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The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology)

4.04 of 5 stars 4.04  ·  rating details  ·  341 ratings  ·  57 reviews
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 devic...more
Paperback, 208 pages
Published March 1st 2001 by Johns Hopkins University Press (first published 1998)
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(showing 1-30 of 1,184)
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hypothermya
Sep 07, 2007 hypothermya rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: the sexually curious
I wish I could give this book a star for each aspect of it that delighted me. Unfortunately, this site caps me out at five stars, much less the 10 or so stars that this book deserves.

This book is exhaustively researched, in a way most other books dealing with the broad subject matter of human sexuality are not. Better, it is superbly organized -- starting out with a clear idea of what topics it is going to cover, and managing to tackle that subject matter in only a scanty 124 pages (with at leas...more
james
Content-wise this book deserves a 5. But the writing style drastically brings it down. Published in 1999, it reads like an unedited 1980s history textbook. It jumps around and at times has very confusing sentences/paragraphs. The chapters don't seem to build on each other, and rather end up repeating themes/facts that were already covered or implied.

The content itself you're not going to find anywhere else, and the bare boring facts often are fascinating in and of themselves, no matter how drol...more
Laura
This book is awesome. I'm reading it for thesis work but recommend it to you even if you are not an unabashed and wholescale nerd. My only gripe-- having nothing to do with the content or the author-- is that this book is pigeon-holed on the back cover as "women's studies," which suggests to me that culture and history most relevant to women are still considered outside the "androcentric" mainstream and relegated to the scholarly periphery.
Justin Cormack
One of those alas so rare tweeter-woofer crossover moments of academic writing (must get another copy of In Search of Respect actually).

Rachel Maines, by accident starting looking at the adverts in the old magazines and catalogues and accidentally discovered the early history of the electric motor, when motors and appliances were still not integrated due to costs, and the vibrator was born. That in turn leads into a fascinating story of medical history - the story of hysteria, a condition that h...more
lola
WERE YOU AWARE: That hysteria means "womb disease?" That
"Susan B Anthony is said to have regarded male behavior at sports events as evidence that men were too emotional to be allowed to vote?" Or perhaps that "What is really remarkable about Western history in this context is that the medical norm of penetration to male orgasm as the ultimate sexual thrill for both men and women has survived an indefinite number of individual and collective observations suggesting that for most women this patter...more
Claire
Nov 07, 2008 Claire rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Marit!
An absolutely fascinating book. Combined with other books I've read recently on the state of obstetrics and childbirth in the United States, Maines' book really sheds some light on how attitudes towards women's bodies become attitudes towards women as a group, and how those are then institutionalized, as in medicine.
Conrad
Who knew Galen invented the vibrator? There's a lot of nifty material in here on how vibrators were initially advertised, too. Really a great book, if you can get over the initial hump.
Lynn Vannucci
Read this book! You will be outraged, amused, and much smarter after you do. Then see the brilliant movie PASSION AND POWER made from this book.
Cara Ellison
About halfway through I forgot why I wanted to read it. By the end I was just glad it was over.
Jessi
The author variously refers to vibrators as "socially camouflaged technologies," "electromechanical medical instrument" (this one several times,) and ,finallyvibrators.
Bringing orgasms to women was the "job that nobody wanted" ... at least until it became lucrative. Until then, women were supposed to get married and then rely on penetration only to do the deed. Especially since masturbation was highly discouraged and at times deemed completely immoral.
She says that she fell into this subject as...more
Sophia
The origins of this feminist work lie in the author's discovery of turn-of-the-century advertisements of vibrators as therapeutic appliances, designed to save doctors time and labor. What?!

Reclaiming the original definition of hysteria from Freudian reinterpretation, Maines shows that in the Western medical tradition, manually massaging female genitalia to orgasm was an accepted practice for treating 'womb disease.' This was accepted as a legitimate condition and treatment, the author argues, be...more
John Carter McKnight
A Great Big Idea, but a toothpick-thin book. In 122 pages, Maines covers two thousand years of the history of the medicalization of women's bodies and sexuality, the hundred year history of the vibrator, and dips into contemporary studies of sexuality - while still managing to be a bit redundant.

The book's historical scope begins with extensive classical sources, read in the original Greek and Latin, but oddly comes to a stop in the 1970s, with virtually no discussion of the vibrator as a moder...more
Fred
I really like the idea of the microhistory genre, where someone grasps that there is a history of *everything* and seeks to tell that tale. I know its been a trend for a few years, but since this book was published in 1999 and Maines's research goes way back to the 80s, I consider her an early adopter, if not a pioneer. I liked her description of poring through ads in 100 year old periodicals, because I do the same thing.

