Maintenance Phase


November 30, 2021
Maintenance Phase
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Maintenance Phase
Nov 30, 2021

It's a sexual health episode! This week, Mike and Aubrey dive into the hotly debated medical history of vibrators and ask: who fact-checks the fact-checkers? 

Note: A previous version of this episode included language that referred to “the female downstairs,” implying both that gender is linked to genitals (it isn’t) and that vibrators were used primarily by cis women (they weren’t). We love our trans listeners and we don’t want to do anything that makes them feel excluded, so we’ve removed the sections where that language appeared. We'll be discussing this and our approach to handling feedback in more detail soon. Thanks to everyone who wrote in to let us know! — Mike

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Show Notes Transcript

It's a sexual health episode! This week, Mike and Aubrey dive into the hotly debated medical history of vibrators and ask: who fact-checks the fact-checkers? 

Note: A previous version of this episode included language that referred to “the female downstairs,” implying both that gender is linked to genitals (it isn’t) and that vibrators were used primarily by cis women (they weren’t). We love our trans listeners and we don’t want to do anything that makes them feel excluded, so we’ve removed the sections where that language appeared. We'll be discussing this and our approach to handling feedback in more detail soon. Thanks to everyone who wrote in to let us know! — Mike

Support us:


Support the Show.

Mike: Hello, and welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that comes in discreet packaging, so your neighbors don't find out.

Aubrey: [laughs] You really nailed it.

Mike: I'm Michael Hobbes.

Aubrey: I'm Aubrey Gordon. If you would like to support the show, you can do that at This month's bonus episode by popular request of nonprofit employees is, Mike and I talking about our experiences working at nonprofit. So, if you couldn't get enough of that Marianne Williamson episode, get ready.

Mike: Nonprofit drama.

Aubrey: Ah, so much drama.

Mike: We're doing it. 

Aubrey: Today, we're talking about more academic drama.

Mike: Wait. Are we? I thought we were talking about vibrators. 

Aubrey: We sure are.

Mike: Oh, okay. 

Aubrey: And academic drama. 

Mike: Okay. I have been nervous all day about this, because this is the freshest I've ever gone into an episode. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Aubrey: We're going to talk about the history of vibrators, and particularly a heavily debated part of that history, which is who invented them, and what were they used for? 

Mike: Oh.

Aubrey: Yeah, we're going to get into the ins and outs of primary sources and why they may not always be the end-all be-all.

Mike: You cannot say ins and outs in an episode about vibrators. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: We can't go down cul-de-sacs like that.


Mike: Tighten it up, Aubrey. Come on. 

Aubrey: Some of these were designed to do that. 

Mike: to tighten it up.

Aubrey: Jesus fucking Christ.


Aubrey: So, Michael, this is where I ask you the question, I feel you might have already answered, which is what do you know about the history of vibrators?

Mike: Literally nothing. I do know that there have been various like moral panics over the years about female orgasms.

Aubrey: Uh-huh. There sure have.

Mike: There's an excellent Stephen Jay Gould essay about how Freud thought that it was a symptom of hysteria if women could have vaginal orgasms, I believe. So, I'm just assuming that any object that is designed to give women pleasure, dudes would not be particularly chill about it.

Aubrey: Oh, dudes were extremely not chill about it. But I wanted to start us off with a little broad situation in the history of sex toys. 

Mike: Okay.

Aubrey: The first thing to note is that sex toys have been around since truly forever. We have this whole narrative around the difference between humans and animals, is that humans know how to make and use tools. And actually, dildos were one of those early tools.

Mike: No way. 

Aubrey: Uh-huh. The earliest dildo that we know of was discovered in a cave in Germany and dates back to the Ice Age.

Mike: Germans, typical. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: I'm familiar with their work.

Aubrey: So, it's made out of silt stone, and it's believed to be about 28,000 years old. 

Mike: Amazing.

Aubrey: This has been happening for a long, long, long time. Our cultural responses to dildos have changed quite a bit. There are images from Egypt and Japan, going way the hell back that appear to be really celebratory public moments with dildos. People wearing dildos. There are some images of Egyptian women way back wearing what appear to be essentially, like strap-ons as a devotional tool of Osiris-- God Osiris. 

Mike: Famous pegger.

Aubrey: One moment that I wanted to lift up, is that in the 17th century, poet named John Wilmot who was the Earl of Rochester wrote a poem about the popularity of dildos. It has 23 stanzas. So, I'm going to send you one stanza. It's four lines.

Mike: Ah, I'm so glad to get to read it.

Aubrey: Poetry corner, Maintenance Phase, poetry corner.


