Rachel P. Maines

Rachel P. Maines is the author of The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. In it she explores the history of hysteria, genital massaging by doctors as a treatment for the alleged problem, and the vibrator as the late nineteenth century’s technological breakthrough for delivering these services. Maines leads us through this history to a world of difficult implications about truth, authority, gender, and sex. The vibrator will never be the same.

Carolyn Kuebler conducted this interview in the spring of 2000.


= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =


conduit: Many of the devices illustrated in your book—like the Chattanooga deluxe vibrator from 1900—are pretty outrageous, and hard to ignore. Yet they were largely undocumented in histories of electrical devices. Your book in fact points out a lot of ways history is selective, and the ways truth is masked to fit the purposes of some power group. Do you see any current forms of technology being masked in a similar way?

Rachel P. Maines: My favorite modern examples of camouflaged technologies are the radar detector and the pharmaceutical scale sold to people who are not in the medical and pharmaceutical professions. Both are marketed with the obvious expectation that purchasers will use them in the course of breaking the law, but of course the advertisers and retailers of these technologies never say so. It's expected that consumers will know what to do with the stuff when they get it. Pre-1930 advertisements for the vibrator are the same way, except that masturbation wasn't illegal, it was just socially unacceptable. The ads give just enough clues to the benefits that those who know will get the picture. Modern vibrators are often marketed with explicitly sexual text and pictures, which has made them the target of the kind of legislation I mentioned earlier. Apparently politicians didn't worry about them as long as the hypocrisy about their function was preserved.

conduit: Does technology itself camouflage reality?

maines: That's not a concept any historian of technology would find congenial. Technology certainly emphasizes some aspects of reality over others: for example, both the printing press and the television have tended to focus our attention on the visual rather than, say, the olfactory, and stereo systems obviously draw our attention to auditory stimuli.

conduit: "Hysteria" as a term managed to group together much of women's behavior in order to dismiss it as pathological. Do you see other ways language participates in social/historical camouflaging, as in terms like "ethnic cleansing"?

maines: Certainly language is often used this way. "Ethnic cleansing" may be an effective camouflage on those who want to believe it's a sanitary measure, but it fools only those who really want to think of it that way. There are far more subtle ways in which language influences our thinking, as in the case of the definition of "sex" we discussed earlier. Think, for example, of the world "slut." There is no parallel term for men whom we wish to pejorate by suggesting that they are insufficiently selective about their sexual partners. Nearly every possible term has some kind of ameliorative force, even "womanizer" and "skirt-chaser." Profanity takes it for granted that being on the receiving end of penetration, whether genital or oral, is a bad thing, as in "I really got screwed," "That really sucks," or "Fuck you!"

conduit: So just by saying "fuck you" and "this sucks" we're pretty much perpetuating those assumptions, such that they even seem inherent to our language?

maines: Those expressions do perpetuate some very old ideas. The "fuck you" expression is actually quite evocative—many of those fucked over the years have, apparently, not enjoyed it very much, and ended up with an unwanted pregnancy, so maybe it's not such an inaccurate portrayal of what's been going on. As for "that sucks," I once heard someone say "That sucks dead bears", which really IS disgusting to contemplate, and so I latched right onto the expression. I think the original expression is intended to denigrate gays as well as women.