Subscribe Now to Our Free Email Newsletter

DaVinci Coders
November 20th, 2007 at 2:58 pm

The Invention of the Electric Vibrator

The electric vibrator was invented right after the electric sewing
machine, fan, teakettle and toaster, and before the electric vacuum
cleaner, the electric iron and the electric frypan. Who knew that
everyone cared so deeply about women’s pleasure?

In 1918 Sears, Roebuck & Company offered a vibrator attachment for
a home motor that would also drive a churn, a mixer and a sewing
machine. Two models of portable vibrators were described as ”Such
Delightful Companions” in 1922. Still another advertisement promised,
”All the pleasures of youth . . . will throb within you.”

Alas, the invention of the vibrator had nothing to do with love
in the afternoon or sexual liberation. It was originally a labor-saving
device to help doctors give their female patients a ”hysterical
paroxysm” — that is, an orgasm.

What in the world were doctors doing vibrating their female patients to
orgasm? The simple answer is that their fingers got tired. The
complicated answer is delivered in Maines’s short, stimulating,
repetitive and occasionally frustrating book, ”The Technology of
Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator, and Women’ s Sexual Satisfaction.”

IL-Header-Communicating-with-the-Future

The vibrator, Maines argues, is the last in a long line of devices and
techniques that were used to combat hysteria. Beginning with
Hippocrates and running through Galen, Avicenna, Paracelsus, Pare,
Burton and Harvey, all the way up to the mid-20th century, doctors
fought valiantly against this terrible disease. The trouble was that
the disease they were fighting, Maines explains, was ordinary female
sexual desire. The classic symptoms of hysteria — ”anxiety,
sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasy, sensations of
heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema and vaginal lubrication”
– are the symptoms of chronic arousal.

If this was hysteria, the recommended therapies made perfect sense. In
the 16th century, married hysterics were advised to ”bee strongly
encountered by their husbands.” For single women, widows, nuns and
unhappily married women, ”the cure was effected by vigorous horseback
exercise, by movement of the pelvis in a swing, rocking chair or
carriage.” But the most common therapy, summed up in 1653, was having
a doctor or midwife ”massage the genitalia with one finger inside,
using oil of lilies, musk root, crocus” or something similar. ”And in
this way the afflicted woman can be aroused to the paroxysm.” The best
cures were supposed to be those in which the patient felt both pleasure
and pain.

The basic treatment remained unchanged for a couple of thousand years.
And in all that time, Maines writes, ”only a handful of the medical
authorities who advocated female genital massage as a treatment for
hysteria” ever ”acknowledged that the crisis so produced was an
orgasm.”

Why not? If doctors had admitted they were sex slaves, they
would have had to give up what Maines calls the ”androcentric paradigm
of sexuality,” the idea that sex is a two-step process — penetration
and male orgasm — and that this is enough to bring most women to
orgasm too. Although most women (approximately 70 percent, according to
Shere Hite and others) do not reach orgasm this way and need some sort
of direct clitoral stimulation to get there, the androcentric model has
persisted, Maines suggests, because it is convenient for men. How much
easier to blame women for their own frustration, to call them frigid or
hysterical and send them to doctors, than to trouble men with the
drudgery of female arousal while they are enjoying themselves.

The diagnosis of hysteria had an added benefit. Hysterics, as
one doctor pointed out, ”were an economic godsend to the profession of
medicine.” They formed ”a circle of ‘everlasting patients.’ ” But
there was a drawback too. Physicians apparently did not like performing
genital massage. Their fingers got tired and they often had difficulty
sustaining ”the treatment long enough to produce results.”

To help with this exhausting task, doctors had the assistance of
massaging midwives, wind-up vibrators or ”percuteurs,” jolting
chairs, tissue oscillators, hydrotherapy, muscle beaters, ascending
douches, vaginal electrodes and pneumatic equipment. That is where the
electromechanical vibrator comes in.

Designed in the late 1870′s (there is some dispute about the
actual inventor), the vibrator was the last in a line of labor-saving
devices. But it survived the disease it was supposed to cure. In 1952,
when the American Psychiatric Association finally struck hysteria from
its list of mental illnesses, the vibrator did not die.

Maines supports her thesis with thorough, original and
surprising if sometimes ill-organized research. There is, however, one
serious flaw in her argument. That is the ”androcentric model.”
Contrary to this model, doctors often pointed to male inadequacy and
female sexual dissatisfaction as the causes of women’s malaise (as
Maines points out). And plenty of people paid attention to female
orgasm. In Tudor and Stuart England, for example, many physicians saw
”the clitoris as the principle locus of sexual pleasure” and believed
female orgasm was an ”incentive for women to risk their lives in
pregnancy.” So it seems likely that more than ”a handful of medical
authorities” knew they were performing sexual favors for their
patients.

Maines, who says she was ”a very angry feminist” when she
started this book, sees phallocentrism everywhere. And in that she is
right. But does that mean every phallic object and action is suspect?
She derides the 13th-century doctors who recommended that widows and
nuns use dildoes. And she condemns physicians who ”were apparently
comforted by the unsupported assumption that most women” masturbate
”by some means approximating coitus.” In battling phallocentrism, she
refuses to give an inch to the penis.

Via the New York Times

IL-Header-Communicating-with-the-Future

You must be logged in to post a comment.

DaVinci Coders