Surprising science about vibrators and female hysteria!

Summary: The history of female hysteria and virbrators reveals much about the nature of science today, and the great challenge facing it. Read this fascinating story – and the astonishing rest of the story that follows.

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© Elena Gorbach | Dreamstime.

The Technology of Orgasm:
“Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction

By Rachel P. Maines.
Johns Hopkins University Press (1999).

“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 devices, including the electric vibrator, invented in the 1880s.

“In The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel Maines offers readers a stimulating, surprising, and often humorous account of hysteria and its treatment throughout the ages, focusing on the development, use, and fall into disrepute of the vibrator as a legitimate medical device.”

— From the publisher.

See the fun first chapter: “The Job Nobody Wanted” — massaging women’s gentials to organsm.

“Thorough, original, and surprising.”
— Sarah Boxer in the New York Times.

“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… A wonderful book.”
— Carol Lynn Mithers in L.A. Weekly.

“Exhaustively researched… decidedly offbeat.”
— Natalie Angier in the New York Times.

"Hysteria" - the film
Doctors consult about the best course of treatment.

The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction
Available at Amazon.

Wikipedia tells this fascinating story!

“She began researching and writing articles on the history of vibrators, the first one for the newsletter of the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life. The article caused her to lose her post as associate professor at Clarkson University in 1986. According to Maines, the university was convinced that the nature of her research would drive away benefactors and alumni donors.

“Three years later she submitted a more detailed article, “Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator“, to Society and Technology {June 1989, ungated here}, the magazine of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology. Initially, the IEEE thought the article was a joke perpetrated by the magazine’s editors and that there was no such person as Rachel Maines. However, after checking all the internal citations and Maines’s own background, the IEEE finally allowed the article to be published in the June 1989 edition of the magazine.

“Her book …won the American Historical Association’s Herbert Feis Award and was the inspiration for Sarah Ruhl‘s 2009 play In the Next Room and Tanya Wexler‘s 2011 film Hysteria. The book also formed the basis for Passion & Power, a 2007 documentary by Emiko Omori and Wendy Slick.”

Rachel P. Maines has PhD. in Applied History and Social Science. When the book was published, she worked at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration as a Library Technical Processing Assistant. Since 2005, she has worked at Cornell as a Visiting Scholar (and since 2009, as a Visiting Scientist). See her website.

Trailer for Hysteria!

See Hysteria, about inventing the vibrator. Inspired by Rachel Maines’ book!

The rest of the story

What a great story! Doctors using vibrators to stimulate women to organisms – to “cure” a weird disease. Unfortunately, not everybody was impressed with Maine’s research. Best of all, Maines work was a feminist triumph. Rebuttal of her work by real feminists shows her to be a patriarchal collaborator.

The first skeptical review I’ve found was Helen King’s “Galen and the widow: towards a history of therapeutic masturbation in ancient gynaecology” in Eugesta (a journal on Gender Studies in Antiquity), 2011.

“This paper offers a close reading of the ancient Greek and Roman texts which Rachel Maines …used as evidence for therapeutic masturbation in the ancient world, and thus presented as precursors for the vibrator. Examining the evidence …challenges her claims for the normality of massage to orgasm in Western medicine. While Maines herself has subsequently insisted that she proposed a ‘hypothesis’ rather than a ‘fact’, in the popular reception of her book this distinction has been almost entirely overlooked, leading to an obscuring of female agency – both as patients, and as healers.”

Even more pointed in its criticism is “Hysteria” by Sarah Jaffray at The Welcome Collection (a London museum about health), Aug 2015.

“All of these are simplifications, perhaps even pure misogyny. …So, where exactly did the myth of vibrators come from if the most famous hysterical doctor of the 19th century did not use them to treat patients? The source of this myth is Rachel Maines and her 1999 work The Technology of Orgasm (which seems to be the only source of this information). It is true that with the evolution and availability of electricity, vibrators were used by doctors to treat patients for all sorts of ailments. Electronic massage was used, but it is highly unlikely it was used {by doctors] to stimulate orgasm …”

Those were glancing salvoes.  Hallie Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg of the Georgia Institute of Technology blast apart the core of Maine’s work: “A Failure of Academic Quality Control: The Technology of Orgasm” in the Journal of Positive Sexuality, August 2018.

