Monday, August 27, 2012

{review} the technology of orgasm

When did God make men?
When she realised that vibrators couldn't dance.

Maines' book is a really well adapted women's studies/social sciences dissertation. It is amusing and grotesque in almost equal measure. Maines looks at how the vibrator has been used, abused and misused as a 'scientific' instrument for managing women's illnesses by mechanical means, particularly in the nineteenth century. Some of these mechanisms are quite eye-watering: the steam-powered vibrator, is a case in point. Did you know that the vibrator was electrified for the home market nine years before the vacuum cleaner?!
Rests, strengthens, renews, repairs. Every vital organ is crammed full of vitality. The clogging waste is swept away by the coursing blood which the marvellous force sets leaping through every vein and artery with the virile strength of perfect health. You sleep as restfully as you used to. You awaken, refreshed mentally - physically - strong in mind and body and glad to be alive. [Advertisement for 'White Cross Electric Vibrator' in The American Magazine, January 1913]
Maines asks some really good questions: about the development of the 'disease paradigm' of hysteria; about women's diseases as cash cows for the unscrupulous; about the medicalization of normal conditions for reasons of belief and profit ("the patients neither recovered nor died of their condition but continued to require regular treatments"); about why there are so many hysterics in the nineteenth century; about the long-held belief that vaginal intercourse is required for orgasm (and the concomitant subsumption of the clitoris within "androcentric definitions of sexuality and the construction of ideal female sexuality to fit them"). And how can the same device cure nymphomania and frigidity?

Rating: this is a really enjoyable read, with some nice bits of gender and social theory made accessible to the general reader. There is no bibliography (which was sad), but the notes are very rich and worth reading in full.

If you liked this... I have this book on my wishlist: The Female Body in Medicine and Literature, edited by Andrew Mangham & Greta Depledge (2011).

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