A sew-sew sex life?

August 21, 1998

In her research on early needlework magazines, Rachel Maines stumbled across an extraordinary link with women's sex aids. But the subsequent publication of her article on vibrators caused more of a buzz than she could ever have imagined

When I first saw an advertisement in a 1906 women's magazine for a device strongly resembling the modern vibrator, my first assumption was that I had a dirty mind. This could not possibly be a masturbation aid, I thought. Not that long ago.

I was then doing research on the seemingly innocuous question of whether sales of needlework supplies and publication of needlework magazines between 1880 and 1930 were correlated with women's employment outside the home (they are, positively).

Because early 20th-century American popular needlework publications are almost entirely unindexed, I had to search for material by the simple but laborious method of sitting down with piles of them and turning one page after another. While doggedly turning the pages of Modern Priscilla and Woman's Home Companion in search of trends among the needlework patterns, my attention frequently strayed to the advertisements.

Spotting the vibrator ads, I realised that 1906 was very early for any kind of home electrical appliance. I made a few notes on the titles, issues, dates and pages of other similar ads in needlework publications. I showed a few to my feminist friends, who were, of course, delighted. I was understandably concerned that no one would ever again take me seriously as a scholar if I continued this line of research. But it was more fun than needlework history.

In 1985, when I was lecturing at Clarkson University, I won a fellowship to the Bakken Library and Museum of Electricity in Life in Minneapolis, which has a remarkable collection of vibrators as well as library materials on all aspects of electricity in medicine. At the end of the week I made my first presentation on the vibrator to the staff and members of the Bakken.

My hypothesis was that the vibrator was invented to treat women for that old medical favourite, "hysteria", which doctors since the time of Hippocrates had been treating by massage of the female genitalia to orgasm. Women needed these treatments because penetration, the standard of sexuality through most of western history, is not very effective in producing orgasm in most women. The doctors got the job because nobody else wanted it.

It was during this presentation that I first realised the subject of the vibrator polarises audiences. All-women groups simply laugh and ask lots of questions. In audiences of women and men, the women look uncomfortable and do not ask many questions, although they laugh just the same. (They seem aware that it is a major breach of etiquette to mention in mixed company the relative inefficiency of penetration as a means of producing female orgasm.) The men divide into those who laugh and those who stare blankly.

After my return from the Bakken, the liberal studies programme at Clarkson wanted to publicise the then-rare phenomenon of one of its members receiving a fellowship, but was concerned about the reaction of the rest of the faculty (primarily engineers and scientists) to my subject matter. The issue was resolved by placing a notice in the school's faculty newsletter to the effect that I had "received a grant-in-aid ... from the Bakken Library of Electricity in Life in Minneapolis, Minnesota" and that I would "use the grant to study the impact of small electric appliances in the home".

In June 1986, right after the publication of my first article on the vibrator in the Bakken newsletter, I lost my job at Clarkson University. I had been teaching in the school of management, and before that in the liberal studies programme. One afternoon I picked up my mail and found a photocopied list of new office assignments. My name was not on it. Inquiries to the dean revealed that I no longer had a job.

On further investigation it seemed there were several reasons for this. First, it was thought that my intellectual interests simply did not fit into the school of management, but there were two other complaints. It was feared that alumni would stop giving money to the school if it was discovered that a member of its faculty was doing research on vibrators. Moreover, I had a very high energy level that "wasn't compatible with the rest of the faculty". Since I had only a part-time position, there was nothing for it but to pack my books and go.

By far the most entertaining of my adventures with vibrator historiography, however, was the brouhaha occasioned by the publication of my article "Socially camouflaged technologies: the case of the electromechanical vibrator" in Technology and Society, the journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

Early in 1988, I had noticed a call for research papers for a special issue of Technology and Society, under the editorship of Robert Whelchel, with eminent electrical historian James Brittain as guest editor. I cobbled together a brief discussion of the social-camouflage aspect of my research, and sent it in; the article went through the usual referee process and was accepted with revisions. The only hint of possible trouble to come was a letter from Brittain that closed by saying that my article was to be a kind of test of IEEE publication policy, as they had not published an article like mine "since they began in 1884".

The article was published in July 1989, when many professors and engineers are away on holiday. In September, I received a telephone call from Whelchel. The technical advisory board of IEEE was threatening to withdraw the publication charter of Technology and Society on the grounds that since there could not possibly be anyone named Rachel Maines who had written this article, it must be some sort of elaborate practical joke on the part of the coeditors. It could not, according to the board, have been refereed, and the references must all have been faked. The nine-page article had 51 footnotes to more than 160 sources, some of them in Latin and Greek. As one board member put it: "It read like a parody of an IEEE article. It contained dozens and dozens of obsolete references."

Whelchel and Brittain were preparing for an inquiry at the November 1989 board meeting, at which they would be required to show proof of my existence, evidence that Maines and Associates was a respectable business establishment and proof that the article had been refereed. Others were busily verifying the existence of my references.

Shortly before the November meeting, I received another call, this time from a reporter for IEEE Spectrum, a newspaper that goes out to all 350,000 of the institute's members. The October issue had a half-page article on the hullabaloo within the technical advisory board, including a quotation from one member who thought I should have used radar detection devices in automobiles as my example of a socially camouflaged technology. He also considered my article as written more "to titillate than to enlighten", apparently rejecting the possibility that both could occur simultaneously.

At the meeting, cooler heads prevailed: referee reports were shown, a letter from my colleagues in the Society for the History of Technology was produced, and the anti-vibrator faction was made to realise that the IEEE was in danger of making itself a laughing stock. Letters to later issues of Spectrum all expressed the view that it was about time the IEEE took a courageous look at some new issues. I was later told that subscriptions to Technology and Society went up as a result of the controversy, illustrating yet again that efforts at censorship simply provide valuable publicity to that which they attempt to suppress. If I am really lucky, maybe somebody will try to ban The Technology of Orgasm, the book I have now written about my research.

Rachel Maines is an independent scholar. The Technology of Orgasm:

"Hysteria," Vibrators and Women's Sexual Satisfaction will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press later this year.

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