Hysteria Was Not Treated With Vibrators

You know the story about the male Victorian physicians who unwittingly produced orgasms in their female clients by treating them for “hysteria” with newly-invented, labor-saving, mechanical vibrators? It’s little more than an urban legend albeit one transmitted through academic books and articles. Hallie Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg, the authors of a shocking new paper, A Failure of Academic Quality Control: The Technology of Orgasm, don’t quite use the word fraud but they come close.

Since its publication in 1999, The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines has become one of the most widely cited works on the history of sex and technology (Maines, 1999). This slim book covers a lot of ground, but Maines’ core argument is quite simple. She argues that Victorian physicians routinely treated female hysteria patients by stimulating them to orgasm using electromechanical vibrators. The vibrator was, according to Maines, a labor-saving technology that replaced the well-established medical practice of clitoral massage for hysteria. She states that physicians did not perceive either the vibrator or manual massage as sexual, because neither method involved vaginal penetration.

This argument has been repeated in dozens of scholarly works and cited with approval in many more. A few scholars have challenged various parts of the book. Yet no scholars have contested her central argument, at least not in the peer-reviewed literature. Her argument even spread to popular culture, appearing in a Broadway play, a feature-length film, several documentaries, and many mainstream books and articles. This once controversial idea has now become an accepted fact.

But there’s only one problem with Maines’ argument: we could find no evidence that physicians ever used electromechanical vibrators to induce orgasms in female patients as a medical treatment. We examined every source that Maines cites in support of her core claim. None of these sources actually do so. We also discuss other evidence from this era that contradicts key aspects of Maines’ argument. This evidence shows that vibrators were indeed used penetratively, and that manual massage of female genitals was never a routine medical treatment for hysteria.

… the 19-year success of Technology of Orgasm points to a fundamental failure of academic quality control. This failure occurred at every stage, starting with the assessment of the work at the Johns Hopkins University Press. But most glaring is the fact that not a single scholarly publication has pointed out the empirical flaws in the book’s core claims in the 19 years since its release.

Wow. Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Chris Martin on twitter.


Tabarrok is confirming what we all suspected: that Victorian-era physicians were useless, or worse, harmful, to their patients. Rachel was just trying to give physicians the benefit of the doubt. Of course, physicians today are much better trained than their brethren of the Victorian era, and often recommend to their female patients the use of vibrators to prevent hysteria. Medical science has come a long way.

God damn, you are a tendentious idiot.

Alex, whence this newfound willingness to point out the emperor's nakedness?

What's left unsaid is that women suffer from hysteria for lack of orgasms, the lack of orgasms the result of poorly performing male partners. Indeed, one can attribute all manner of changing social customs to the poorly performing male, from hysteria to the enormous increase in the number of same sex (i.e., female) partners to the election of Donald Trump (his supporters being a little short on performance and resentful for female rejection). Many of us are experiencing a bit of hysteria with Donald Trump as president. Where Tabarrok stands on male performance I wouldn't know. Me, I've never been jealous of vibrators.

Well, you should be. Your tedious comments alone put me directly into a prolonged hellscape of mind-numbing torpor.

What the hell are you talking about? You're a clown.

Similarly, Singapore is often cited as some sort of free-enterprise free-market nirvana.

At least Rachel Manes had a sense of humor and the silver lining of prurient appeal.

So, checking Maines' wikipedia article, this stands out - 'She then began researching and writing articles on the history of vibrators, the first one for the newsletter of the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life. The article caused her to lose her post as associate professor at Clarkson University in 1986. According to Maines, the university was convinced that the nature of her research would drive away benefactors and alumni donors. Three years later she submitted a more detailed article, "Socially Camouflaged Technologies: The Case of the Electromechanical Vibrator", to Society and Technology, the magazine of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology. Initially, the IEEE thought the article was a joke perpetrated by the magazine's editors and that there was no such person as Rachel Maines. However, after checking all the internal citations and Maines's own background, the IEEE finally allowed the article to be published in the June 1989 edition of the magazine.' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel_Maines

Seems as if the IEEE (normally not noted for its role in having falsehoods become embedded in the humanities) did not rigorously check the sources either, a decade before the book was published.

