To those of us still stunned by last summer’s sorry sexual spectacle, there’s some comfort to be found in looking to the past. As three recent books make clear, the struggle to define, control, judge and give meaning to human sexuality — arguably our most powerful drive — has occupied and preoccupied us for centuries.
According to writer M.L. Bush, we can trace modern notions that sex should be fun to a seminal — it seems an appropriate word — essay by Richard Carlile, one of the early 19th century’s leading British radicals. Carlile, born in 1790, was a former tinsmith who was radicalized by reading Thomas Paine and transformed into an activist by the 1819 massacre of working-class demonstrators at Peterloo. Outrageous by nature and a staunch republican, libertarian and atheist, he usually managed to offend everyone, and his publication of Paine’s Age of Reason landed him in jail for blasphemy. While there, he wrote “What Is Love?,” which appeared in his anti-monarchist journal The Republican in 1825 and was republished a year later as “Every Woman’s Book.” Until now it has been unavailable for nearly a century.
Feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham has praised the essay as “a classic text of sexual radicalism,” and within its limitations — Carlile only approves of sex between heterosexual partners; even masturbation is taboo — it surely is that. Against a prevailing ethos that saw sexuality as a dangerous, male-driven force to be controlled and used only for the purpose of making babies, Carlile spoke up for equality, pleasure and freedom. Lust was a natural human hunger felt by both men and women, he argued, and there was nothing shameful about it. In fact, he believed, it was repression and abstinence that caused social problems — unnaturally chaste women often became invalids, and men denied access to the good women they loved degraded themselves with prostitutes and seduced servants.
Even more striking was his advocacy of serial monogamy over till-death-do-us-part fidelity: Because Carlile believed that love was desire, and that desire couldn’t be legislated, he urged couples to stay together only as long as they truly wanted each other. (The institution of marriage, he declared, was “a system of degradation and slavery.”) Finally, at a time when no one even dared talk about birth control — which existed only in the form of abortion and, when that failed, infanticide — he offered instruction on the mechanics of withdrawal and use of a dampened sponge in the vagina to ward off conception.
The book, originally printed with a frontispiece featuring a full-frontal nude and unashamed Adam and Eve, was clearly both heartfelt and meant to shock. In fact, it evoked widespread hostility — among other epithets, Carlile was called “the pedagogue pander of lust.” (It didn’t help that Carlile also took the opportunity to go after his other archenemy, Christianity, denouncing religion as “an unnatural vice, [that] can only be properly classed with sodomy and bestiality.”) But not surprisingly, it was widely popular among women. “Every Woman’s Book” also made Carlile money and got him out of his own loveless marriage into a new relationship; ironically, the birth control advocate’s new love was pregnant within a year.
Though not quite “the most important political pamphlet that has ever appeared,” as its none-too-humble author called it, there’s no question that it mattered: Within six years of its publication, for instance, three new works of contraceptive advice were published. This Verso re-release is overly long — only hardcore Carlile scholars need to read two very similar versions of the essay, including editing changes large and small. Still, it’s fascinating as a historical document. With his message to love often, well and freely, and his insistence that no couples should have more children than they wanted, no women suffer pregnancies that endangered their lives, and that “sexual intercourse . . . be made a pleasure independent of the dread of a conception,” Carlile was perhaps the first voice of the modern era.
In the 1950s, scientific understanding of reproductive biology led to the creation of a form of contraception so foolproof it surely would have dazzled Carlile. The story of the development and aftereffects of the birth control pill, which for the first time in human history completely separated sex from conception, is a rich, complex and fabulous one. Unfortunately, On the Pill is the kind of book that gives academics a bad name. It reads as if its author, Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, sat in a library for several years dutifully reading every mainstream article ever written about her subject, then dutifully organized and spewed the information back. Forget analysis. Forget opinion. Forget primary sources. Forget writing — at times, her prose clunks almost audibly: “The changes sweeping the nation included the so-called sexual revolution, characterized by the liberalization of sexual attitudes, mores and behaviors.”
These are not only aesthetic quibbles. Watkins’ reliance on secondary sources — her seeming belief that nothing can be true if a study doesn’t prove it — leads her to utterly ludicrous assertions, such as “no data have ever supported [the] assumption” that the pill created the sexual revolution. Clearly, the author never talked to anyone who spent time in a circa-1970 college dorm where scores of nice middle-class girls happily humped like bunnies. Nothing but dependable birth control could have made such scenes possible at a time when unintended pregnancy meant a trip to Tokyo if you were rich and lucky and a back alley if you were not.
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 Orgasm is 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 Orgasm is 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.