The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines is one of the most widely cited works on the history of sex and technology. Maines argues that Victorian physicians routinely used electromechanical vibrators to stimulate female patients to orgasm as a treatment for hysteria. She claims that physicians did not perceive the practice as sexual because it did not involve vaginal penetration. The vibrator was, according to Maines, a labor-saving technology to replace the well-established medical practice of clitoral massage for hysteria. This argument has been repeated almost verbatim in dozens of scholarly works, popular books and articles, a Broadway play, and a feature-length film.

“Although a few scholars have challenged parts of the book, no one has contested her central argument in the peer-reviewed literature. In this article, we carefully assess the sources cited in the book. We found no evidence in these sources that physicians ever used electromechanical vibrators to induce orgasms in female patients as a medical treatment. The success of Technology of Orgasm serves as a cautionary tale for how easily falsehoods can become embedded in the humanities.”

The replication crisis

The replication crisis in science is potentially one of the big events of our time. Like many such, it is almost invisible. Like David Hume’s discovery in the 18th century that cause must precede its effect.

The foundation of modern institutional science is rotten, so that only the oldest and strongest of the sciences remain fully functional. Some of the worst affected are in the physical sciences, such as much biomedical research. Time will tell which others get added to that list (I vote for climate science). Many of the social sciences are deeply infected.

But scientists are fighting back. That’s the significance of the kerfuffle described above. Even the papers most ideologically pleasing to the Leftist academia are being questioned – occasionally. It is a great sign. All we can do is applaud, so let’s do that. And watch.

For More Information

Please like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about experts (our reliance on and trust of them), especially these…

Useful books about sex.

Sex in History by Reay Tannahill (1980).

The War on Sex by David Halperin and Trevor Hoppe (2017).

Sex in History
Available at Amazon.
War on Sex
Available at Amazon.

16 thoughts on “Surprising science about vibrators and female hysteria!”

  1. Christopher Pinkleton

    But it’s such a good story! We love good stories!

    Like the story that “gun violence” is a plague of mass shootings rather than the suicide plague (of mostly white men) that makes up 40-60% of US gun deaths every year that it largely is (depends on year and information source).

    Wow, I completely bought this myth. Nothing like truth in the morning to get the brain moving! And a feminist debunking of a “feminist ” text. Thanks! (Nice use of click bait, too.)

    Much “science” is used in the service of myth-making today — in the sense of myth as “sacred history.” It often involves replication of one bad analysis like the above, and it also used by pseudo-skeptics who are not scientists. E.G. the anti-vaccination movement that still relies on one debunked study to link autism and vaccines, and has helped to bring measles outbreaks back.

    The sacred history becomes so strong that even brutal reality can’t get through:

    Science is a process, not revealed truths! But process is hard, and we love a good “just so” story.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “Much “science” is used in the service of myth-making today”

      It has ever been so, as Stephen Jay Gould’s books show.

    2. Yes, the “today” was a mistake in that statement. Eugenics, phrenogy, Freudian psychology (still beloved in English and Literature departments) , “Social Darwinism” (neither social or supported by Darwin or his theory of natural selection), special “German” and “socialist” science for Nazi Germany and the USSR respectively….the list is huge.

      While racism certainly exists, I must say the social science on “implicit bias” seems weak at it’s core, although I do think implicit bias is certainly a big part of racism. Im just not sure the methodology being used to study it is valid. And it is being used for the basis of all sorts of proscriptions for “combatting racism.”

      Slight change of subject, but I just heard this guy on NPR:

      I haven’t checked into his research, but he makes a convincing case for racism not being a product of ignorance, but of the policies created by elites to back up their interests. Gee, where have I heard that sort of argument before…..

  2. Ok. This was literally 100 years ago. Feminist’s bring this shit up all the time. 100 years ago hysteria, 50 years ago women couldn’t have bank accounts, blah, blah, blah.

    70 years ago people died of polio.

    It is 2018 and women run everything. Today, Today, Today.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      All true. But more importantly, this post is about the replication crisis in science. In this case, a boldly false history was blindly accepted by an entire field. Few checked the sources. Those that did were ignored.