Luckily Maines did not use a spread sheet, because that can really lead to problems that require careful analysis to show the flaws on the part of those that use such a spread sheet to buttress their conclusions - to err is human, to really screw up public policy debates requires a computer, or words to that effect.

And considering how a certain segment of the vibrator market steadfastly refused to acknowledge any sexual use at all, a mass audience would certainly not be surprised at claims that a 'medical device' came with disingenuous claims cloaking a major use of the product. As can be seen from wikipedia - 'Hitachi listed the Magic Wand for business use with the United States Patent and Trademark Office on 25 April 1968. Kabushiki Kaisha Hitachi Seisakusho registered the trademark to the Magic Wand. It became available to the mass market in the U.S. during the 1970s and was advertised as a device to aid with massage techniques. It is effective at relieving pain associated with back aches, and is registered with the Food and Drug Administration as a physical medicine device under the classification therapeutic electric massager. The stated use of the Magic Wand is the soothing and relaxing of sore muscles and nerves, relieving tension, and rehabilitation after sports injuries.' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitachi_Magic_Wand#History

And peer review is a mark of a scholarly journal, not the books of a university press, even if the authors believe otherwise - 'The manuscript went through, we presume, the standard rigorous evaluation process of a university press without its flaws being detected.' To be cynical in approved public choice economics fashion, the standard rigorous evaluation undoubtedly involves profit and loss considerations, in which case 'The Technology Of Orgasm' probably looked extremely appealing. Even more amusing, the authors of this paper seem to be aware that scholarly publishing of this fashion does not have a standard rigorous evaluation process - 'Scholarly publishing rarely involves any sort of fact checking. Peer reviewers and readers for academic presses are not expected to confirm a manuscript’s empirical claims, beyond what they already know. Book reviewers likewise rarely examine citations or sources. Far more fact-checking occurs in a typical magazine article than in a scholarly publication, despite complaints from journalists about a decline in the practice (Canby, 2012).'

I'm not sure about "failure." Peer review is a publication standard. The publication was quite successful.

One can safely assume that JHUP considers 'The Technology Of Orgasm' the exact opposite of a failure, and would be more than willing to print several such books a year if the same profit margin could be ensured for each such title.

After all, as the authors of the linked article point out, a scholarly press does less fact checking than a normal magazine.

????? This is probably a joke.

So I guess I can not actually charge consultation fees.

And try to find one instance in which, not a single bank crash but a major bank system crisis, was caused by assets perceived as risky, which is the theory behind the credit distorting risk weighted capital requirements for banks that have been with us the last 30 years… and that seemingly belongs to the type of theories that shall not be questioned.

'but a major bank system crisis, was caused by assets perceived as risky'

Well, they weren't considered risky before the crash. For example, the first Great Depression involved several elements, a prominent one being railroad financing. 'In September 1873, Jay Cooke & Company, a major component of the United States banking establishment, found itself unable to market several million dollars in Northern Pacific Railway bonds. Cooke's firm, like many others, had invested heavily in the railroads. At a time when investment banks were anxious for more capital for their enterprises, President Ulysses S. Grant's monetary policy of contracting the money supply (again, also thereby raising interest rates) made matters worse for those in debt. While businesses were expanding, the money they needed to finance that growth was becoming scarcer.

Cooke and other entrepreneurs had planned to build the second transcontinental railroad, called the Northern Pacific Railway. Cooke's firm provided the financing, and ground was broken near Duluth, Minnesota, for the line on 15 February 1870. But just as Cooke was about to swing a US$300 million government loan in September 1873, reports circulated that his firm's credit had become nearly worthless. On 18 September, the firm declared bankruptcy.' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_of_1873

"The vibrator was, according to Maines, a labor-saving technology that replaced the well-established medical practice of clitoral massage for hysteria. ...But there’s only one problem with Maines’ argument: we could find no evidence that physicians ever used electromechanical vibrators to induce orgasms in female patients as a medical treatment. We examined every source that Maines cites in support of her core claim. None of these sources actually do so. We also discuss other evidence from this era that contradicts key aspects of Maines’ argument. This evidence shows that vibrators were indeed used penetratively, and that manual massage of female genitals was never a routine medical treatment for hysteria."