Mike: Wait, does this-- it kind of rhymes.

Aubrey: I think it's intended to rhyme but also, he ends every stanza with the word dildo. So, his rhymes get slantier and slantier as the poem goes on, where you're like, “Oh, you're running out of oh words, got it.”

Mike: I'm probably going to mangle the pentameter, but let's see how I do. He says, “The pattern of virtue, Her Grace of Cleveland, has swallowed more pricks than the ocean has sand. But by rubbing and scrubbing so wide does it grow. It is fit for just nothing, but Senor Dildo.” It ended strong.

Aubrey: You really nailed the rhythm of that.

Mike: I don’t think I did.


Aubrey: The other little moment that I wanted to lift up, there is a story that seems absolutely utterly bananas to me, that credits Cleopatra with the invention of the first vibrator.

Mike: Okay, that's no. [laughs] 

Aubrey: Yeah, right. Would you like to know the technology that is purportedly was part of that invention?

Mike: Ooh, yeah, tell me.

Aubrey: She kept agitated bees in a hollow gourd.

Mike: What? 

Aubrey: And then the bees created the vibration inside the gourd.

Mike: Wait.

Aubrey: Normally, when I do research for the show I tend to believe things until I fact check them. And this one I was, like, I couldn't even get through the sentence without being, like, “How do you get the bees in the gourd?” Wouldn’t it had to seal off the gourd to keep the bees in there and then when they die? Also, wouldn't it just sound buzzy but not actually bee buzzy? 

Mike: Yeah.

Aubrey: I spent an ordinate amount of time trying to fact check this. This was one of the reasons we had this scheduled before. I was like, “I'm so sorry, I can't do this until we get this fact checked. I can't proceed until I know if this is true.” Basically, it traces back-- it appears to trace back to this 1992 book about historical sexual practices. It's called the Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. And it's mentioned in the section about entomophilia, which is sexual attraction to bugs. I'm like, but that's also not what's happening here. There's no primary source site, like, it really appears to have just appeared whole cloth in 1992.

Mike: This reminds me of there's some cockamamie theories on Jack the Ripper, that he was actually Queen Victoria in disguise. No, that's just the only person like we know existed from that time. We don't know very much about that time period. It was like vibrators were there and Cleopatra was there. We were just picking stuff out that we know.

Aubrey: And then the last little sort of nugget of sex toy history is from 1965. It's about the invention of the silicone dildo. 

Mike: 65 sounds late. We didn't have silicone dildos until then?

Aubrey: Not silicone. No, we had rubber prior to that. So, this person Gosnell Duncan, in adulthood became paralyzed just before he got married, and was concerned that he wouldn't be able to sustain an erection. So, he started looking into dildos. And he found out that most of them were real shitty. They would melt if they got too hot, you can wash them in hot water. So, it's also not super hygienic. It's just like bad news all around. And he decides to take matters into his own hands, and he calls GE and gets a silicone contract-

Mike: No way.

Aubrey: -and starts the process of the industrial design of the first silicone dildo. If you have a silicone sex toy, you can think this disabled activist for inventing it.

Mike: It's weird that it was a guy who did it.

Aubrey: Totally, totally fascinating. And flies in the face of, like, this history is just riddled with dudes being uncomfortable and not wanting to talk about this, just part of the reason why we have such shitty sources on so much of it. So, it's really lovely to have a dude who's like, “No, I'm into it. Let's go.”


Mike: Ladies, I'm here to help. Yes.

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: Do we have a sense about how women were using dildos for that time? I know how when you use dildos in general.

Aubrey: [laughs] I don't want to brag, but I do know what they're intended for now. 

Mike: Literally, I knew very little about this, but I feel I have a general inkling of how they are carried out in the world. But were they hiding them from their husbands? Was this something that were like super stigmatized and super secret or were there sex shops? 

Aubrey: This is actually one of the points of major, major debate amongst historians, to what degree were these being used sexually? To what degree were they being marketed sexually? And to what degree were they just seen as medical tools?

Mike: When did they start vibrating?

Aubrey: Actually, I'm going to just situate it because that's the next thing after a little bit of context. Essentially, when they started vibrating is like the middle of the 19th century.

Mike: Oh, how? What? Steam powered? Oh, my God, were they fucking steam powered?

Aubrey: There was a steam powered one. 

Mike: [laughs] 

Aubrey: Get it away from downstairs. 

Mike: That's too much power.

Aubrey: Too much power. They also have one that is a hand crank, that looks so much one of your grandma's eggbeaters, do you know what I'm talking about?