      It’s a serious problem.

  3. Larry,

    Why hasn’t Naked Capitalism re-posted your articles in almost a year? Seems like they used to feature your articles in their daily links but suddenly stopped for some reason. As a big fan of this blog, I just wonder why they started ignoring you?

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Who knows?

      I have not written much about the economy, let alone the gloomy articles they like. (Once it became clear there was no “stall speed”, it became clear the economy would continue to roll along for a long time, since there were no large imbalances.)

      More broadly, there is a deeper dynamic at work. Most of what NC — and other big successful websites — features is of little interest to me. Trump tweets this. Brexit that. The world is burning and we’re all going to die very soon. Politics and finance are corrupt. How many articles at NC do you find surprising, or tell you something important that you didn’t already know?

      These stories could be recycled from month to month with minor changes. If that’s what someone wants to read, there are many providers for it. I’m uninterested in adding to the clutter.

      The FM website exists to provide two kinds of content, neither of which is of interest to NC except occasionally and briefly.

      (1) Advocacy for action. Info is the opiate of the upper middle class. They’re ever becoming “well informed” for that glorious future day when they commit to serious political action. Articles here attempt to move up that day. I’m less interested in what people do than in getting them to do something.

      People really don’t want to read such articles. We’re not a “live, fortunes, and sacred honor” kind of people any more. But I believe we can be. The key is to discover how to encourage this.

      (2) Cutting edge news. Impolite, shocking, disturbing news. Like my articles in 2003 saying that we were losing in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the many articles saying that we don’t have the greatest military, ever (i.e., we keep losing). My articles about the latest great Leftist experiment: radical and rapid changes in America’s gender roles. Articles from the Letists at the Black Agenda Report expressing dissatisfaction with the Left.

      As we continue to drift and decay, I’ve widened my search for insights to further fringes of the Left and Right — searching for new insights. That inevitably reduces our audience. There is always a price paid.

    2. Great stuff, FM. NC is fixated on uninteresting stuff like financial reform, economics, blah blah. Good thing there’s the cutting edge willing to talk about things that actually matter like Cultural Marxism and all-female reboots of films. I’m glad you didn’t take the easy path that successful websites like NC did but went for new insights that a lot of people can’t handle.

      Can you link some of the 2003 articles about Iraq and Afghanistan you wrote?

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        I don’t think you read my comment. Try again.

        “there’s the cutting edge willing to talk about things that actually matter like Cultural Marxism and all-female reboots of films.”

        Since Aristotle, the usual opinion in Western philosophy and political science has been that political thought — the political regime — drives the evolution of a society. You’re welcome to disagree, although I think you’ll find little support in history for it.

        As for mocking film analysis, films — or more broadly, a society’s myths and stories — are a mirror in which we can more easily see our society. What it is, how it is changing. There are many 101 level courses at your local community college that explain this to you.

        “Can you link some of the 2003 articles about Iraq and Afghanistan you wrote?”

        Sept 2003: “Scorecard #1: How well are we doing in Iraq? How well is our opposition doing?

        October 2003: “Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?

        November 2003: “Scorecard #3: the Coalition’s Progress in Iraq.

        Those were very gently written. The comments were — as always — a reliable guide to their validity. They were not just critical, but dismissive. I wasn’t just wrong, but insane.

        You might also look at my list of successful predictions. It got pretty long, so I stopped updating it a few years ago. Almost every one was greet with mostly hostile comments.

        Fifteen years experience has proven that comments like those — and yours — are reliable guides. When people have substantive objections, they give them. When they mock the post – or themes — as ludicrous, it means I’ve hit pay dirt.

      2. Larry Kummer, Editor


        Expanding on my experience about analysis, after 15 years at this popstand.

        Cutting edge analysis is usually unpopular, which is why major publications and websites do so little of it. It’s bad for business. People want either the familiar tropes, or new material that flatters their preconceptions. Best of all is flattery for the good guys (Cheers!) and dirt on the bad guys (Boooo!). This is inimical to useful analysis, unfortunately.