Sigh. Let me demonstrate how a law school dropout lime me can rebut the above quote, without even reading the article. (1) AlexT's cite (hereinafter AlexT) concedes that (1) electromechanical vibrators (hereinafter 'dildos') were not used non-penetratively, (2) that these dildos were not used to treat hysteria via inducing orgasms, however, (3) AlexT implies that manual massage of female genitals *was* a medical treatment for hysteria, albeit not "routine".

Much ado about nothing. Apparently Maines wrote an interesting article about electromechanical dildos, but she confused their use: they were not used to treat hysteria by non-penetrative use, though, as a non-routine therapy, female hysteria back then *was* treated with manual massage of genitals by the physician (not unlike the recent gyno massage of those US Olympic gymnists, by that doctor who overused this legitimate medical technique and was, somewhat unfairly IMO, convicted for statutory rape and put away for life). Hence Maines is not fraud, just errors by omission and commission, possibly done deliberately to spice up the paper.

Bonus trivia: you can patent dildos, the "fleshlight" (sic) made millions for its inventor/assignee.

Actually you got it wrong. Vibrators were used often, but penetratingly. They were rarely used, if at all, for hysteria. At least one doctor used them for genital health.

I think you're being way too charitable toward Maines. Maines says manual stimulation was common, but the excerpt you quote says they found that manual stimulation was "never" used as a treatment. There's apparently nothing in Maines' own sources to support her contention (or your interpretation of her). She made it up.

Further, the central point of Maines' paper was that electro-mechanical devices were used to induce orgasm, and the new paper says there is "no evidence" of that. That's not confusion on her part; that's fabrication.

@Tom T - I was basing my argument on the four corners of the passage cited; you, on the other hand, are using unsourced materials for your points. Maybe you're right, I don't know. In any case, as "juantanamo" alleges, dildos were used for genital health, but not to treat hysteria, so Maines perhaps made that part up, but then again, she's not a doctor writing in a medical journal. She's just writing about dildos. The alleged use of the dildo is to a degree immaterial.

Bonus trivia: there's a clam with a long muscle that was used in Victorian days as a sort of natural dildo, and on more than one occasion became so lodged in the user's vagina-the clam was alive, double pun-- that a trip to the hospital was needed. Kind of like foreign objects and certain guys today.

Ray, have you tried reading the papers you are discussing? Yes it takes time, yes, one can't always notice that you haven't done it, but occasionally, like in this case, it can help you avoid making ridiculous claims.

And "using unsourced materials" as description of things mentioned in the paper is pure self-parody...

This always struck me as a fable. We now have a laugh at the representatives of Empire who were tricked into supposing that Stone-Age tribes didn't understand where babies came from, but we're to imagine that the Victorians had no clue about what their steampunk vibrator was doing? Until Maggie Gyllenhaal worked it out? Or that women were ever in need of a doctor to perform this mysterious treatment?

There is something almost ... Victorian ... about the continued pretense that the Victorians were mystified by sex.

Indeed, they can hardly have understood less than we do, judging from the standard sequence of events in current movie sex scenes.

'This always struck me as a fable.'

Then you probably weren't familiar with how vibrators were publicly sold until sometime after the 70s in the U.S. Of course, that does not lead directly to doctors being paid to massage clitorises a century ago, but the gap between how most vibrators were marketed and how they were used was very large - and vigorously fostered by manufacturers such as Hitachi, at least in the U.S. To the extent that after the main use of the Magic Wand became so commonplace it was impossible to deny, Hitachi felt the need to remove its name from the product, though it is still sold through a company named Vibratex in the U.S.

Checking sources is always a good idea, of course. But the stretch from 1970s America marketing regarding vibrators to the supposed prudery of an earlier age when the devices were first invented was not all that large.

Especially since vibrator manufacturers more than a century ago in the U.S. were extremely circumspect in their marketing, as seen here - 'The period that Comstock worked for the federal government also gave rise to one of the most popular sex toys of the modern era: the electric vibrator. What did Comstock and the other censors think of vibrators? The answer was they didn’t worry about them at all. I could find nothing in the records of the NYSSV that showed that they were concerned specifically with vibrators, although Comstock did sometimes coerce newspapers into discontinuing their “massage and electrical advertisements.” Vibrators weren’t specifically written into obscenity laws at this time probably because companies marketed them as medical and household appliances. Nearly every vibrator company manufactured phallic attachments, which would have been considered obscene if sold as dildos. Nevertheless, Comstock let vibrator advertisements run freely.' https://pictorial.jezebel.com/on-the-hunt-for-early-american-sex-toys-1820176795

We are using different plausibility wands then, but whether or no: reading the paper - it is mostly just a criticism of the author's imaginary citations in support of the thing you and she just know deep down to be true. The honest path would have been to present it, within her book, just the way you did.

The authors of the paper also talk about the mass audience. And anyone roughly over 40 in that popular audience would have not problem drawing a (false) line from how vibrators were marketed and the idea that in the past, it was not only vibrator manufacturers disguising what their product did, but doctors too. And one should keep in mind that several American states have attempted to ban sex toys in the quite recent past - it isn't as if the idea that a company like Hitachi would deny any sexual use while attempting to sell their product in Alabama would appear to contradict her narrative that a century ago, manufacturers and doctors would make a similar pretense.

The authors of the paper are most interested, at least to my reading, in dismissing Maines' androcentric theorizing based on basically no evidence at all, and using it as an example for more rigorous standards to prevent falsehoods from entering the public sphere.

That the work is unsupported by evidence (to be excessively charitable) is beyond doubt, but the broad framework in which that work exists does not precisely point to obvious falsehoods in telling such a tale. And from the paper, it was a feminist that pointed out the basic problem of Maines' work best - 'Elizabeth Lunbeck also criticized the one-sidedness of Maines’ argument from androcentrism, which, Lunbeck suggested, is a product of the clitoro-centrism of second-wave feminist sex research. Certainly by the 1990s, Lunbeck noted, a more diverse view of female sexuality had come to feminist scholarship, which recognized that there were many varieties of sexual pleasure. Lunbeck alone noticed that the book’s own visual evidence contradicts Maines’ claims that vibrators were not used penetratively. This evidence led Lunbeck to suggest that Maines’ “one-clitoris-suits-all prescription might be as constraining as those of the phallocentrists she castigates” (Lunbeck, 2002, p. 262).'

The linked article quotes the 11th Circuit Court's overturning of Williams v. Pryor, in which they checked Maine's citations and "found no support" for her conclusion regarding Comstock.

This wasn't a systemic failure of analysis, but source checking. The moral here is when critiquing a work in the humanities, check the core citations for "factualness." What are the core facts and what they mean need to be addressed.

This is ruining the urban myth of
1819/1820 - link between electricity and magnetism proved
1821 - first electric motor
followed by the first electromechanical vibrators by 1830.

To be fair, the first electric motors were probably more suited to vibratory motion than smooth rotation.

It's compelling myth.

Such a discussion is not complete without reference to this geographical gem...


Apparently Cap'n Cook had a slightly less than Victorian sense of humor.

Considering that Captain Cook died four decades before Victoria's birth, it is fair to say he had absolutely no Victorian sense of humor at all.

Exactly. Just like there were no sociopaths before the term was invented. Nor were there any mammals prior to definition of the term. Seriously dude.

So rent seeking academics or feminists or both?

Perhaps in the future there will be books on When Academic Historians Became Hysterical. Rachel Maines and Nancy MacLean will get top billing.

This is a strong signal.

A lot of time have passed since the last economic crisis that average economists feel confident enough to criticize others. Sell, sell, sell.....

I'm glad that Lieberman and Schatzberg fact-checked the book that made these erroneous claims, especially since all of the career incentives would discourage this sort of verification work. The research transparency movement (replication, open data, etc) has taken a long time to reach historical research methods, but it finally appears to be affecting historical research. About time.

I'm wondering, however, whether Lieberman and Schatzberg were right to focus their energies on debunking the claims about vibrators made by Maines. After, while Maines's claims became widely believed, her research findings weren't very consequential since they didn't really constitute "actionable information". Instead, Maines created a cool little factoid that people could share at parties. In contrast, inaccurate claims made in a study in the fields of say, nutrition or drug research, can have huge, and measurable, negative consequences for society if they are widely accepted. Sure, there is something to be said in favour of fighting for truth for its own sake, but life is short and you need to pick your battles.

The type of historical research that is most consequential is probably business history, since business-historical research feeds into the MBA curriculum and has been the basis of some really influential strategic management theories (e.g., disruptive innovation). Business history research is more actionable than research on vibrators because it's applied by executives in the present. There is a push on right now to make business-historical research more transparent via Open Data.

If you are interested, you can check out this recent paper "Prospects for a transparency revolution in the field of business history."


Margaret Mead telling everyone, "Look, there's a happy and healthy alternative to our sexual repression!" Turns out she was lying. Rachel Maines telling everyone, "Look, our sexually repressed society is hypocritical, we just off-loaded the work of female sexual satisfaction to doctors!" Turns out she was lying, too.
Is this a trend? Should we be looking at other historical claims about sexuality that fit this narrative to see who else was making stuff up?

Amusing to see how easily one believes something published by a university press, as you demonstrate - 'Witness a new analysis from Paul Shankman in this month's Current Anthropology of the controversy over Margaret Mead's Samoan fieldwork. Shankman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has for several years been doggedly investigating the smearing of Margaret Mead by the anthropologist Derek Freeman.

As Shankman writes in his latest piece, "Freeman's flawed caricature of Mead and her Samoan fieldwork has become conventional wisdom in many circles and, as a result, her reputation has been deeply if not irreparably damaged." Indeed, just this week, a New York Times Magazine article blithely refers to the Freeman-Mead controversy as if Freeman's "exposé" of Mead stands.

But Shankman's new analysis -- following his excellent 2009 book, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy -- shows that Freeman manipulated "data" in ways so egregious that it might be time for Freeman's publishers to issue formal retractions.

Some background: In her popular 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead presented Samoan culture as a social system that, without much fuss, allowed many adolescents to fool around before marriage. Contemporary scholars of Mead's work agree that, in her presentation of Samoa to American readers, Mead was motivated by a particular political agenda. As a sexually progressive individual, Mead saw (and portrayed) in Samoa the possibility of loosening social strictures on sexuality -- something she suggested could lead to more pleasure, and less pain and suffering.

In 1983, Freeman published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth with Harvard University Press, a book quickly celebrated in the mainstream press. In this and later work, Freeman appeared to conduct precise scholarship showing that Mead was just too gullible to realize that two supposedly "key informants" were pulling her leg about teenage sexual antics -- kidding the none-the-wiser Margaret Mead. In Freeman's words, "Never can giggly fibs have had such far-reaching consequences in the groves of Academe."

As early as 1996, in his book Not Even Wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans, the anthropologist Martin Orans used Mead's own field notes to show "that such humorous fibbing could not be the basis of Mead's understanding. Freeman asks us to imagine that the joking of two women, pinching each other as they put Mead on about their sexuality and that of adolescents, was of more significance than the detailed information she had collected throughout her fieldwork."' https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/02/sex-lies-and-separating-science-from-ideology/273169/

"You know the story about the male Victorian physicians who unwittingly produced orgasms in their female clients by treating them for “hysteria” with newly-invented, labor-saving, mechanical vibrators?" Actually, no... do tell.

1. Almost makes me suspect that "feminism" as an academic discipline, with thousands (?) granted PhDs (mostly women), allows the weeds to grows - simply because they don't know no better.2. I've not read the book, nor have any interest in it, but what seems to have been missed by a lot of the comments is the AGE of the 'patients', historically. In a culture in which knowledge/communication (avoiding "intercourse" because, well, to easy) was taboo, and ignorance was endemic little girls being had by doctors is more likely than less. I'm sure it paid off for the doctors in a number of ways.

The author of the book got her PhD in history.

Very stimulating article. Did Barbarella have one of those?

Looks like the paper is a more detailed and thorough critique, but it echoes Allan Mazur's review of the book on Amazon. This should have been known to be shoddy a while ago, I guess.


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