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The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction [Hardcover]

Ms. Rachel P. Maines
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Dec 18 1998 0801859417 978-0801859410

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.


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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 Publishers Weekly

It will surprise most readers to learn that the vibrator was invented in the late 1880s as a time-saving device for physicians, who had been treating women's "hysteria" for years with clitoral massage. Denying the sexual nature of the treatments, doctors instead saw the technique as a burdensome chore and welcomed electric devices that would shorten patients' visits. Maines, an independent scholar in the history of technology, presents a straightforward account of the mechanism from its beginning through the 1920s, when it came into disrepute as a medical instrument. Going far beyond a mere summary of therapeutic advances, however, she wryly chronicles the attitude toward women's sexuality in the medical and psychological professions and shows, with searing insight, how some ancient biases are still prevalent in our society. Maines's writing is lively and entertaining, and her research is exhaustive, drawing on texts from Hippocrates to the present day. Proving her point about how women's sexuality is still perceived as an unapproachable subject in some quarters, Maines describes her travails in vibrator historiography, including the loss of her teaching position at Clarkson University. A pioneering and important book, this window into social and technological history also provides a marvelously clear view of contemporary ideas about women's sexuality.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
In 1653 Pieter van Foreest, called Alemarianus Petrus Forestus, published a medical compendium titled Observationem et Carationem Medicinalium ac Chirurgicarum opera Omnia, with chapter on the diseases of women. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars hysteric paroxysm Aug. 1 2002
Format:Paperback
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.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Not too bad May 31 2002
Format:Hardcover
Firstly let me say I enjoyed and recommend this book, yet
have taken issue with some of the opinions expressed as if
they are fact.
Well I guess that is the way people write, but take for example, on page 5 of this book the author writes: "The
androcentric definition of sex as an activity recognizes
three essential steps: preparation for penetration
("foreplay"), penetration, and male orgasism."
That is not an androcentric definition of sex,
that is the procreational definition of sex. I do wish
historians could lay off the conspiracy theory, as
there is too much of it running like a theoretical flaw
throughout this book. In an age where effective
contraception is routine, many men and women blithely and
conveniently forgetting the historical roots of intercourse.
It is like people in the city do occasionally naively forget where bottled milk comes from.
The passage continues
"Sexual activity that does not involve at least the last two
has not been popularly or medically (and for that matter
legally) regarded as "the real thing."
There is the rub. Of course it is not regarded as the real
thing, as without it there is no chance of procreation. Surprise
surprise, sex is actually in reality about procreation in
the final analysis. Otherwise it becomes a mere example of
persistent human sensual trivia in the grand scheme of
things, and is moving away from actual sex into merely 'having orgasisms' --- which is a different thing.
But instead the survival of human race actually depends on
the 'real thing' and that is for better or worse the reality of it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Good Vibrations: The Doctor Is In. June 2 1999
Format:Hardcover
* *
The dustjacket of Rachel P. Maines's new book, THE TECHNOLOGY OF ORGASM: "HYSTERIA", THE VIBRATOR & SEXUAL SATISFACTION, reads as follows:
-*-*- From the time of Hippocrates until the 1920s, massaging "hysterical" female patients to orgasm was a staple of medical practice among Western physicians. Hysteria...was thought to be the consequence of sexual deprivation. Doctors performed the "routine chore" of relieving hysterical patients' symptoms with manual genital massage until the woman reached orgasm, or as it was known under clinical conditions, the "hysterical paroxysm". The vibrator first emerged as an electromechanical medical instrument in direct response to demand from physicians who, far from enjoying the implementation of pelvic massage, sought every opportunity to substitute the services of midwives and, later, the efficiency of mechanical devices... Invented in the late 1880s by a British physician, the vibrator was popular with turn-of-the-century doctors as a quick, efficient cure for hysteria which neither fatigued the therapist nor demanded skills which were difficult to acquire... Hysterical women presented a large and lucratve clientele for doctors, and vibrators reduced, from about one hour to ten minutes, the time required for a physician to produce results, significantly increasing the number of patients he could treat in the course of a single workday. These women were ideal patients in that they never recovered nor died from their condition but continued to require regular medical "treatment".
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5.0 out of 5 stars A great read: sophisticated, learned, and funny. Jan. 29 1999
Format:Hardcover
"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.
In witty and humorous language, demonstrating that Maines has mastered post-modernism and even found a use for it, she lampoons men's refusal to recognize that for most women, insertion of a male penis into the vagina followed by a male orgasm is not necessarily a complete sexual experience. In droll tones, Maines discusses the long-held male claim, supported by what was called science, that if a woman did not achieve an orgasm from sexual penetration by a male, she was not "normal," although some 80% or more of women were thus "abnormal." And never mind that 80% of a population cannot, by definition, be abnormal.
Maines is a good historian, and she recounts the historical medicalization of female orgasm, terming its inducement "the job nobody wanted." For hundreds of years, physicians or midwives were paid to stimulate manually the clitoris of women suffering from "hysteria" and thereby to bring about a therapeutic paroxism. Since this was a time-consuming task, doctors turned to hydrotherapy and then to electric powered vibrators to shorten the time necessary to induce such relief on each patient. HMOs would be proud.
This is a book on a serious topic in western cultural history that could have been androphobic or, worse, terribly dull. Instead,it charms and educates with wit and erudition. I hated to see it end.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!
This book is utterly fascinating! Written by a woman who's really done her homework on the subject, The Technology of Orgasm proves to be a captivating historical account of the... Read more
Published on Sept. 24 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars Getting There At Last
If everyone over the age of 12 read this book, along with "Are we Having Fun Yet: The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Sex," the world would be an eminently more exciting,... Read more
Published on Aug. 31 2001 by "mobopony"
4.0 out of 5 stars quite good, though some assumptions are quite annoying
This is extremely interesting read, often quite hillarious and hard to beleive (or maybe not - not the first and not the last time that medical profession overlooks the obvious and... Read more
Published on June 18 2001 by Alek0
5.0 out of 5 stars 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... Read more
Published on Nov. 8 2000 by Joan Jacobson
5.0 out of 5 stars A frustrating and yet hilarious read
This book is indeed a hoot. The idea that early 20th century medical doctors could not tell that they were stimulating their patients to orgasm is astonishing, until the reader... Read more
Published on March 28 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars I got off (so to speak) on this book.
In this enjoyable book, only one major qualm. The consistent reference to 'androcentric' paradigm of sexuality - as where sex consists of penetration to male orgasm. Read more
Published on March 23 2000 by Stephen B.
5.0 out of 5 stars How female bodies really work, and its just fine!
There was an irony and sadness to the truth that in the face of immense male denial of women's actual sexual physical workings in intimate relationships and in male psychological... Read more
Published on Dec 16 1999
4.0 out of 5 stars It's a pity this book got the author sacked :(
For her pains (the book took 20 years to research and write), according to Wired magazine, the author was apparently promptly sacked from the faculty of Clarkson U on... Read more
Published on Aug. 16 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars Meticulous scholarship, truly hysterical findings.
Who knew that the history of vibrators was so clinically delicious? If you're looking for an offbeat take on human sexuality, this is your book.
Published on April 11 1999
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and fun read
I liked this book because it tells about all the weird superstitions and ideas people used to have about women's sexuality and the lengths to which women had to go to have an... Read more
Published on March 3 1999
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