Big Think Interview With Rachel Maines

  • 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.

Question: What was the relationship between so-called hysteria and sexual frustration?

Rachel Maines: Well, hysteria was diagnosed by Hippocrates, as I mentioned, that's 450 B.C., so that's really quite a long time. It didn't really go out of fashion as a diagnosis, well, it was legislated out of existence in 1957 by the American, I think it's the American Psychiatric Association, but there's still a catch-all category for things. Charles Lasegue, who was a 19th century French physician, once said that, "Hysteria was the wastepaper basket of otherwise unemployed medical symptoms." And into this wastepaper basket went all sorts of thing from antiquity until, well, until Freud's time and then he put a new interpretation on it, what hysteria was, and that's the one that we kind of remember most often.

But the disease that, "disease," that is described by Hippocrates and by Thomas Sydenham, who's a, trying to remember, 17th century? He's called the English Hippocrates, a historical British physician, it really sounds like a lot more like sexual frustration, she's nervous, she has trouble sleeping, she has trouble with anxiety, she has these vague feelings of heaviness in the abdomen. And then my two favorite symptoms, you don't see this in every description, but you see them in enough to make you suspicious. One of the symptoms is sexual fantasy and the other is vaginal lubrication. And if these are symptoms, there are an awful lot of sick people out there, right? And they found a lot of sick people, they thought in the 19th century, for example, that three-quarters of all women, middle class women, suffered from hysteria. And if those are the symptoms, maybe they did.

Question: Were physicians really innocent about what they were “treating”?

Rachel Maines: In some cases it was innocence. But I wasn't even sure of my hypothesis myself until I saw the works of a fellow named Nathaniel Heimar wrote about hysteria in 1666, and he wrote it in Latin, so it's a very good thing I took that, you know, did all the classics back as an undergrad, that he said, he just calls what he's producing. He tells you all about how to do it, "Well, you know, here you get some oil, you know, and you get all, you know, greased up, and then you, you know, the fingers of this hand go in here and the fingers of the other hand go here. And then she'll get to breathe hard and then there'll be contractions and she'll get all red in the face, you know." And he just goes right on and says, "Well, it's an orgasm, you know, but it's your job to do this because you're a doctor, right? And you have to relieve the symptoms and she will feel better for a while and then she'll come back, you know, if she can afford to come to the doctor regularly." So it was a great way for a doctor to make a living, you know, these women are not really sick and they're not going to get well either, so, you know, it was, that was one of the things you notice in the 19th century, when the doctors actually write about that, that it's a good source of revenue.

But some of the doctors actually, in the 17th century, that is in Heimar’s time in Britain, Audrey Eccles, who was a British historian of medicine, has documented that there was actually a split between Protestant and Catholic doctors about whether it was really appropriate for doctors to be doing this, because they knew what was going on, at that time they did. It's not clear if they did in the 19th century or not. But apparently the Catholic doctor said, "Well, it's your duty to do this or, you know, or she might die of it," you know, oh, really? So you have to do this and the Protestant doctor's like, "Oh, we mustn’t, you know, terrible thing." But apparently that, you know, that was gone by the 19th century and the doctors were, most of them were saying, "Oh, it's nothing sexual, it can't be anything sexual, because there's no penetration and therefore, no sex. Right? Can't be, has to be something else. Hysterical paroxysm, that's what we're seeing. It's like the breaking of a fever, when you have a cold, you know, and you're all feverish for a while and then the fever breaks and you feel better? Yeah, see, that's it, the crisis of the disease, very Galenic, so they had their complete explanation there.

But some of them even knew, one of them who did was a fellow, a French physician, it would be a French physician, right? Auguste Tripier, and he says in, I think it's 1883, he says, "Look guys," and he does mean guys because he's speaking to an audience of physicians and they're all guys, "Look, you know as well as I do that this is “un crise venerien,” this is an orgasm, a sexual crisis, but we're doing it anyway. It's just as if we're masturbating these patients," and they were like, "We don't want to hear it, Auguste," you know, and they just ignored it and went right on. The only thing that stopped them, I think what stopped, two things. One of them is, well, actually three, Freud comes along and he attempts massage therapy for hysteria and it turns out that he doesn't, he's never good at it. This is a guy who didn't know what women wanted, right? So he decided he'd sit them up and talk to them instead and we can go on from there, but in any case, that's one thing that happened. As Freud comes along and reinterprets hysteria, what it is, "Oh, it's lesions in the consciousness, it's nothing to do with sex."

