Tracing the Technology of Pleasure

Rachel Maines's quirky research project makes it to the big screen

PHOTO: Wabi Sabi Productions

Rachel Maines never thought she'd have to produce her Social Security card to prove she was a scholar. Her reputation was suddenly in jeopardy, and the heads of electrical engineering societies panicked at the sight of her name. Maines was concerned that perhaps her arousing area of research was simply too much for mainstream science to bear.

But her fate took a turn for minor stardom recently, as this serious visiting scholar, based at Cornell University's Department of Science and Technology Studies, became the unexpected link between a certain publishing house of technical journals, figures of the 1970s feminist movement, and a racy electromechanical device. On a Saturday in late July, she smiled broadly in response to hearty applause from a crowd of film aficionados and activists at a screening at Lincoln Center, the well-respected performance space in Manhattan. Her book, The Technology of Orgasm: ”Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) had just been made into a documentary film.

Perhaps even odder than her personal transformation from needlework historian to vibrator expert is the fact that Maines's academic work bears the imprimatur of the IEEE. In June 1989, the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology published her piece, ”Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator,” in its monthly journal.

The outcry was vehement. ”Some readers thought I was a joke, that the whole thing was a joke on the part of the editors,” Maines says. ”One member of a technical advisory board said, ’Why, it read like a parody of an IEEE article!' ” Readers demanded that she produce documentation and collect testimony from colleagues proving her academic pedigree and even her mere existence. ”In retrospect, it was just hilarious,” she says.

The film, an independent production, called Passion & Power, launches with Maines's account of how she first stumbled on the stimulator. ”I was looking through turn-of-the-century women's magazines, and I started noticing the strangest advertisements for vibrators. I tried not to get distracted from my needlework research, but you know, I couldn't help noting down at least the page numbers,” Maines says. ”I even saw them in Woman's Home Companion . Imagine: Woman's Home Companion !”

The device was first used by doctors in the 1800s to treat a catch-all female condition termed ”hysteria.” (Symptoms included insomnia, irritability, excessive bicycling, and reading French novels while wearing tight corsets, according to the film.) With so large a net, hysteria became one of the more common diagnoses for women. The diagnosis was generally applied to cases that today would be described as ”sexual dissatisfaction,” and women were regularly treated with titillating massages that could last up to an hour. The aim of the vibrator, Maines says, was to mechanize the massage work begrudgingly performed by doctors. Early versions included a windup device that resembled a pepper grinder; a steam-powered, table-size version that required hefty amounts of coal; and an item with several appendages that she describes as a cross between an old-fashioned telephone and a creature from outer space. Another popular variant was powered by a turbine attached to a water faucet.

As Maines explains it, the major developments that brought the vibrator from the doctor's office into the home were line electricity and the advent of standardized electrical plugs. In magazine advertisements, vibrators were sold as one of many possible attachments to a single home motor--an electric motor that could be coupled with a blender, fan, or egg beater, to name a few. Nor were they sold in devoted sex shops: the pleasurable objects were supplied by staid consumer goods companies, including Sears, Roebuck and Co., and advertised openly, albeit using appropriately discreet wording.

Some critics have questioned whether the vibrator as it was sold at the time was indeed used for racy purposes rather than, say, a scalp massage. Perhaps. Even if that was the case, the question remains of how this rather odd consumer device--marketed purely as a pleasure-producing item--managed to move out of the doctor's office and the sanctioned world of medicine into the home, sold along with the most pedestrian household appliances as if it were no more risqué than a toaster. ”Technology doesn't come into existence without some kind of reason. Somebody has to wake up in the morning and say, you know, there's a problem, and I'm going to try to solve it,” Maines says.

The documentary, which is now touring film festivals across the United States, follows the vibrator from its roots in the 19th century through the many incarnations leading up to its current form. It traces the device from its origin in spas and doctor's offices to a more undercover existence in urban sex shops to its present-day status vis–à–vis the law. The filmmakers explored some anachronistic legal territory in Texas and Alabama, where a few women have been arrested for the sale and ownership of vibrators.

The documentary splits its time between portraying the history of one unique technology and chronicling a few women's paths to sexual freedom, and it loses some of its perky energy in the transition. When the narrative fades from the evolution of the vibrator into sociopolitical territory, the story line blurs, and the technology becomes one minor component of a large and vaguely defined feminist movement.

Academic in tone and generally couth in its imagery, Passion & Power toys with the comic value of sexually frustrated Victorians and the pleasure-seeking behavior of little old ladies--who happen to also be mavens of the sex-shop scene. The social context of the device has changed dramatically since its days as a medical tool, and at times that story does more than provide a few giggles and genuinely illuminates the relationship between humans and their inventions. As Maines puts it, ”That's what I love about technology: it takes you everywhere in the human psyche.”

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