        My experience with the Small Wars Council is somewhat similar to that with NC, but more so. Many of my articles about our wars were cross-posted there, receiving almost unanimous criticism (that’s far too mild a description) from its audience. They banned me sometime around 2007. But my analysis was accurate and my predictions almost prophetic (in tune with that of the 4GW community). Their editor, Dave Dilgee, lifted the ban in August 2009 and added me to their blogroll. But it was too late to change course by then. America was locked onto this path, on which we continue today.

        My posts about climate change have proven to be equally correct. The cautious predictions of the IPCC have proven accurate — and the climate doomsters been repeatedly proven wrong. But few of the bien pensant readers of NC know that.

        Structurally, NC operates much like National Review. Both are run by smart people, dedicated to their cause. They feed them a carefully curated stream of info and misinfo. Other than a little spice, avoiding anything that will spark thought. Such as how the New Deal won by an alliance of progressives and populists. That would upset too many apple carts. Best to lose with purity and joy!

  4. The foundation of modern institutional science is rotten, so that only the oldest and strongest of the sciences remain fully functional. Some of the worst affected are in the physical sciences, such as much biomedical research. Time will tell which others get added to that list (I vote for climate science). Many of the social sciences are deeply infected.

    Yes to climate science – it has had a longstanding problem with refusal to supply raw data and algorithms. Mann has yet to disclose the full workings behind MBH98.

    The problem this piece raises is that in the social sciences particularly there can be false assertions published in the peer reviewed literature which get media traction before serious rebuttals are done, and even when they are done, they don’t make much public impression.

    There are two other problems. One is in the move to policy. In climate we have advocacy of Paris membership and renewable electricity generation, neither of which do anything for the supposed problem. In diet we had the advocacy of the high carb diet, whose policy justification was non-existent. The problem is you have to do more than show there is a problem or a potential problem. You also have to show your proposed solution is better that business as usual and has some logical bearing on the evidence and the problem. Fat causes heart disease might lead to ‘reduce fat intake’, but it never could logically justify ‘eat more sugar’.

    The other is Post Modernism, which has driven a policy of ‘say whatever you like’. As for instance, Black Athene, as in Barthes’ idiotic ravings about Racine, who he seems to have read without any effort to understand. As in Lacan and other members of the Left Bank nonsense factory. Once the view has infected the liberal arts that there is no objective truth or falsity, all statements just reflect your class and ethnic and gender interests, there will inevitably be a spillover into the practice of scientific method in the social sciences.

    In the case of Maines, into the practice of history. Yes, its a real cultural crisis.

  5. I’m not sure why you think I was mocking you. I honestly think those topics are very important. I agree that culture and media are a kind of mirror to seeing our own societies with more clarity. All female-reboots of films are just an example of the leftist social experiment you have written about for so long. I’m completely serious. Historians might look back at films like the all-female Ghostbusters as an inflection point. Look at modern commercials too. They’re so sexist, women can do anything and men are just oafs. I saw a Gorilla Glue commercial the other day where a women fixes a grill and yells at her useless husband. I had to turn the tv off and go for a walk because I’m so tired of this propaganda. It’s really sad.

    And it’s a shame they banned you from the Small Wars Council forum. Maybe in a better world you could have kept posting and changed the course of the war. It’s a shame but hardly surprising as many people can’t handle prophetic truths. They’re just too weak for them. Kind of like NC readers who can’t hear your climate analysis. Guess they just prefer to wallow in their ideological safe zones than brave the cutting edge analysis you’re providing.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      (1) “I’m not sure why you think I was mocking you.”

      I apologize. But it certainly sounded like mockery, imo. But comments are, like Twitter, a means of miscommunication. Since over 80% of comments here are critical, after replying to 50,000 comments over 15 years I’ve developed a predisposition to see the next comment like that (regrettable, but perhaps inevitable).

      (2) “Maybe in a better world you could have kept posting and changed the course of the war.”

      I don’t see the world in that way. Group action – people standing together — change the world. I was a minor member of the fourth generation warfare “community” (school?), which was a small part of the anti-war movement. The hostile response of the people at the SWC (many experience, some experts) shows the magnitude our failure. As does the war, itself.

      That they lifted the ban was a personal action of the SWC’s editor, Dave Dilgee. A gracious and broad-minded act seldom seen in today’s political froth.