The second thing comes along is there begins to be a little more knowledge about women and their sexuality, not a whole lot, but there are some early sexology that is very persuasive and people will begin to say, "Well, you know, maybe women do have sexuality, maybe it's not unhealthy," you know?

And then the third thing that happens, and this is the real killer, as it were, the vibrator begins to appear in pornography and then the doctors go, "Ahh!" And just drop it like a hot rock, you know, they don't want anything more to do with it, because you know, it's obvious that what they're doing is exactly what these women are doing to themselves in these, like you know what a cabinet card is, it's about like this, and that's sort of an 19th century, early 20th century, you could buy them for respectable things, like theater stars, you could get a picture of like, you know, whoever the famous stars were and you could get like really weird ones and you could get ones of disasters, but you could also get pornography ones and there were these images of women with vibrators. And then by the '20s, we have the vibrator being used in films. And of course, I have a colleague, I'm always plugging his work, Jonathan Coopersmith, he's at Texas A & M, he's written a wonderful article called “Pornography of Progress.” And he makes the point that all these technologies, like cabinet cards, the telephone, fax machine, video, the Internet, that sexuality has seized on these things and turned them to its own purposes, thereby providing a stream of capital into the development of these technologies. And so you and I can sit here talking to each other through a video screen and a lot of the capital for the development of the technology was funded by that good old standby, human sexuality.

Question: What were the earliest vibrators like?

Rachel Maines: They came out of massage, hand technology for massage. There is some, there's a connection with water, hydro therapy, any woman who owns a shower massage can explain the details to you, if you need them explained, which you probably don't, but in any case, it's possible that even normal women knew about this, we're not sure. But in any case, there's the connection with hydrotherapy and then you wonder why Saratoga was so popular in the 19th century, especially with women? The men would go off and gamble and the women would go for the water cure. And some times it was very respectable and, you know, they just bathed at the water and everything was cool but there was also thing called the douche, the Scotch douche, that was, I've seen pictures of it, it was pretty startling. Anyway, those technologies, 1869, an American, George Taylor, invents a machine he calls the manipulator, which is basically a steam-powered, coal-fired vibrator. And because all you have to do is say steam-powered vibrator and start to snicker, you know--it is a funny idea.

The doctors didn't like this thing because, of course it was what they, what we historians of technology call a centralized technology, you have to bring the patient to the technology, you can't take the technology to the patient. And of course, the other thing doctors didn't like about it was having to shovel coal into it. You know, because that's what, you know, it wasn't in the same room with the patient, you know how in pictures of 19th century factories, you see all these drive trains that are leather straps? Well, that's how the power was transferred, there was a steam engine in one room with a drive train, and in the next room, at the other end of the drive train, was this table with a vibrating sphere in the middle of it that you would lay the patient across and that was the, so that was the immediate predecessor technology.

And then in the 1880s, in Britain, a fellow by the name of Joseph Mortimer Granille invents the modern electromechanical vibrator that we all know and love, and it was attached to, because there was no line electricity in 1883, it was attached to this huge, 40-pound wet cell battery, slosh, slosh, that you had to tote around if you wanted to take it anywhere, and it was attached by these completely uninsulated wires, you look at them now and you go, "Ooh," and wrapped around these little brass posts. And the vibrator itself, the vibrating mechanism, it's basically just a sloppy electrical motor, you know, all motors vibrate because they're slightly sloppy, well, you just make it a little sloppier on purpose and the thing will vibrate, right? Easy enough. Things about like this, it's wrapped, it's got a leather covering around it, and it's got these vibratodes with little ivory, little ivory tips on them. The vibratodes are what we would now call the attachments. My husband thinks that vibratodes is a really great word and he's trying to get it back into the language, you know, like maybe as a name of a rock group, you know, “Crazy Eddie and the Vibratodes.” But anyway, it had attachments, even as early as the very first model. And it was manufactured by a perfectly respectable British instrument maker, which is still in business, Weiss, but they didn't stay in the vibrator business very long after things started to look a little shaky.

At the turn of the century, they had, the vibrator kind of split into two product lines. One was for doctors and one was for consumers and doctors really hated the idea that there were consumer vibrators out there. But you know, when the market speaks, you know, everybody listens, including doctors, they better. There were these relatively inexpensive, some that looked like an egg beater for people who didn't have electricity. And it sounded like one, too, "Drrrr, drrrr," and there were battery powered ones, there were even water-powered ones that you could attach to your sink, this was before water was metered. So it's like basically little tiny turbines, about this big and they apparently worked, I've never seen one, a real one, but I've seen ads.

