of information emerges late in Rachel Maines’ fascinating The Technology of Orgasm, but it’s typical of the combination of playful delight and meticulous research that she brings to her subject.

Maines discovered her topic while working on her dissertation on American needlework – personal vibrators, it turned out, were routinely advertised in the pages of women’s needlework and knitting magazines between 1880 and 1930. When consumer models of electric vibrators debuted in advertisements in women’s magazines at the turn of the century, they arrived on the cultural scene, sometimes “in a good-looking black box,” with a long history and camouflage so ingenious that they could hide in plain sight. In fact, a page in the 1918 Sears, Roebuck Catalog featured “Aids that Every Woman Appreciates,” including a variety of attachments that busy homemakers could hook up to their Sears home motor. One can only imagine the motorized housewife’s to-do list: churn butter, buff chiffarobe, mix biscuit dough, beat eggs, and treat hysteria – repeat if necessary.

Maines explains the presence of ads for vibrators in these magazines by suggesting that the products were camouflaged as medicine. Dominant at the time was an “androcentric,” or male-centered, model of female sexuality in which women only have orgasms during the penis-vagina penetration version of sex. Thus, women who didn’t have orgasms this way were considered to suffer from “hysteria,” and hysterical women needed medical treatment. Because the “paroxysms” produced by such therapy happen outside the androcentric model, they’re not orgasms; by the definition of the times, an orgasm is what happens when a penis is in the neighborhood.

According to Maines, the disease paradigm and the androcentric view of sex were such powerful cultural forces that devices and techniques for producing orgasm outside of heterosexual sex did not carry an erotic charge. No doubt, of course, many women and (some doctors) knew perfectly well what they were doing, and were quite delighted when devices were invented that allowed them to take the job, as it were, into their own hands, even if they used the appliances for “health reasons” only. According to Maines, vibrators disappeared from women’s magazines around 1930 after their use in pornography re-eroticized the devices and sent them into the closet, until the liberating climate of the Sixties.

In the first chapter, “The Job Nobody Wanted,” Maines delineates of her inquiry: “The vibrator and its predecessors in the history of medical massage technologies are the means by which I shall examine three themes.” The first of these themes, “androcentric definitions of sexuality and the construction of ideal female sexuality to fit them,” will be the biggest obstacle for readers who think of sex as an immutable set of biological facts rather than a cultural construction. But Maines’ explanation is lucid and her supporting evidence compelling. The other two themes follow from the first: “the reduction of female sexual behavior outside the androcentric standard to disease paradigms requiring treatment; and the means by which physicians legitimated and justified the clinical production of orgasm in women as a treatment for these disorders.” Female sexuality, in other words, is a chronic disease that requires constant treatment. The vibrators advertised in needlepoint magazines evolved because “physicians had both the means and the motivation to mechanize” the common medical therapy of producing orgasms in female patients.

Aware that some readers’ Academic-Feminism Alarm System will be triggered by her initial premise, Maines devotes the long second chapter to an exhaustive summary of the construction of hysteria as a disease paradigm in Western medicine, from antiquity until (incredibly) 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association finally dropped the term. “Hysteria” is a protean term, used to describe a wide array of physiological and psychological “symptoms” depending on each cultural moment’s preference for the display of feminine pathology. Once we get past Plato’s famous diagnosis that hysteria was caused by the womb leaving its proper place and “wandering around the body, causing trouble as it went, particularly strangulation as it allegedly crawled up into the chest and windpipe,” symptoms

ascribed to hysteria throughout the ages include: fainting, swelling, loss of appetite for food or sex, too much appetite for food or sex, muscle spasms, shortness of breath, insomnia, and “sometimes a tendency to cause trouble for others, particularly members of the patient’s immediate family.”

Readers who make it through the historical summary of hysteria and who can accept the argument’s theoretical premises will be rewarded in the final two chapters. Chapter Four, “Inviting the Juices Downward,” contains the book’s most compelling illustrations, as Maines recounts the development of technologies of orgasm that precede the vibrator. The chapter’s title comes from Tobias Smollett’s 1752 essay extolling the virtues of “water cures” for “hysterical disorders.” Water cures have appeared in the literature since antiquity, and became extremely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the development of techniques for creating water pressure, the precursors to mechanical massagers and vibrators. In addition to citing various physicians’ and other practitioners’ claims about the salutary effects of various water cures, Maines also quotes from the diary of one young Abigail May, who sought treatment (apparently for cancer) at Ballston Springs, New York. May described her experience, of which she was initially quite wary: “I scream’d merrily – so says Mama – for my own part I do not remember much about it – I felt finely for two hours after bathing.” One water-cure physician observed that “coming from the douche, a patient feels like jumping over fences.”

But water treatments were expensive and required travel to special facilities, and thus their services were limited to the middle to upper classes. What to do about all those other hysterical women? Before the first consumer vibrator, the Vibratile, was advertised in McClure’s in 1899, women could chose from quite a range of contraptions – graphically illustrated in the book – for “inviting the juices downward.” In the era before metered water service, you could make yourself a home water spa. Or you could try the “jolting chair,” or the wind-up clockwork “percuteur” and hope its spring lasted long enough. If you were interested in getting a little exercise with your treatment, you could strap yourself into the foot-powered machine, the logistics of which I still can’t figure out. If you wanted to keep it simple, however, a wide range of “muscle beaters” was available, which look like the sort of tool you use to make pastry or ravioli.

Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm proves that humor and irreverence aren’t incompatible with good scholarship and innovative thinking. Serious feminists scholars will certainly want the book on their shelves, but readers from beyond the academy will also be rewarded with a subtle and original argument that’s rooted in material culture, bolstered with more than 500 sources drawn from fields as diverse as French feminism and electrical engineering, and richly (often hilariously) illustrated. Laced with copious and memorable quotations, Maines’ catalog makes an extremely persuasive case for the persistence of the hysteria paradigm within the larger framework of an androcentric view of sexuality.

I should mention that as an academic feminist myself, I am obviously a member of the choir to which Maines is arguably preaching, and recognize the familiar cadence of my discipline’s lingua franca and the guiding assumptions which underpin it. But this is not to say that readers less familiar with (or inimical to) the language and ideologies of academic feminism will find her claims obtuse or insupportable. No doubt some readers lured by the subject will be turned off by the book’s scholarly apparatus, but they’ll discover it’s neither a theoretical high-wire act nor an anti-male screed. Its arguments are so carefully constructed and scrupulously documented that only the most ossified anti-feminist will be able to resist the powerful claims about cultural constructions of women’s sexuality, and why technologies were developed for the production of orgasms.

Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton teaches in the English Department at Southwestern University.

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Published at 12:00 am CST