      (3) About comments

      It’s often useful to look back on the trail (something I learned in BSA leader training). When Chet Richards setup the FM website, I thought discussions would be about visions of the future, about values, about different political and philosophical perspectives, about choices, about the price we are willing to pay for America and the West.

      In fact, most comments are Wikipedia-level discussions about simple facts. People make claims. I cite the major media, Wikipedia, FRED, and other authorities to show the actual situation. People respond with more misinformation and myths. Repeat, etc. I’ve written quite a few posts about this. They get little traffic. But among the least popular posts are those calling upon readers to do something (anything) — to become politically active. The comments are mostly variants of “its hopeless, we’re just little bunnies before the big bad wolves.”

      The least popular are posts with “good news” in the title.

  6. It seems that her ‘theory’ couldn’t really be a scientific hypothesis — there is nothing really to test in any sort of experiment, and we can’t go back in time to witness what doctors did to treat female ‘hysteria’. Mostly it looks like she fabricated it. It does seem that medical practice in a lot of places was slow to acknowledge that masturbation, if not necessarily beneficial, is not usually harmful.

    It puts me to mind of the ‘scholarly treatment’ given to the Tribe of Ishmael by Hugo Prosper Leaming, a Unitarian minister doing sociology, anthropology, and social history VERY BADLY. An excerpt from the wikipedia article on the Tribe reads thus:

    Leaming’s reinvention of the Ishmael story as a diverse, crypto-Muslim tribe, bridging the gap of “African and American Islam,” and comprising a “lost-found nation in the wilderness of North America,” was discredited by Nathaniel Deutsch in the book Inventing America’s Worst Family: Eugenics, Islam and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael. Deutsch concluded that although much of the fascination with the Tribe of Ishmael has roots in American interest in Islam and the Orient, there is no reason to believe the Ishmael family was anything but a poor Christian family targeted by eugenics researchers.

    Michael Muhammad Knight has talked about the Ben Ishmael Tribe extensively in books Blue-Eyed Devil and Journey to the End of Islam, where he travels to Indiana and Illinois to visit Mecca, Indiana, Morocco, Indiana, and Mahomet, Illinois in order to learn more about the Ben Ishmael Tribe. His former mentor, Peter Lamborn Wilson introduced him to the history of the Ben Ishmael Tribe and influenced his interest in the group.

    I’m particularly interested in this group because apparently it originated in the part of Pennsylvania that I'm from (Franklin and Cumberland Counties, South Central PA). And the name Ishmael actually comes from the patriarch adopting it from a parish in Wales of that name. The story of the 'Ishmaelites' is very interesting even without all of the fabrications from Leaming. That is because they probably did absorb 'triracial people' coming out of the Alleghenies (the Melungeons). And also because they were the victims of 19th-early 20th century efforts at eugenics.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Thank you for the info about the Tribe of of Ishmael! That is interesting history, new to me.

      “It seems that her ‘theory’ couldn’t really be a scientific hypothesis — there is nothing really to test in any sort of experiment, and we can’t go back in time to witness what doctors did to treat female ‘hysteria’.”

      History is one of the humanities, not a science. Theories about history are validated (not proven) by accumulation of evidence — not experimentation or time travel.

    2. >>History is one of the humanities, not a science. Theories about history are validated (not proven) by accumulation of evidence — not experimentation or time travel.<<

      As a history major, I'm well aware of that. There are plenty of academic areas that aren't really either–take 'education' as an academic pursuit in HE.

      I'm not really so sure about validation by accumulation though. If the researcher in question could have found written notes that substantiate what she was hypothesizing, at least it would have given some support. But just how much of social reality textual artifacts always capture is really one of the reasons why we can never completely know what the past was like. The philosophy of social sciences (and whether or not history fits in those) used to interest me, but I have to admit not having thought about or read in those topics for years.

      The replication / duplication in science crisis is really for the most part a separate issue (since it is about the replication of experimental science). Worthy of a separate post here at your site, with expansion (forgive me if there is already a post about it and I missed it). The issues might break down into three separate concerns: replication in natural sciences, replication in social sciences (including psychology) and replication in other areas where experimental or at least quasi-experimental research is given great weight in 'knowledge-making discourse' (education, psycholinguistics, second language acquisition).

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