Mike: That was what I was going to say. Yeah, it's miserable, egg beaters. [laughs] 

Aubrey: Every time I look at them, I just clench every muscle in my body. And I'm like, “No, no, no, no, no, no.”

Mike: But then who's turning-- How does that work? Who's turning the hand crank? 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: You put it inside and then you turn the hand crank?

Aubrey: This part is, again, unclear.

Mike: I need a diagram. 

Aubrey: So, there is quite a bit of this history that's clear and undisputed. And there's one part that is really, really hotly debated. And that is, again, as we're talking about the invention of the electric vibrator in particular, because that's when it stops being like hot steam, egg beater.

Mike: Right. It's basically the boardgame mousetrap for [crosstalk] kid.

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: There's like a little cage, it has to fall down a ladder.

Aubrey: So, essentially, the electric vibrator first appeared either in England or France in the 1870s. But at the time vibrators are made available almost exclusively to doctors. They cost like $200 in the 1800s, which is so much money. 

Mike: It's like an MRI machine or something. It's not something that people have in their homes. 

Aubrey: Kind of. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, to situate us in time and space, this is the time that we were talking about with the Snake Oil episode. This is pre-germ theory. So, doctors don't believe that germs are really a thing, or nobody's really talking about it yet. Medicine isn't really regulated and centralized medical schools. They're a couple, but they haven't really taken root yet. All kinds of people are calling themselves doctors with all kinds of varying level of training. 

Mike: It's the goop website, yes. It's

Aubrey: [laughs] Every doctor is goop at this point. 

Mike: It's just people say and stuff.

Aubrey: Trust in doctors is really low at this point, generally speaking. The prevailing medical model at this point is the belief that people with vulvas do not experience sexual pleasure. It just doesn't happen. Like you're not built for that. You're built to be a receptacle for that, but you're not actually built to experience pleasure. And if you are experiencing pleasure, something is wrong. 

On top of all of that, against that background, there is this medical diagnosis that you mentioned earlier called hysteria. Hysteria had been a diagnosis for hundreds of years, it had been around for a long, long time. The symptoms for hysteria included anxiety, sleeplessness, breathlessness, expressing anger, or irritability, being too sexually reserved, also being too overtly sexual, the presence of vaginal lubrication. One of the symptoms, no joke was just called a “tendency to cause trouble for others.”


Mike: It's basically, like, “My wife annoys me,” disease.

Aubrey: Yeah, this is a time when getting diagnosed with hysteria was a really, really difficult challenging thing. It could lead to all of like, loss of your freedom, loss of your control over your own body, all kinds of stuff, forced medical treatments at the discretion of your husband. There are a few different explanations or theories at this time about what caused hysteria. The diagnosis of hysteria, one of the earlier examples that we have is, Hippocrates believed in hysteria, and thought that it was caused by a wandering uterus. We talked about this in Moon Juice. The belief was that your uterus becomes detached and just starts floating around inside your body and making you crazy. Science. The theories around this time in the 19th century are that it might be a neurological disease, that it might be the results of a culture of licentiousness amongst women. 

Mike: Like moral stuff, of course. Horniness.

Aubrey: And the last one and this is where the vibrator comes in. There may be this belief that there is an imbalance of bodily vibrations. So, there's this theory that your nervous system is powered by a vibration. Those imbalance in vibrations is what causes lots of illnesses, including hysteria. And that that could only be resolved by something called hysterical paroxysm, which was a phenomenon that was a result of a treatment. The treatment was genital massage until the point of full body convulsions.

Mike: Oh, what?

Aubrey: [laughs]

Mike: So, they were like just giving women orgasms and calling it medicine, is that what you're saying?

Aubrey: This is the story. This is one of the things that's under very intense debate amongst historians is like, did this happen or did this not happen?

Mike: Basically, the question is, were people inducing orgasms in women to treat hysteria in the 1800s or not?

Aubrey: There were doctors scheduling appointments at their offices for women to come in and get this treatment and achieve a hysterical paroxysm and then leave feeling better.

Mike: Okay.

Aubrey: So, we're going to talk about two-- actually we're going to talk about three different versions of this story. Two of them come from academics and one of them is the pop culture version of the story. The last thing to know before we get into where these three different stories kind of branch off from one another, is that there's a central character here who is a physician. His name is Joseph Mortimer Granville. He's from England, he's from Devonport. He is a prolific writer. He's written books about mental illness, about sleep, about memory, about gout. He covers really a lot of territory. He wrote a book about mental illness called Common Mind Troubles


Aubrey: He writes one pretty formative book called Nerve-vibration and Excitation. That's where he talks about vibrators and that's where he advances this theory about, “Okay, your nervous system is powered by vibrations. Can other vibrations correct an imbalance in the vibrations of your nervous system?”

