Field Notes

IN 1977, RACHEL MAINES, a part-time lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, was doing the most banal sort of historical research, flipping languidly through the pages of her primary materials–turn-of-the-century needlework magazines such as Modern Priscilla and Woman’s Home Companion–in search of evidence for a paper on textile arts. As her gaze wandered toward the margins of the pages, she found herself distracted by the quaintly naughty advertisements: cures for alcoholism containing 44 percent alcohol, primitive abortifacients called "cycle restorers," and electrical vibrators. Wait a second, she thought. Vibrators? In 1906?

"The pleasures of youth will throb within you," claimed one pitch. "30,000 thrilling, invigorating, penetrating, revitalizing vibrations per minute," burbled another, from the Swedish Vibrator Company of Chicago. Maines could hardly believe her eyes. "My reaction to their turgid prose was to assume that I simply had a dirty mind," writes Maines in her new book, The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, appearing in December from Johns Hopkins University Press. "I was, after all, twenty-seven years old, between marriages, a very angry feminist, and inclined to interpret everything I saw or read as some manifestation of the war between the sexes."

Still, Maines continued to take notes on the gadgets–certain all the while that "no one would ever again take me seriously as a scholar if I continued this line of research." (Her suspicions were correct, though she had no idea how out of control things would get.) After completing her dissertation in 1983, while teaching at Clarkson University in northern New York, she began searching for the artifacts themselves–finding them at last (labeled "musculo-skeletal relaxation devices") at an obscure archive of electrical medical devices called the Bakken Library and Museum of Electricity in Life in Minneapolis.

But were these clumsy machines really intended for sexual use? Yes, Maines discovered, though not (at least initially) for amateurs. The sometimes eyebrow-raisingly medieval-looking thrummers were designed for doctors, to speed up a laborious task they had performed for centuries–the medical production of female orgasm, a.k.a. "the hysterical paroxysm." Manual genital massage had long been applied as a treatment for hysteria; unsurprisingly, it was found to ease chronic symptoms such as anxiety and sleeplessness. Hippocrates prescribed the therapy, as did nearly every Western medical authority up to the nineteenth century. In 1653, the Dutch physician Pieter van Foreest noted that "this kind of stimulation with the finger is recommended [especially] for widows, those who live chaste lives, and female religious."

Not that the doctors enjoyed bringing nuns to therapeutic orgasm. Far from it: Many medical authorities complained of both the tediousness and complexity of the task (one seventeenth-century physician compared it to trying to rub one’s stomach and pat one’s head simultaneously). The advent of mechanical substitutions, such as steam-powered massagers and hydriatic douches (precursors, perhaps, of contemporary shower attachments), was greeted with enthusiasm. And when electrical technology became available, inventors promptly whipped up a range of timesaving agitators capable, in the words of one turn-of-the-century doctor, of reducing "a painstaking hour" to "a short five to ten minutes." It was a small step from the doctor’s office to home marketing of the devices, complete with assurances that they could be used "in the privacy of dressing room or boudoir."

Exhilarated by her discovery of what seemed to be a fresh chapter in the history of technology, Maines began presenting her research to academic audiences–emphasizing the ways in which the androcentric Western medical tradition had pathologized clitoris-centered female sexuality. Reactions were dubious. "In mixed groups," she recalls in the introduction to The Technology of Orgasm, "the women look uncomfortable and ask little, although they laugh just the same; they are aware that it is a major breach of etiquette to mention in mixed company the relative inefficiency of penetration as a means of producing female orgasm." And many men, she realized, seemed to take her findings as a personal criticism. One professor argued heatedly that the sexual experience of women using vibrators was "not the real thing." (Others had more on-point remarks: A Darwin scholar observed that doctors who did not recognize that their patients were experiencing orgasm had clearly not witnessed the phenomenon in their own wives.)

Maines’s colleagues at Clarkson–where she taught first in the liberal studies program and later in the School of Management–were similarly flummoxed. At one point, her dean in liberal studies publicized a grant she had received by announcing merely that she would study "the impact of small appliances in the home." Then, in 1986, Maines lost her teaching job. (She found out when she picked up a list of office assignments for the coming term.) Her research interests, it was true, no longer seemed to match those of the School of Management. But she received two other explanations: The dean feared that alumni donations would dry up if they learned that a faculty member was researching vibrators, and moreover, her high energy level "wasn’t compatible with the rest of the faculty."

Discouraged about her academic prospects, Maines started a private business called Maines & Associates, which provides catalog inventory and research services for museums and archives. But in 1988 when she noticed a call for papers for a special issue of Technology and Society, to be edited by distinguished electrical historian James Brittain, she submitted a paper entitled "Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator." The turn-of-the-century vibrator, she argued, was, like other products, used for socially taboo purposes and promoted in coded language to reach its market. Maines had no inkling of any trouble to come–save an odd acceptance letter from Brittain, which noted that her paper would act as a test of the journal’s publication policy, since the editors had not published an article of this type "since they began in 1884."

The issue came out in June 1989. The following September, she received a call from Technology and Society’s editor, Robert Whelchel, a professor of electrical engineering at Tri-State University in Angola, Indiana. The technical advisory board of the journal’s sponsor, the venerable Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), was threatening to withdraw the journal’s charter, alleging that the article was a hoax. As a result, Whelchel needed Maines’s Social Security number to prove that she existed.

"When we got the paper, I thought, some people may get upset, but we can handle it," recalls Whelchel ruefully. "But the reaction was orders of magnitude higher than I expected." The board insisted the editors prove the submission had been refereed, complaining that the article’s numerous Greek and Latin references "read like a parody of an IEEE article." (After the problem was resolved, the journal received numerous letters of support and found that its subscription rate rose in response to the controversy–a hint, perhaps, that electrical engineers were interested in something livelier than "Rural Electrification in Nicaragua.")


In retrospect, Maines found the controversy absurd and decided to write about it for the Times Higher Education Supplement. It was a case, she says, of technology historians used to studying "boys and their toys." (Her husband termed the incident "Attack of the Dweebs.") The curator of the Bakken collection, Ellen Kuhfeld, puts it more pungently: "It’s just a matter of people finding again that there’s more to history than they expect. And anyone who does academic work wets his pants at the thought of controversy, except for the ones who salivate–but there are bodily fluids produced, no matter what."

More soberly, Whelchel sees the conflict as illuminating the larger problems the engineering establishment has had in assimilating feminist perspectives. "We’re making progress," he says. "But you know, it’s an issue that constantly has to be addressed." His journal is giving it another try: A call just went out for an upcoming issue on gender and technology.


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