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Good vibrations

By Evelyn Tsitas - posted Monday, 11 April 2011

Did you know that the vibrator had its beginnings as a treatment for an ancient condition known as female hysteria? That it was an academic researching needlepoint who rediscovered the secret history of a device created for "a job know one else wanted"?

Welcome to the world of higher education, where a sharp mind, insatiable curiosity and a doctorate in History can lead you into some surprising insights.

That's right - sex aids and academic research that serves to both titillate and enlighten. After all, who said research had to be dull and boring in order to be significant – and profitable? It can be provocative, savage and offbeat as it illuminates.


Take Rachel P. Maines. Her research has spawned a veritable industry into the history of the vibrator. Maines, who earned her doctorate in history at Carnegie Mellon University in 1983, published The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator and Women's Sexual Satisfaction in 1999. It has since been translated into French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese.

A documentary on her research is now available on DVD. Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm recently screened in the US as part of a celebration of Women's History Month.

Never heard of it? Well, then you might have seen the publicity for the Pulitzer and Tony shortlisted play In the Next Room – or the Vibrator Play (MTC April 7 – May 14). The Broadway comedy focuses on a neglected doctor's wife and the "scientific experiment" he is conducting with two patients in the room next door. The play is based on Maines's book and research.

A Hollywood movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, also based on Maines's book, is now in production. Its title is Hysteria - after the common and chronic ailment in women that use of a vibrator was said to have cured.

Maines says she is often asked when she presents papers at workshops how she managed "to find this esoteric topic". Doctorate students will nod in recognition when she admits "I didn't – it found me". It often seems with research that we chance upon something while looking for something else. That's the exciting part – when all avenues broaden out in possibility.

While researching women's textile history in America and flipping through piles of needlework magazines from the 1880s, Maines noted with surprise numerous advertisements for a device that looked startlingly similar to a modern vibrator. But they weren't called vibrators – they were marketed as a "health and relaxation aid". Still – the ambiguous phrase "all the pleasures of youth…will throb within you" alerted Maine to the possibility of an alternative to cross stitch.


Maines research investigated "hysteria" as a disease paradigm in order to track down the reason for the evolution of the vibrator. Hysteria was diagnosed by Hippocrates in the first century A.D. In the second century, Galen described it as a disease caused by sexual deprivation. Maines said his remedy of genital massage therapy is found in medical texts until the end of the 19th century.

She also discovered that while physicians knew massaging a woman to orgasm would "cure" hysteria, they felt it was time consuming, temporary, and a tough skill to master. Husbands didn't want the task either. In short, it was "the job no one wanted".

Enter the vibrator. Maines writes that "massage to orgasm of female patients was a staple of medical practice among some (but certainly not all) Western physicians from the time of Hippocrates until the 1920s and mechanizing this task significantly increased the number of patients a doctor could treat in a working day."

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About the Author

Dr Evelyn Tsitas works at RMIT University and has an extensive background in journalism (10 years at the Herald Sun) and communications. As well as crime fiction and horror, she writes about media, popular culture, parenting and Gothic horror and the arts and society in general. She likes to take her academic research to the mass media and to provoke debate.

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