The View from the Vibrating Chair

by Dr. Rachel Maines

My beloved partner of more than thirty years, who is a very brave guy, likes to tell even perfect strangers that his wife is "the world's greatest living authority on the history of the electromechanical vibrator." Some might consider this a dubious distinction, but here at Babeland I know I'm among friends. My first book, The Technology of Orgasm (Johns Hopkins 1999), has been translated into Italian, French, Spanish, and most recently, Japanese. At Cornell University, I'm a humble (but happy) Visiting Scientist, but in the large, international, and ever-expanding world of sexuality and its devices, I apparently occupy what amounts to the Global Vibrating Chair in Technological History. The book has become a documentary film, Passion and Power (Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori), a play (Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play), a puppet rock musical by Maggie Surovell, and a Hollywood movie called Hysteria. This is pretty heady stuff for a geeky historian of technology with a baccalaureate in Classics.

What this means in practice is that I get a lot of phone calls and e-mails from journalists looking for sound bytes on issues like Alabama's Anti-Obscenity Act of 1998, which prohibits the sale of vibrators and the ownership of more than five (go figure!). I also get a lot of odd, baffling, thought-provoking, and occasionally dismaying, requests for information and advice from readers, on the theory that if I could find vibrators in the 19th century, I can find the answer to any and all questions regarding human sexuality. This, I hasten to assure you, is not the case.

A case in point was an encounter in Cornell's main library elevator lobby about a year after the book was published. At that period of my life, I was a library staff member working in technical services (cataloging and acquisition), and thus knew many of the library staff from meetings and other work interactions. One of my technical-services colleagues entered the lobby, and greeted me with "Rachel! I'm so glad to see you. Your book is so interesting! I've been wanting to ask you: what should I tell my teenage daughters about their father's sex change operation?" Ummm …..

Then there are the multiple-page single-spaced e-mails with detailed sexual histories from people I've never heard of. Most of these, for some reason, are septuagenarian men, apparently eager to share their experiences. I always enjoy, however, hearing from other scholars, researchers and practitioners in the sexuality area, especially younger ones looking for research advice. Some of them have startlingly difficult questions, e.g.: what was the rate of success of 19th century doctors in producing orgasm in their patients? Wow, great question, and I'm deeply flattered that you think I might know the answer, or even where to look for the data. Most recently, I got an inquiry from Kim Airs, the sex-toy blogger for XBiz. When, she wanted to know, did distributors and retailers start using the term "novelties" to describe sexual devices? This is the kind of question that at first causes me to groan and roll my eyes, but that, maddeningly, should be possible to answer with the right research strategy. The Oxford English Dictionary was no help. In New York Times advertising through 1920, "novelties" are simply anything new, especially in fashion or the theater. But stay tuned to Kim's website; I won't be satisfied until I've searched 1920-1960 as well.

My favorite adventure so far, though, has been a 1999 trip to Austin, Texas, the city where I grew up. It's a pretty cool place as places go in Texas, with the University of Texas at Austin, plus a long and distinguished tradition of live music. In the 1960s, my parents went to Threadgill's and Schulz's Beer Garten; those of us too young to drink went to the Ichthus Coffee House in the Methodist Student Center on Guadalupe to hear the likes of Mance Lipscomb and Janis Joplin ("Hi! I'm Janis Joplin! I just found out I can sing!"). After Technology of Orgasm came out, an Austin marketing firm called contacted me about helping them publicize a local chain of sex toy stores, Forbidden Fruit, including a benefit lecture for the American Civil Liberties Union.

At this period, and until 2008, it was illegal in Texas to sell vibrators or other devices "designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs, except such devices disseminated or promoted for the purpose of medical or psychological therapy." Lynn (no last name that I ever heard), the owner of Forbidden Fruit, trained her staff carefully in circumlocutory merchandising. "Yes, this model is very effective. I've tried it myself." Effective for what? Mixing margaritas? Pressing doilies? Don't ask. At a book signing at one of Lynn's stores, a young couple bought a Rabbit Pearl, and then asked me to sign it for them in permanent ink. "So we can pass it on to our children," the visibly-pregnant wife told me. I'm still trying to imagine the lucky heirs' reactions.

In the late-nineties Texas climate of ritualized hypocrisy, it was fine to talk about vibrators on the radio, because the appearance of devices like the Rabbit Pearl was considered obscene. If you have to use your imagination to visualize the object, the obscenity is all in your mind, where the police can't see it.

Austin has for decades loved its wide array of live talk-and-music radio stations, one of which, in 1999, featured a shock jock who invited musicians and other local talent to his studio to jam and discuss life in general during the morning drive-time. Lynn and I were scheduled to show up with a couple of shopping bags full of vibrators at 9am. This being the morning drive-time in a city that had outgrown its highways, we got stuck in traffic for half an hour next to a Round Rock police car. Lynn, who was driving, assigned me the task of installing batteries in the dozen or so vibrators we were bringing to the station. So I've got more than twice the legal vibrator limit in my lap, putting in the batteries and checking for the buzz, nervously glancing out the window from time to time at the apparently oblivious Round Rock police officer. Meanwhile, we're listening to the live broadcast from our host, who's drawling "Where are those vibrator ladies?" Um, "ladies?"

We arrive in a studio filled with more than half a dozen musicians and other assorted talent, every one of them male. One of the vibrators we've brought is shaped like a summer sausage: cylindrical, brown and wrinkled, with that product's characteristic yellow band around one end, a "novelty" in the old-fashioned sense of the word. During the commercial break, the guys come over and exclaim over the dazzling array of devices we've laid out on the table. One of them picks up the summer sausage and shakes his head somberly. "I don't need this kind of competition," he opines. "I really don't." Lynn and I look at each other, unsure what to say to this all-male crowd.

To our delight, one of the other men in the room rescues the socially-tense situation. "Don't you see?" our hero explains, "It's not competition, it's a member of your team!" For once, a very apt sports metaphor. Everyone cracks up, and the tension dissolves. I have quoted this guy many times since, when I'm asked if vibrators will replace men, adding that vibrators produce orgasm very efficiently in women, but if love, companionship, and conversation are what you want, another living creature is pretty much your only option. When you're dispensing advice from the Vibrating Chair, you really need a supply of illustrative anecdotes like this one. As humans, our sexuality is a very fruitful source of both happiness and unhappiness. Whatever we can do to increase the former and decrease the latter is a small but significant step toward improving the world for all of us.