And then the ones that everybody thinks are the funniest, which are the doctor's models. Because they look like, there's one that I have a picture of that looks like a cross between a visitor from outer space and an old-fashioned telephone, and it's got this dial with little mother of pearl buttons that don't have anything on them at all. So it's just like fast, faster, fastest. But you got to look scientific, so you have the little mother of pearl buttons, right? Brrrroooommmm, you know, the patient will be so impressed, and these were quite expensive. The model that everybody seems to like the best, the Chattanooga, which had to be shipped by freight because it was so heavy, it stood about 5 feet tall and in fact, it's in the Vibrator play, they **** from Sarah Wolfe's play. They've made a rooftop Chattanooga and it rolls on wheels and it had to have a huge counterweight, about this big, because with the vibratode attached to the vibrating head at about the five foot level, if you roll it up to the, roll it around, it would've fall over if it didn't have this counterweight. Because people always ask why is there this box on the bottom and that stuff, it’s because it's so, it looked so top heavy it would fall over. And that one cost $100 at a time when you could buy a small house for $200. So these are very expensive machines and of course, in the 1920's, they all just disappeared because doctors didn't want to have anything more to do with vibrators.

So that's where the technology came from. Meanwhile, the consumer technology is going off into the direction that really, except for being all made of metal instead of plastic, they're not distinguishable from modern vibrators. Sears used to make one, a vibrator, in fact, you could buy a motor, there's a picture of this in my book on vibrators, you could buy a motor from Sears, a little electric motor about yay, and you could buy a vibrator attachment, a beater, a grinder, a fan, a mixer, and I think there were a couple, buffer, there was a buffer as well. So you know, no home should be without one. And they weren't even that expensive, you know? But as I say, doctors didn't like it because there was all this self-treatment going on, but doctors always disapprove of self-treatment.

Question: How common is vibrator use among women?

Rachel Maines: Well, they tell me, I don't know for sure, you know, I'm basically a historian, so I don't really know, but they tell me that about one household in three has some kind of a sex toy in it, either a vibrator or something else, but vibrators are extremely popular, they sell very well. It's hard to know for sure how many are sold because the US Bureau of the Census, Census of Manufacturers, doesn't have a separate category for them, they're just in the, I think it's small personal appliances, so they're in there with hair dryers and curling irons and things like that, so you can't really tell. And I think the figures are getting, the numbers are going up every year and they haven't been set back by the recession at all, I'm told. I mean, what else are you going to do, right? It's too expensive to go out to the movies, so you stay home, right?

Question: How common is vibrator use among men?

Rachel Maines: No, actually I don't know. I know that it's becoming more popular and there are now, as there never used to be, models especially for men, and I'm told that one of the things that, one of my friends liked about the play is that there's a scene with a man and a vibrator.

Question: Are there any societies that don’t use sex toys?

Rachel Maines: Of industrial democracies, no, there are not any that don't have them. I think the only, I think it's one of those things where it's like washing machines. If you can afford washing machines, you have washing machines. If you can't afford washing machines, you don't have them. And electricity is, we're fortunate in having as inexpensive, it seems expensive to us, but it isn't really. We have inexpensive electricity and it's readily available and it's not limited by things like batteries. You know, we can recharge, if we want to recharge batteries, we can recharge them. But that's not true all over the world. There are a lot of people who don't even have clean water. And I think that they make dildos and things like that even in pre-industrial societies. So I think that the impulse to be playful about sex is, I think that's just a human thing. And recently we're finding that it's true of some animals. We've found that it's true of the marine mammals. They didn't, the biologists told us for years, "Oh, no, animals are very serious about sex, you know, just business, you know." But then, you know, they found out that even different species of marine animal will just like, you know, spend all day playing with each other sexually, for no apparent reason, just that, hey, it's fun! You know, here we are all in the water, you know!

Question: What new sex toy technologies are currently emerging?

Rachel Maines: Well, I'm told, I learned this just the day before yesterday at the Philoctetes Institute. Doesn't that sound educational? And it is, too, I was asked to be a part of a roundtable there, and a young woman got up and talked about something called the Real Doll, which is a programmable female type of person, well basically it's a female robot, or sex bot, as I'm told you should call them, that has, you know, that has programmable, the oral cavity is programmable. She didn't mention any of the other body parts, but I gather they all are. And now it's, of course it's hideously expensive, any kind of robot is very expensive, even the ones that just vacuum carpet are not cheap. But yeah, that's one of the directions it's going. There are now things you can buy and install in your bathtub that are kind of, to me of course they are electronic and they have, and in fact, one of the technical challenges is that water and electronics don't mix, and the inventors, the engineers who build these things, are really having trouble with that, keeping the electronics, that's why it's so hard to get a reliable dishwasher that has electronic controls, because you have hot, something hot and you've got something wet, and you've got electronics, which are not a good combination.

They go in your bathtub and they're programmable, and they're for women. You sort of ride them like a, I don't really have a clear picture in my mind of what they're like, but I've had them described to me. Oh, and I think there's one called Amazing Saddles, that's it, this one called Amazing Saddles. So probably if you Googled on Amazing Saddles, you'd find it. And then there's a lot of dual action stuff now, that, you know, that penetration is not, most women don't have orgasm just with penetration alone. And you know, if you've got both, well, you know, and some of these penetrative dildo-type vibrators that also have a dual action, you've seen the ones with the little rabbit, you know, with the ears that go like this, and some of them are really very cute. So they've gotten more playful and I'm sure they're going to get more technological and there's all these things now where people do elaborate hookups with the internet and I'm so, it's funny, I'm so old-fashioned, you know, I wrote this book and everybody thinks, "Oh, she must know all about this stuff," and I'm like, I've been married for 30 years, you know?

Question: Is sex a formerly functional activity that has become recreational?

Rachel Maines: Oh yes, definitely, yes. And I think that's a very good bridge, thank you. That's a good transition into it, because, you know, you read about medieval sex, for example, and a lot of it is very businesslike, it's in the dark, people still have part of their clothes on, it's not warm enough in the room, you can't take all your clothes off, and so, and sex toys, too, they're a function of leisure and industrialization, of prosperity. These are, they have to do with prosperity. And all of these other hedonizing technologies, in fact, if I remember correctly, the book opens with a discussion of sex as a sort of hedonized activity that, it's like gourmet cooking. You know, I just was in whole foods a little while ago and, you know, nobody has to cook any more that if you have enough money, you don't have to cook. And even if you don't have a whole lot of money, you still won't have to cook. If you could stand eating in McDonalds, you know, and things like that, okay.

In the industrial democracies, you don't have to cook. And you're prosperous enough. But people, there are now a whole lot of people who cook just because they like to, like my husband and me. You know, we like to, we have all these, you know, all clad pans hanging in our kitchen and my idea of a remedy for seasonal affective disorder, you know, when it's gloomy, in upstate New York, it's often very gloomy, especially this time of year when it gets dark early. So get like a pork shoulder and braise it in herbs and saffron and wine and all this stuff all day, so the whole house smells great all day long. And that's the kind of thing people do when a technology becomes hedonized, when you don't have to do it, then you have the, you can step back from it and say, "Now, how could I have fun with this?" And that's what's happening with hunting, fishing, needlework, cake decorating, which used to be something that only professionals did after World War II, it became a hobby for housewives. And now, not just housewives but house husbands, too. Why not? And there's all these other things.

In fact, I learned when I was writing that book, it's the most fun I ever had writing a book, that, every time I think, okay, I'm going to finish this manuscript, I'm going to send it to Hopkins, you know, and I was, "Oh, just one more, I just have to have," it's like eating potato chips, "I've just got to do one more," "Oh, I've just learned about," you know, like boating is another example. I can't remember what they all are, but there's a whole bunch of them in there, leatherworking is one of them. And there's a literature of all of them, I had a lot of fun with that.

Question: Do work activities become fun precisely when they become optional?

Rachel Maines: Yes. And particularly the ones that also became obsolete for production purposes, like knitting socks, like, you know, absolutely nobody, almost anywhere in the world, has to knit socks, very few people now live in such remote areas that they have to knit their own socks, you know? And it's usually much more cost effective just to go out and buy a pair. In fact, the yarn to make yourself a pair of handmade wool socks cost about five times as much as a pair of socks does, right? Even a pair of good ones. But if you like to knit socks, you know, then, you know, what's wrong with that, right? Can't do any harm knitting socks. That's an example.

But there's a bunch of others that are like that. Printmaking. It used to be that lithography was used by professionals, in fact, Collier's Magazine, you've probably seen those old covers, those are lithograph. But when lithography became obsolete as a production printing technology, the artisans seized on it and said, "Oh, wow," and then you have things like, what's it called? The Tamarind Workshop, which is a famous, historical, it's a printmaking workshop and there are all these famous artists who got involved in it. So that's another example. Throwing pots, making ceramics, once it became, buying hand thrown pots is something you do if you have a lot of money, you don't just, you know, it's not like Roman times where you have, all the pots were hand thrown. But the people who like to do it use the technology that they pick. Sometimes they pick high tech, sometimes they want to operate with a foot pedal, sometimes they want it electrically powered. That's the other thing, is that you get to vote, as it were, with your dollars, on what technology you're going to use. It isn't a question of what's efficient, because efficiency doesn't matter, right? Nobody cares. Whatever gives you the most pleasure, that's why I call it hedonizing technology.

