Hysterical (and Historical) Paroxysms!

I’m so excited!

One of my academic heroes, Rachel Maines, is coming to visit Good VibrationsAntique Vibrator Museum -– a project enhanced, even made possible, by her extraordinary research.

Maines is best known for her book about the history of vibrators, The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Studying needlework and textiles as an independent scholar in the 1970s, Maines was astounded to find ads in the primary-source needlework magazines she consulted that advertised a product she didn’t expect to see depicted in such mainstream, ladylike publications: electric vibrators. What on earth, she wondered, was a sex toy doing there? The fascinating answer -– that it wasn’t exactly a sex toy, at least not the way we understand them today (though old-school vibrators were capable of doing the same thing our new-fangled vibes can do) — and the story of how it came to be invented and marketed to ladies in the first place, took a significant amount of sleuthing and research. Pretty close to twenty years later, her book was hailed as a brilliant example of independent, not to mention feminist, scholarship; it won the 1999 Herbert Feis Award of the American Historical Association (Best Book by Independent Scholar), and the 2000/01 Biennial Book Award of the American Foundation for Gender and Genital Medicine and Science, presented by the World Congress of Sexology.

Meanwhile, Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank had been showcasing her antique vibrator collection since the first Good Vibrations store opened in 1977; in those days, the “Antique Vibrator Museum” consisted of one shelf with about a dozen vibrators displayed on it at the Valencia Street store. She had bought most of those early items at flea markets and junk stores; she displayed them to amaze and educate her customers: no, women of the 1970s were not the first to own this superlative pleasure device!

Indeed not, as Maines’ research made ever more clear. Not only did she seek, and find, information about the vibrator’s development in the latter half of the 19th century, as well as its movement into private homes as electrical power became ubiquitous; she also learned that medical doctors had been using these busily-buzzing items to treat a “disease” called hysteria, which had been thought since at least the time of Galen to affect women, especially unmarried ones. Vulval and clitoral massage, and later vibration, was the treatment of art in great-grandmother’s time; later in the 20th century the vibrator, a perfect example of a “socially camouflaged” technology, escaped its hiding-in-plain-sight role when it was featured in early sex movies.

Maines’ early academic history played a role in her research, too –- she’d graduated in 1971 with BA Cum Laude degree in Classics, specializing in ancient science and technology –- clearly readying her to comb through old medical texts, looking for descriptions of orgasm. Now she’s a visiting scientist in the Cornell University School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, where she’s been based since 2009; her principal research interests are in the history of technology, especially issues relating to technology and the body, including sexuality, medicine, technological risk, and injury epidemiology.

A film version of her book, by Bay Area filmmakers Wabi Sabi Productions (Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori), premiered at Lincoln Center in 2007. Called “Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm,” it’s a fabulous visual tour through the history Maines uncovered in researching her book.

Rachel Maines has looked backward with her keen historical eye –- from 1985 to 2002 she ran Maines and Associates, a museum collections management and material culture research firm — and brings that same vision to analyzing her interests in the present (for instance, she wrote “Two! Four! Six! Eight! Let Alabama Masturbate!,” an article on state laws against sexual devices, for Russ Kick’s book Everything You Know about Sex is Wrong, (New York: Disinformation Company, October 2005). Her work has also inspired or been referenced in the award-winning play “In the Next Room,” by Sarah Ruhl, which premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theater in January 2009 and opened at a Shubert Theater on Broadway in November 2009 and in last year’s Maggie Gyllenhaal/Hugh Dancy/Rupert Everett film “Hysteria.”

She’ll visit Good Vibrations next month at the Antique Vibrator Museum on Polk Street (over time, so many of Good Vibrations’ customers brought in their Great-Aunt Minnie’s vibrators that a much larger collection was amassed –- and, last year, finally put into true museum form). Join us on February 22nd and hear her share her knowledge about this most fascinating bit of women’s and technological history. Please come meet her! I can’t wait to show her our wonderful collection, so enhanced by her tireless and inspired research.

Good Vibrations

Good Vibrations is the premiere sex-positive, women-principled adult toy retailer in the US. An iconic brand and one of the world's first sex toy shops to focus specifically on women's pleasure and sexual education, Good Vibrations was founded by Joani Blank in 1977 to provide women with a safe, welcoming and non-judgmental place to shop for erotic toys. Good Vibrations has always included all people across the gender spectrum, and is a place where customers can come for education, high quality products, and information promoting sexual health, pleasure and empowerment. Customers can shop Good Vibrations' expertly curated product selection across any of its nine retail locations or on the GoodVibes.com website, where they can also find a wealth of information pertaining to sexual pleasure, exploration and education.

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