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Rachel Maines Lectures on "Vibrators and Viagra"

Author of The Techology of Orgasm Discusses Sexual Double Standard

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Historian Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria", the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction, gave a lecture titled "Vibrators and Viagra: The Double Standard" to a packed Events Barn on November 12. The event was part of the Kirkland Project's 2003-2004 Series "Technology, Science and Democracy: What's at Stake?", and was also sponsored by the departments of Psychology and Women's Studies, as well as Faculty for Women's Concerns.

In her informative and entertaining lecture, Maines' discussed the phenomenon of the medical disorder known as "hysteria" and the treatments that arose from it. "Hysteria" was a "disease of madness" diagnosed in women from ancient times predating the Hippocratic corpus until it was taken off the books by the American Psychological Association in 1952. What was called "hysteria" is essentially what we today would identify as female sexual desire and dissatisfaction. The fact that it was considered a disease or abnormality represents the pathologization of female sexuality throughout history. As Maines pointed out, in the mainstream concept of sex as heterosexual intercourse, female orgasm has been considered irrelevant, while male orgasm has been considered essential to the act. This double standard led to what Maines called a "mismatch" between what women experience as female sexuality and how society defines it.

Maines' exploration into this topic began when she was doing research in early 20th century needlework magazines, wherein she found many advertisement for vibrators claiming to cure diseases. While seeing these ads at first suprised her, research revealed that in fact vibration therapy by doctors on "hysteric" patients had been going on since the first vibrator was invented in 1883. Soon, the vibrator was made commercially available, and was one of the first electrified home appliances sold.

Maines showed slides of these early vibrators and the advertisements for them. These advertisements depicted vibrators as medical devices, often showing their uses for massage and actually showing men using them more often than women. Later in the 20th century, as female sexuality became better understood and the vibrator lost its social camoflague of a medical appliance, it became taboo to advertise them in respectable publications. Maines told the story of an executive from a Swiss company that manufactures vibrators trying to buy advertising in American women's magazines and being turned down, despite the fact that Viagra and other similar products were advertised in the very same magazine. In fact, there are still some states in which it is illegal to sell or own vibrators because of their relationship to "immoral" behaviors that deviate from the legal definition of sex as heterosexual intercourse. These sort of occurances, said Maines, show that the double standard concerning male and female sexuality still exists, even in our supposedly sexually enlightened society.

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