Doctor's Orders

In the wake of a new Alabama law declaring vibrators illegal, a provocative new book, "The Technology of Orgasm," sheds light on the perversely puritanical evolution of the feminine joystick.


Janelle Brown
February 25, 1999 11:50PM (UTC)

Nestled in a scarf in my friend's drawer, conveniently located just an
arm's length from her bed, are three vibrators -- a large purple jelly
dildo, ridged, with a kinked "g-spot head"; a plastic "personal
mini-massager" the size of a tube of lipstick, which she calls the "Pocket
Rocket"; and an egg-shaped vibrator with a remote.

If my friend were to buy this collection in Alabama, not only would she
be breaking the law, but whoever sold her the goods could be slapped with a
$10,000 fine and up to a year in prison. Unless, of course, they could
convince the pleasure police that she was using those vibrators to, uh,
relax the aching muscles in her neck.

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In April 1998, Alabama passed an addition to the obscenity statute of
the state law that "makes it unlawful to produce, distribute or otherwise
sell sexual devices that are marketed primarily for the stimulation of
human genital organs." Part of a bigger bill restricting licenses for strip
clubs, the law argues that these sex toys are obscene and appeal to a
"prurient interest." Last week, the ACLU and five women challenged the law
in court as a violation of privacy -- since neither masturbation nor
genital stimulation are illegal (yet). The five women included an erotica
shop owner and a woman who holds immensely popular "Tupperware parties"
peddling sex toys to Midwestern housewives. The judge has yet to release
his decision.

The premise itself is loaded with both hypocrisy and latent misogyny. There
is, the Alabama officials wrote, "no fundamental right to purchase a
product to use in pursuit of having an orgasm." What they should have
written is that women have no fundamental right to purchase a
product to use in pursuit of having an orgasm. Because while those veined,
flesh-colored pseudo-penises are not legal, those displays
of crotchless panties -- not to mention Viagra -- are perfectly OK.

As the ACLU's memorandum argues, the Alabama obscenity code shouldn't be
applied to "objects which in and of themselves do not depict sexual conduct
or appeal to the prurient interest ... They are nothing more than what they
purport to be -- aids to enhance or improve sex." As ACLU staff attorney
Mark Lopez summed it up, "I don't think they're concerned about the
deleterious effect these stores have on the community. They just banned
vibrators altogether, apparently because they didn't like people using
them."

Presumably, the vibrator is banned as being obscene because
it "lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value" -- the
constitutional definition for obscenity. But the irony of the Alabama law
lies not in the evident hypocrisy, but in the history of the vibrator
itself, which according to Rachel P. Maines in her new book, "The
Technology of Orgasm," was originally conceived as a serious medical
device.

The first mechanical vibrator, according to Maines, was
invented in the 1880s by a British physician as a way to more quickly and
effectively perform a "therapeutic massage." Therapeutic massage
was an age-old "remedy" for "hysteria" -- that dastardly
catch-all disease that mysteriously plagued women throughout the centuries
until both science and feminism proved it to be a myth and it ceased to
exist. Starting in the first century A.D., Maines
writes, doctors manually massaged women to orgasm
in hopes of purging them of this mysterious illness. The vibrator was
invented as a way to get the job done more quickly -- therefore allowing
the doctor time to see more patients.

"The Technology of Orgasm" is an exhaustive history, not only of the
invention of the vibrator in its various guises (which, judging from the
included illustrations, were frighteningly inventive) but also of the rise
of hysteria, sexual inequality between the sexes and the questionable
medical practices that grew around it. She meticulously covers everything
from the ancient Greek doctor Galen, who spoke of massaging a patient's
genitals until "she emitted turbid and abundant sperm" and was "free of all
the evil she felt," to the appearance of vibrators in erotic silent films
of the early 1900s, and on through the vibrator habits of modern-day
Cosmopolitan readers. Ever wonder why the baths were so popular with women
in the 1800s? It might have something to do with the "douche treatments"
that were offered there, during which fabulous contraptions would shoot
warm jets of water at a women's nether regions until she begged for mercy.

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Although the book does get bogged down by dry academic prose --
specifically, in a rather dense first chapter wherein Maines indulges
theories about androcentric sexuality (i.e., sex centered around
penetration and the male orgasm) -- and medical terminology, the subject
matter is inherently fascinating. It's downright bizarre to imagine the
bespectacled, mustachioed Victorian doctors in their white lab coats,
grimly massaging the splayed women on their examining tables to paroxysms
of pleasure.

What, for example, are we to think of the scene of this "cold water
douche," applied to his female patients by 19th century doctor Henri
Scoutetten: "The first impression produced by the jet of water is painful,
but soon the effect of the pressure, the reaction of the organism to the
cold, which causes the skin to flush, and the reestablishment of
equilibrium all create for many persons so agreeable a sensation that it is
necessary to take precautions that they do not go beyond the described
time, which is usually four or five minutes. After the douche, the patient
dries herself off, refastens her corset, and returns with a brisk step to
her room."

Even though it was masked by medical minutiae, the root purpose of the
vibrator hasn't really changed in 100 years. Although, then, women might
not have been quite as conscious about why, exactly, they were heading to
the doctor, it was the same reason that women use vibrators today: to
release sexual tension. The "symptoms" of hysteria -- which included
anxiety, sleeplessness, nervousness and any other kind of female behavior
that the male of the species might find baffling -- could easily be
symptoms of sexual frustration. Or, as Maines puts it, "when marital sex
was unsatisfying and masturbation discouraged or forbidden, female
sexuality, I suggest, asserted itself through one of the few acceptable
outlets: the symptoms of the hysteroneurasthenic disorders."

Unfortunately, we can only guess these women
were thinking about their treatments. While male doctors diligently and
dryly recorded the medical usage of their vibrating machines, the
historical record lacks any writing by women about their experiences with
vibrating massage, Maines explains. Was the vibrator
some kind of Victorian in-joke for liberated women who got their jollies by
traipsing off to the doctor? Or did women really believe that they were
sick, and that the "massage" was a cure? Did the women enjoy their orgasmic
medicine or resent it as an intrusion on their privacy? Was it a kind of
prostitution? Who
was kidding whom? Or did everyone take it as seriously as the doctors seem
to have done in their clinical frenzies?

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From the doctor's viewpoint, at least, is seems that the notion of a
woman actually enjoying the massage was baffling. Chalk it up to
androcentric sexuality, writes Maines: "Since no penetration was involved,
believers in the hypothesis that only penetration was sexually gratifying
to women could argue that nothing sexual could be occurring when their
patients experienced the hysterical paroxysms during treatment."

Of course, we've gotten past that notion. Which, it seems, is why the
lawmakers in Alabama felt a need to pass their law.

Today, vibrators are status implements for most young educated women who
consider themselves wise in the ways of the world. Many of my girlfriends
-- whom, admittedly, are a rather urban and liberal bunch, though certainly
not debauched libertines -- nonchalantly display their vibrators as totems
to their sexual independence; scattered haphazardly around their rooms,
peeking out from under their beds, winking up at accidental visitors in
random drawers. Vibes are just a part of the urban landscape, and a good
boyfriend is one who sensitively buys you one for Valentine's Day. (Read:
He's attentive to your sexual needs.) I still remember the feeling of
liberation when I finally summoned up the nerve and bought my first
vibrator -- and, subsequently, the pleasant surprise of discovering just
how effective it was.

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The vibrator is quite possibly the most potent symbol there is of
women's sexual agency. The possession of a vibrator tells the world (or, at
the least, yourself) that not only are you comfortable with your own
peculiarly female sexuality, but that you are able to give yourself
sexual satisfaction -- that you aren't sitting around twiddling your thumbs
waiting for a man to decide to send you into paroxysms of ecstasy. Nope,
you're using those thumbs in the way that the Goddess above (whoever
she may be) probably intended them to be used -- to control the on-off
switch on your vibrating tube of joy.

After all, Kinsey determined that 70 percent of all women don't come to orgasm
by penetration alone, and according to a recent University of Chicago survey, roughly 25 percent of all women (compared to 8 percent of all men)
fail to have orgasms during sex at all. No wonder women need vibrators --
to make up for such disappointments. (Or, perhaps, to add to the
bedtime activities and ensure that those disappointments don't happen
again.)

As Maines describes in "The Technology of Orgasm," the moment the
vibrator became a personally controlled object, rather than a tool to be
manipulated by the medical community, the jig was up. Although the early
vibrators were enormous contraptions, steam-powered or controlled by foot
pedals, the advent of electricity and batteries around the turn of the
century meant that vibrators became increasingly cheap and portable. Patients
began buying vibrators for themselves, thereby saving cash on all those
visits to the doctor. Coinciding with the national fascination with
electrotherapy and newfangled technologies and medicines, manufacturers
began marketing these portable "massagers" in magazines using vaguely
orgasmic terminology. "The device," writes Maines, "was marketed mainly to
women as a health and relaxation aid, in ambiguous phrases such as 'all the
pleasures of youth ... will throb within you.' When marketed to men,
vibrators were recommended as gifts for women that would benefit the male
givers by restoring bright eyes and pink cheeks to their female consorts."

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Around the 1930s, vibrators disappeared from advertising altogether,
only to reappear in the sexually liberated 1960s -- this time, in their
full sexual glory. They've only grown more visible since that point, and,
thanks to the sexual revolution and pro-sex feminism, we now have a whole
industry that has spread from erotica shops in liberal urban centers to those Midwestern
sex-toy Tupperware parties, selling vibrators to women and men without
disguising their purpose: to quickly bring women to a mind-blowing orgasm.
And this, apparently, is just not acceptable to those puritanical moralists
in Alabama who seem to be living examples of Maines' androcentric theories.
God forbid a teenage girl might see a vibrator in a window somewhere and
suddenly understand that sexual satisfaction doesn't have to mean hoping
that her boyfriend will figure out where her clitoris is.

Of course, vibrators are still often wrapped in ambiguous terminology --
you can still find ads featuring women gingerly holding pink plastic
vibrators to their cheeks, apparently marketing some kind of dubious facial
relaxation. The most popular vibrator among the women I know is the famous
Hitachi Magic Wand, a plug-in model with a mind-boggling array of
attachments, which for years has been unself-consciously marketed as a
massage device. And, as the ACLU pointed out last week, vibrators
are still used as medical devices, albeit in a different way than
they historically were -- these days, they are prescribed by doctors who
intend them as marital aids for troubled couples.

So, in all likelihood, you can still buy a vibrator in Alabama --
just put it in a box that says "massager" and sell it in a health shop.
Although convincing the cops that the purple veined model is just a muscle
relaxant might still be a challenge.


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

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