Mike: Yeah. So, he's basically just making this up. The four humors, like all of the other paradigms of medicine, he's a dude who's making up something, but he doesn't realize that he's making it up. And he thinks that it's a process of discovery rather than invention. 

Aubrey: Yeah. I think that's right. I also think that's the headline about medicine as a whole at this point, it's just a bunch of white dudes making shit up.

Mike: Yeah. Whichever, whoever has the most convincing narrative, but not necessarily the most convincing science, of course.

Aubrey: That's exactly right. So, he's the first person who figures out how to use electricity to power a vibrator. And it's powered by a generator that is the size of a refrigerator.

Mike: See, I was thinking-- I was imagining him climbing up on the roof and attaching a lightning rod, like Doc in Back to the Future. “Now we wait.”

Aubrey: Okay, Benjamin Franklin is standing outside with a kite and a key. 

Mike: [laughs] 

Aubrey: So, this is where the story really branches off into a few different versions. 

Mike: Okay.

Aubrey: If folks come into this episode being like, “I know this story.” The version of the story that they probably know is a very pop culture version of the story. The version of the story is basically doctors invented vibrators to use on women to cure them of their hysteria. Doctors were using their hands to massage vulvas. Their hands were cramping up, so vibrators became a labor-saving device to keep their hands from cramping. 

Mike: Right. It's like a cotton gin.

Aubrey: In some versions of the story they take it further saying that, like, women understood what was happening, but men didn't. So, women were seeking out treatment intentionally for sexual pleasure. You can see why this story takes off, right?

Mike: Yeah, this has 9:00 to 5:00 style rom-com written all over it.

Aubrey: Totally. 

Mike: These women kind of taking advantage of these clueless dudes and getting these dope orgasms in their offices and like, “Ha, ha, they think it's all about medicine.” 

Aubrey: It's extremely salacious. It's like, kind of fun and wacky. And it becomes fun and wacky enough that in 2011, a movie is made about Dr. Granville, the inventor of the vibrator. And it's called Hysteria!

Mike: Oh, good, hysteria at the downstairs.

Aubrey: Yeah, totally. This is, I think, probably the best and most concise version of the pop culture story that passes around about this. So, I'm going to send you a link to a trailer. 

Mike: Ooh, I'm ready.

[Hysteria trailer starts]

Dr. Robert Dalrymple: What do you know of hysteria? 

Mortimer Granville: Nothing.

Dr. Robert Dalrymple: But half of the women in London are affected. 

Mortimer Granville: It's a plague of our time. I have just been offered a position by London's leading specialist in women's medicine. 

Edmund St. John-Smythe: Oh no. 

Mortimer Granville: I must find some way to attend to these women properly. 

Edmund St. John-Smythe: I believe the French had quite a bit of luck using their tongue.

Mortimer Granville: Oh, no. 

Dr. Robert Dalrymple: I want you to meet my daughter, Emily Dalrymple. I've no doubt that one day she would make a fine doctor's wife.

It's very difficult case, that one. 

Charlotte Dalrymple: It must be difficult pleasuring half the women in the city.

Mortimer Granville: Pleasure has nothing to do with it. I can assure you.

Charlotte Dalrymple: Well, I suppose that depends on whether you're over the table or on it. 

Edmund St. John-Smythe: Aren't you a Chinese firecracker?

Charlotte Dalrymple: According to your diagnosis, hysteria seems to cover everything from insomnia to toothache.

Edmund St. John-Smythe: My new generator. 

Mortimer Granville: My God. 

Edmund St. John-Smythe: Now who should we try it on?

Molly: What do you call that little thing?

Edmund St. John-Smythe: I was calling it the Feather Duster. 

Molly: Well, think of something quick, so the girls know what to ask for. 

Charlotte Dalrymple: Women will no longer be denied our rightful place.

Mortimer Granville: You are a confounding woman. 

Charlotte Dalrymple: And you are a good doctor and you should remain one.

Emily Dalrymple: Whether you seek it or not, Dr. Granville, you are destined for fame.

Molly: You’re going to need a bigger appointments book. 

[Hysteria trailer ends]

Mike: That looks really annoying, I must say. 

Aubrey: I watched this whole movie and it was such an astonishing waste of my time. 


Aubrey: I just didn’t like it. It didn't really offer anything more than you get from this trailer in terms of the research end. Well, first of all, tell me how it struck you and then I'll tell you how it struck me.