The book is a history of hysteria, which no one quite knew what that was, v...more
Katie
I actually didn't even finish this before I had to return it to the library. The subject matter (that doctors used to masturbate women as part of treatment for what was essentially a made-up ailment) is of course fascinating, yet the writing, being part of the Johns Hopkins series in the History of Technology, I suppose, was so, ahem, dry. I was also distracted by the pencil comments of some previous reader, whom I imagined to be a naive undergrad learning for the first time women's place in sex...more
Kristian Bjørkelo
My only gripe with this short and concise work is its feminist perspective. While understandable, I actually believe there are different ways of interpreting these. Love the book, and I use it frequently in my lectures on the subject.
Anjella
More a 3 1/2 stars, it was very thought provoking but the writing was very academic and repetitive in parts. Very thoroughly researched though with some amusing asides throughout.
Helen
Mar 21, 2011 Helen rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Helen by: Mark
Shelves: favorites
There is not a person on earth, male/female/other, young/old/other, who wouldn't benefit from reading this book. While the author, at times, belabors some points or uses too many like examples, the information she's given is unique and it is absolutely worth slogging through the occasional slow part to walk away from this small tome with that much empowering knowledge. My friend Mark wrote an amazing review which compelled me to go get this book immediately, and if you would like a more thorough...more
Annamarie
This book is PACKED with politics and fascinating tidbits about the long history of the vibrator. I think it is less accessible than some of the other books in the genre, mostly because it reads very much like a thesis or dissertation, but it is impeccably referenced and does have some humor thrown in. The excuses that the medical establishment came up with for what was essentially orgasm as catch-all therapy are very amusing and horrifying all at the same time. Thankfully technology can finally...more
Jennifer Kincheloe
This is a scholarly work about the medical practice of treating hysterical women with vulvular massage - something doctors routinely did in the Western world from the time of the Greeks up through the 1920's. It focuses on the early 20th Century, and addresses the telling question, "why didn't anyone notice that this was sexual?"

Interesting and helpful for researching for my book, "The Secret Life of Anna Blanc," an homage to old Los Angeles inspired by Alice Stebin Wells, an LAPD police matron,...more
Wendy
It's been a long time since I was in college, and I've become unaccustomed to reading scholarly, academic writing, so I had difficulty maintaining interest at times. Certain topics were covered in what I found to be an overabundance of detail, while others were only touched upon. But the topic is fascinating, and Maines is a top-notch researcher. The sheer number of sources she consulted is mind-blowing. And I did learn a lot. I particularly liked the examination of our society's definition of s...more
Ceci
A well-researched and well written analysis of female sexuality in the medical context. It includes the medical history of vibrators in Europe and the United States. This book would interest you if: 1) identify as a feminist; 2) are interested in sexual history; 3) are a medical history buff; 4) enjoy a good analysis of female sexual-gender identity.

Although the book can get technical at parts, it is generally a fast read.
Roberta Morris
Who knew?.... This book gives one a glimpse into a whole world of lesbian relationships that were probably never acknowledged as such, and aren't even now by this author. Really, the way in which women's love for other women is written over/written off even as it's beautifully drawn makes me a little crazy. This is a work of non-fiction but to get at the deeper truths it just scratches someone needs to write the novel.
James Dixson
Great book. The most interesting part is not so much the photographs of "electro/mechanical devices" going back into the 1800s, but that the motivations for building these devices goes back to Hippocratus and the ancient world.

The second most interesting part is "how" and "why" these devices became taboo in the 20th century.

Women's rights advocates will love this book.
Dr. Ruth Neustifter
Fantastic read about the medical history of vibrators in Europe and the United States. Certainly worth reading for feminists, sex nerds, mechanical engineers, historians, and those interested in the history of medicine. This book is a primary resource for my presentations on the history of vibrators and on the history of western cultural perspectives on masturbation.
Rebecca
This book was very informative and educational. I found most sections very intriguing, but I could not get past the section on hysteria. Maines reveals some very interesting historical facts and trends that I had previously never heard of, yet her section on hysteria seemed excessive at times. Overall, very interesting read and I would recommend it.
Katrina
This book was the first book I read for class called "Sexuality and Power in Modern Society". It was the beginning of my obsession with the construction of sexuality in our society and identity overall. The book is just about the history and science behind the orgasm, but when put in the context of how femininity was constructed, it's and eye opener.
Emily Kramer
The history of the vibrator does not begin with the Rabbit or even the Hitachi magic want. No, no it starts long before, and in this book Rachel tells us about water clinics that came before turning around in a jacuzzi, and happy endings that took place in doctors' offices. A good read for developing a well-rounded view on sexual health.
Alex R
You can't pass up a book with that title. Short version: For thousands of years, men thought women were incapable of orgasm, and cured female "hysteria" (restlessness, irritability, etc.) with genital "massage". Eventually someone discovered that this could be done by machine, and suddenly their female patients kept coming back.
Sarah
Much more technical than I'd expected (I didn't originally know it was Maines' thesis), but engaging never the less. Incredibly detailed & exhaustively researched history of the vibrator and the medical community's definitions of "normal" & "abnormal" female sexuality through the years.
Caroline
A fascinating history, if a bit narrow in scope. Never quite lives up to the promise of its thesis, and despite its short length, gets a bit bogged down in repetitive details. However, Maines invites more scholarship on the topic, which I hope will flourish in future studies.
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“The rifts in this ancient wall continue to be patched with exhortations to women to avoid challenging the norm even if it means faking orgasm and sacrificing honesty in their intimate relationships with men. In the past we have been willing to pay this price; whether we should continue to do so is question for individuals; not historians, to decide.” 0 likes
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