The Study That Set the World Abuzz

When Rachel Maines first published a history of the vibrator (“The Technology of Orgasm”), she “expected it to derail [her] career, and it did.” But even she wasn’t prepared for its impact outside academia.
  • Transcript


Question: Did researching the vibrator pose professional obstacles for you?

Rachel Maines: I expected it to derail my career, and it did. I have never been like a tenured faculty member anywhere, I've been a professor, now I'm a visiting scientist and I love it, but because, when I first started working on it, it was so controversial, that nobody wanted to touch it. I couldn't even get an article published on it, except for this little magazine associated with the Bakken Library and Museum of Electricity and Life, which is out in Minneapolis, and even they later began to think better of it, but it was too late by then, of course, once you're published, you're published.

But then after working on the thing for like, well, I guess it was more than 20 years, it came out in 1999, which turned out to be the perfect year for it, although I didn't know that, I couldn't have, but, you know, that's when I finished it and it came out and people just went bonkers over it. They even did a “Law & Order Special Victims Unit” thing with a little vignette from my book. I was like, it's not what a historian expects. But it's been quite a trip and now there's been a movie and a play, which is running right now at the Lyceum and I'm told, Scout's honor, a puppet musical.

Question: What did you hope the impact of the study would be?

Rachel Maines: You're going to laugh at me, because what I thought was going to happen was that my colleagues would talk about it a lot and it would be reviewed in the scholarly journals and that's all I expected. I thought maybe a few people might use it as a textbook, but actually it's used as a textbook in about 150 colleges and universities around the world. It's been translated now, I think it's now in three languages, and people just loved my hypothesis, and that's all it is really, is an hypothesis, that women were treated with massage for this disease, hysteria, which has supposedly existed since the time of Hippocrates, 450 B.C., and that the vibrator was invented to treat this disease. Well, people just thought this was such a cool idea that people believe it, that it's like a fact. And I'm like, "It's a hypothesis! It's a hypothesis!" But it doesn't matter, you know? People like it so much they don't want to hear any doubts about it. Eventually somebody will sit down and say, "Now, maybe there's another way to interpret this data," but in the meantime, I'm really kind of enjoying all the attention. As you can imagine.

Recorded on December 14, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen