If you haven't yet seen it, the trailer for Hysteria, a film ostensibly about the invention of the vibrator, was released last week in anticipation of its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. It stars Maggie Gyllenhaal (who has an outstanding track record when it comes to masturbation in movies) and Hugh Dancy. Even before production began I recall reading in several places that the film was inspired by, or based on, Rachel Maines book The Technology of Orgasm
The Technology of Orgasm is a somewhat controversial book. Controversial in that the thesis of the book has been almost universally accepted and embraced by the mainstream press and the sex toy industry, while at the same time being quite seriously critiqued by historians of sexuality. In her book Maines contends that the vibrator was regularly used by doctors to treat "hysteria" which they had previously been treating by manually stimulating women to orgasm. Included in this argument is the idea that the women didn't know they were having orgasms and the doctors didn't seem to worry about the professional boundaries involved in essentially masturbating their patients. If your interested in learning more about the critique Lesley Hall, a historian and Wellcome Library archivist, has collected some of the major problems with Maines thesis here.
Of course history is always a matter of interpretation. But I have to say that the more I read from historians who have worked in sexuality their whole careers and who approach the topics of desire and medicine from multiple positions, the less plausible I find the neat story presented in The Technology of Orgasm. And based on the trailer, I think that Hysteria is going to be sacrificing a lot for a cute story.
All of this reminded me a lot of the discussion that has been going on around the novel and film version of The Help. Recently the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) wrote a clear and incredibly helpful response to fans of the book and the film. I don't mean to compare race and sexuality in a simplistic way, but it for me it highlights how it is often more difficult to engage in serious critique and debate when we're told the proper way to talk about sex is with a careless wink and an nudge.
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