Question: Will present-day chores, like laundry, ever become recreational?

Rachel Maines: Well, you know, I wondered about that, I wondered about that myself. I know people who like to wash dishes by hand. I keep thinking that there's tasks that can't be hedonized. In fact, I used to think that ironing couldn't. And then one of my colleagues, Rebecca Hertzel, as a matter of fact, came up to me at a meeting and said, "Have you heard about" And I said, "What?" And she said, "ExtremeIroning, you know, just go there, you'll see what I mean." And sure enough, it's hedonized ironing. Now, these people are not really, well, I mean, you could say they're ironing, you know how, you were, some of us, maybe not you, but some of us were taught in home economics class, in my case, how to iron a man's shirt. You start with the yoke, you know, you iron that, and then, boy, I'm going, now I'm going to have trouble remembering. Then I think you do the side with the buttons, the front side of the buttons, then the side with the buttonholes, then the sleeves, and the collar is last. Well, this orthodox of shirt ironing is the rules now of the sport. Sport of extreme ironing. Now, if it makes the Olympics in my lifetime, I'll be very impressed. But it's already pretty, pretty amazing. There's an outfit in Britain called Rowenta that makes irons and they sponsor an annual extreme ironing contest. And the one I have in the book, the example I have in the book, is the Wolfberg Cracks in South Africa, these huge canyons, well, this guy's got himself, and these are interesting, it's mostly guys, this guy has got himself suspended on a tight wire between the Wolfberg Cracks and on his, he's got a harness holding him onto the wire and standing on, he's got the ironing board on his feet and he's ironing this shirt over the Wolfberg Cracks. He was the 2003 winner of the Rowenta Trophy for extreme ironing.

They've got scuba ironers, they've got polar ironers, I can't remember what they all--oh, excuse me, they're called ironists. Ironists. There're like people standing on top of, you know, those very tall signs that they have on freeway gas stations, people, like a whole group of them up there ironing. That's extreme ironing. So you can't tell what's going to be next. Might be washing dishes, cleaning the oven. You know, I have an oven that cleans itself, right? So, you know, there may be people 20 years from now who, "Oh, I just got to get myself some EasyOff so that I can, and a pair of gloves and boy, I'm going to go after my oven, it'll be so much fun!"

Question: What’s the most unexpected insight to emerge from your current work?

Rachel Maines: Well, actually I'm working on a book about building codes, which sounds deadly dull compared to the other things that I've done, but what I'm interested in is injury epidemiology, which my second book's about, “Asbestos and Fire,” and I'm interested in how all the rules that go with our built environment, building codes, if you go out, if you go out and walk around in New York City or anywhere, just sometime when you're not thinking about anything else, take note of how much of the built environment has to do with protecting ourselves against danger. The curbs on the street, the lines that are painted on the street, the traffic signals, the signs. These are all aspects of the built environment that help keep our death rate down. And parts of the world where they don't do that kind of thing or where they don't read the signs or pay attention to them and they're, unfortunately, a lot of places like that. They have the signs and they don't read them or pay attention, they have a much higher death rate. And it's a much more serious and somber subject than these other three. I sort of go back and forth between death and destruction and fun and games and, you know, it kind of keeps life interesting. I think that the most fascinating thing about the work that I'm doing now, that strikes me, I think the most interesting insight, is that it's not so much having a democracy that makes those codes, those building codes and safety codes work, it's the habit of democracy. That it just, you know, making your country a democracy, you know, doesn't inculcate that habit, but we're accustomed to, like, you know, in elementary school when we learn Robert’s Rules Of Order, right? And so we're accustomed to the parliamentary procedure, and kids in Britain, same thing, you know, they know all about that.

And by the time, you know, a few generations have gone by, you're used to the idea that you don't run red lights. You don't, you know, ignore signs that say wrong way. You know, you don't cross the yellow lines if you want to stay alive. And that somehow is a part, although it's an ordering and some people would say a kind of hegemony over people's lives, it really does seem to be a tool of keeping people alive in democracy. It's an elaborate way of putting it, but I'm sure you see what I mean, that it's a lifesaver. And keeping people alive is one of the functions of democracies.

Recorded on December 14, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen