Lopsided research and lack of analysis also badly undercut Watkins’ discussion of feminist rage against the pill a decade after its introduction. In explaining why women got so mad about having been prescribed a largely untested drug, she does little more than point vaguely toward "the disillusionment of the 1960s." No mention is made of the medical profession’s long history of paternalistic and dehumanizing treatment of women — zonking them during childbirth, condemning them for having the "wrong" kind of orgasms, informing them that desire to be anything more than a housewife was neurotic.
A true "social history" of the pill would be a great book. Watkins’ work will provide some useful background information to the person who writes it.
In contrast to On the Pill, The Technology of Orgasmis feminist scholarship exactly as it should be: a work that not only illuminates an astonishing bit of herstory, but does so with a neat balance of anger, wit and humor.
Twenty years ago, while reading late-19th- and early-20th-century women’s magazines for a research project on needlework, Rachel P. Maines was stunned to see ads for what appeared to be vibrators. Telling herself "I simply had a dirty mind," she moved on. But the sightings continued, and finally, although despairing that "no one would ever again take me seriously as a scholar if I continued this line of research," she did a little digging. Before long, she had located an electronics museum in Minneapolis with a collection of historical medical instruments that included 11 vibrators — and began to put together a wild story. Simply said: The modern electromechanical vibrator was invented in the 1880s by a British physician for the more efficient professional masturbation of his female patients.
"Technology tells us much about the social construction of the tasks and roles it is designed to implement," Maines notes wryly, and indeed the history of the vibrator has everything to do with the way male-dominated societies have defined female sexuality. With remarkable consistency throughout Western history, "normal" sex has been defined as penetration to the point of male orgasm, and any variation on this theme (masturbation, manual or oral stimulation) seen as sick, immature, filthy or downright dangerous to one’s health. But as fairly recent surveys have made clear, the majority of women just don’t get off through penetration. The result? As far back as Hippocrates, and on through the centuries almost to our own time, there exist records of male physicians seeing women suffering vague, chronic symptoms like anxiety, sleeplessness, abdominal heaviness and even vaginal lubrication, diagnosing them with "hysteria" or "womb disease" — and curing them with genital massage. In other words, throughout the ages, women frustrated in their marriage beds found relief by running to the doc to be diddled.
The image absolutely staggers the modern mind (that is, when it doesn’t provoke uncontrollable hoots). But the same "androcentric definition" of sexuality that produced so much frustration, notes Maines, also disguised the nature of this respectable "treatment": If "real" sex required penetration, a physician rubbing a woman until she experienced what was at one point called "the hysterical paroxysm" simply could not be sexual. (Even as vaginal massage went unchallenged, early use of the speculum in the mid–19th century evoked wild protests by those who feared that the "thrill" of feeling it would lead to the moral debasement of young women.)
Maines found no evidence that doctors took any pleasure in vulvar massage. In fact, most seemed to ä find it burdensome and difficult — one, in 1660, noted that the technique was "not unlike that game of boys in which they try to rub their stomachs with one hand and pat their heads with the other" — and shunted it onto midwives whenever possible.
The doctors also found the work labor-intensive and time-consuming, and as women became a larger and larger source of revenue — by the late 19th century, they were America’s largest single market for therapeutic services — time became of greater essence. Hence, their embrace of those machines that could do in five minutes what before had taken considerably more. "[T]he immediate effect of the treatment on these nervous patients is that of a calmative," reported the inventor of one electro-massage machine. seem infinitely relieved of something; what — they seem unable to describe. They often want to sleep."
As it turned out, development of the vibrator spelled the end of the doctor-assisted climax. Increasing availability of electricity made possible the home vibrator — Maines notes that vibrators were electrified after sewing machines and toasters, but nine years before vacuum cleaners, "possibly reflecting consumer priorities." And by the 1920s, understanding of female sexual function was growing. The vibrator made an appearance as an overt sexual aid in a porn film, and the gig was up.
Most of The Technology of Orgasmis a delight. Unfortunately, Maines reaches the end of her strange saga with nowhere to go, and her failure to make a larger intellectual or analytic leap makes the work conclude rather abruptly and disappointingly. (Kinda like . . . never mind.) Even so, this is a wonderful book. For those who read it, the idea of "playing doctor" will never be quite the same.