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GOOD MEDICINE

The Vibrator's Strange History

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THE VIBRATOR, LADIES AND gentlemen, was introduced as a time-saving piece of medical equipment. Before its invention, hard-working doctors and midwives from antiquity into the last century labored for hours to manually produce the same results a vibrator could elicit in mere minutes. Why were these medical folk rubbing so much clit? To relieve the terrible "hysteria" suffered by one half to two thirds of the female population.

In The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel P. Maines presents the history that led to the vibrator's invention, relying on medical texts from Hippocrates to the Freudian Revolution describing the symptoms of hysteria and its cure, genital massage. Physicians or midwives performed this procedure, as documented time and time again in lively accounts. In the 1400s, a midwife was instructed to use "sweet-smelling oil on her finger and move it well in a circle inside the vulva." Renaissance medical annals produced near-poetry. One doctor advises:

"Those who are free'd from the fit of the suffocation of the womb either by nature or by art, in a short time the color commeth to their faces by little and little, and the whole beginneth to wax strong, and the teeth that were set, and closed fast together, begin (the jaws being loosed) to open and unclose again, and lastly som moisture floweth from the secret parts with a certain tickling pleasure... and... the womb being before as it were rageing, is restored unto its own proper nature and place, and little by little all symptoms vanish away."

The result of genital massage, orgasm, was referred to as "hysterical paroxysm." Massage of the female genitals was okay because the clit was not considered part of the sexual intercourse package deal. Maines succinctly maps out how female sexuality was transformed into hysterical pathology, and how the female orgasm was medicalized and sterilized. For me, there is something erotic about the mechanization of women's orgasm, the remnants of my pubescent daydreams of conveyor-belt ecstasy. As I read the history outlined in the book's first two chapters, not only did I feel smart, I often felt like visiting the restroom.

In these pages Maines includes pictures of pre-electric vibrator devices. Some of my favorites were found in the spas or water cures of the last few centuries: the pelvic douche, the familiar bidet, and the steam-powered "Manipulator." Designed to "invite the juices downward," hydrotherapeutic methods enjoyed intense popularity. There are sweet, euphoric success stories of patients who, "as soon as they become sensible of decided improvement, they become enthusiastic--they think they can never have enough--the more they get, the faster they will get well."

How silly those old doctors were. Maines proceeds to reveal the ways in which, to this day, modern medicine subscribes to the phallocentric model of sexuality that those old-timey physicians were so fixated upon. I balked at this section of the book, prepared for a dry feminist lecture that would interfere with my repeated visits to the bathroom. But Maines is a superb and witty historian who makes a good point. We are still hung up on heterosexual "intercourse" as sex: penis inserted in vagina, thrusted repeatedly until male blows wad.

When my best friend lost her virginity in high school, she described it and asked, "Did we really have sex? 'Cause I didn't come." After referring to the Bible and our health class manual, we concluded that the deed was done. We proceeded to develop very dramatic fake orgasms, mostly to prove to whomever we were fucking that we were modern, liberated girls who knew about our bodies, sought pleasure, and used tampons, goddammit.

Much later a woman brought to my attention that the clit is located outside the vagina. Physically I knew this, having masturbated since age 11, but to be confronted with this reality intellectually truly revolutionized my sexuality. Maines brings this information to our attention effectively, matter-of-factly, and much more succinctly than my girlhood trial and error.

Maines' research on the social impact of the vibrator--over which she lost her job and was ridiculed in academic journals--began when she came across advertisements for vibrators in turn-of-the-century needlepoint magazines. Several thrilling reproductions of these ads, with orgasmic phrases like "Vibration is Life!" are included in her book.

Once the vibrator became available for domestic consumption, "it rendered unnecessary any medical intervention." The vibrator eventually removed the female orgasm from clinical medicine and placed it back in the hands of women (excuse the pun).

In the 1930s the vibrator began appearing in smut films. Now that it was obvious what the device was used for, it was no longer accepted as a medical tool. When it resurfaced into the mainstream in the 1960s it was marketed, plain and simple, as a sex toy. Maines concludes that "a persistent theme in... concerns about the vibrator is the classic male fear of sexual inadequacy, to which the new technology adds a threat once associated only with industrial artisans: technological obsolescence." Ouch.

This handsome and slender volume of social history arouses the intellect and the loins. Maines packs it into 123 pages: good pictures, readable and sound history, bracing medical texts, and lots of good stuff for naughty fantasies, written by a historian with a sense of humor.

 

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