SynopsisThis is the story of one simple invention, the vibrator, and its relationship to one complex human behavior, the female orgasm. The history of the vibrator and its medical use had virtually vanished until historian, Rachel Maines, researching needlework patterns in early 20th century women’s magazines, ran across ads for electric vibrators. Piquing her curiosity, she traced the origins of this early electrified appliance and made an astonishing discovery. Under the guise of a medical treatment, Victorian doctors had used vibrators to relieve women of symptoms of hysteria by masturbating them to orgasm. Why did women need this treatment? Female sexual satisfaction was, and continues to be, misunderstood or, worse, ignored. Almost 70% of women do not reach orgasm by penetration alone. Yet, the social, legal and religious definition of “real” sex is just that: penetration of the vagina to MALE orgasm. FEMALE orgasm isn’t even considered. Is it any wonder that a lot of women were unsatisfied? Their dissatisfaction was labeled “hysteria.” Symptoms of hysteria were vague – being cranky, reading French novels while wearing tight corsets, etc. It was a disease manufactured by doctors creating a lucrative clientele and a mutually camouflaged procedure that satisfied both.
In the late 1920s, vibrators began appearing in blue movies. The camouflage was blown. Doctors dropped the treatment and manufacturers stopped advertising. The vibrator went underground and it disappeared from the annals of history until Maines happened upon it.
In the 1970s, the feminist movement, the birth control pill and legalized abortions ushered in the sexual revolution. Artist and author, Betty Dodson almost single handedly brought the vibrator back into women’s lives because of an accidental discovery. When Dodson and her lover used a barber’s scalp massager on her clitoris, she experienced intense orgasms. Inspired by this revelation, she began a crusade to teach women how to have orgasms with vibrators – alone and with partners.
In 2004, thirty years after Dodson’s happy discovery, the female orgasm is under attack again. Former fifth grade teacher, Joanne Webb, was arrested for selling vibrators to two undercover cops in a small Texas town. She had broken a state law that prohibits the sale of devices that stimulate the genitals. Texas and three other states have enacted these laws, a backlash to feminism. In these states, however, it is legal to advertise and sell Viagra. This double standard for women has far-reaching contemporary implications for sexual freedom, civil liberties and the right to privacy.