Mike: There's a genre of entertainment. I can't be too mean about this because on some level, I had an entire podcast that did this. It was dedicated to basically laughing about how stupid people were in the past. Lol, like, their medicine was so dumb, and lol, look how impressed by the technology they were but actually it's really primitive technology. It just looks really smug.

Aubrey: Yeah. Which I always chafe at that stuff, because I always feel, like, “Hey, we're really wrong about a lot of stuff now. So, maybe let's all get off our high horses here.”

Mike: Yeah. Even though we're doing that in this episode, I don't know.


Mike: I don’t know if there's a [crosstalk] way not do this.

Aubrey: No, we're totally doing that in this episode. We are also part of the problem. There's no question. I think the thing that I found really interesting about this is, it is a take on this turn of the century medicine, that is from the perspective of a 21st century white woman. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character really appears to be the audience surrogate being like, “Hysteria is dumb and I don't think it's real, and you guys are making it up.” Which may or may not have been happening at the time, but the idea that that would happen in a cute fun way is almost certainly not. At least on everything we know about treatment of women at this time, being like, “I think hysteria is made up,” is a real quick way to get yourself diagnosed with hysteria, surprise.

Mike: It always makes me really uncomfortable when you're watching historical movies, and they go out of their way to have a character, like give a big speech that indicates that they have the same values as we have. Racism is wrong, you guys, and it's like 1807. And you're like, “Hmm, people didn't really say that back then.”

Aubrey: Totally, totally.

Mike: Even the anti-racist people were very racist by our standards.

Aubrey: Yep, totally. This film, again, a number of these documentaries, and this prevailing narrative about the invention of vibrators is like, women knew what was up and were seeking out sexual pleasure, by getting diagnosed with this thing that had no uniform treatment, and some of the treatment options included being held in place. Essentially being imprisoned in your own home or whatever, right? 

Mike: Yeah.

Aubrey: There's not really any acknowledgement of the risk that that would present.

Mike: Also, I'm assuming a lot of the women at the time also would have bought into this. 

Aubrey: Yes.

Mike: Just because that's how systems of oppression work.

Aubrey: I also just want to name that those doctors were overwhelmingly serving at the pleasure of the husbands of these women. Listen, maybe it is, ladies figured out that they could go to the doctor and have a vibrator applied and experience sexual pleasure. Maybe it is also those husbands were hiring those doctors to perform coerced sex acts.

Mike: It's like, Kim, there's people that are dying. There's actually some serious things happening behind this.

Aubrey: Yes. Like, hey, this was of a horror show of a time for women's autonomy, who couldn't vote or own things or be independent actors in real life. It just seems very strange to latch on to the sunny, bright version of this story and not really grapple with any of the potential darkness.

Mike: Yeah. It seems in real life it probably wasn't like wacky high jinks.

Aubrey: It wasn't an opera singer hitting a high note, while Rupert Everett shoves a vibrating feather duster. Nobody's going to that film for the fact. They're going to that film because they couldn't get enough of the When Harry Met Sally diner scene. 

Mike: [laughs] Yes. 

Aubrey: The question then becomes, like, “Where does this story come from?” In 2001, technology historian, Rachel Maines, released a book called The Technology Of Orgasm: "Hysteria," The Vibrator, And Women's Sexual Satisfaction. The first one that I could find that was a major history of vibrators in Europe and the US. Maines story here, the story that she advances is the source code for the more popular version, but you can see where the embellishments come up. Where you're like, “Oh, a doctor invented a vibrator. It was a medical treatment.” And then you can see that somebody made the leap at some point being like, “Wouldn't it be hilarious?” But there's not really compelling historical evidence necessarily for that. She is very clear that Granville was actually specifically not using vibrators as a treatment for hysteria. Maines argues that Granville didn't use this as a treatment for hysteria, but that other doctors did. This is where we get the story about doctors using their hands for genital massage, their hands cramping up and vibrators becoming a labor-saving device.

Mike: So, this was happening. It just the guy who invented the technology wasn't the one using it on women, but other doctors were using it on women.

Aubrey: That's Maines argument. Yes. She argues that the primary treatment for hysteria was genital massage to the point of “hysterical paroxysm.” And then she describes hysterical paroxysm and it's absolutely just like having an orgasm.

Mike: Just wheezing and screaming. Yeah.

Aubrey: From the outside, it's just like, “Muscle convulsions and heavy breathing and sighing.” And you're like, “Okay, yeah. Okay, got it.” 

Mike: She says, this is the main thing that they were doing for hysteria at the time?

Aubrey: Yes, this was a primary treatment for hysteria was to bring about hysterical paroxysm, which again, it's really hard not to read the texts about this and just replace like, “Oh orgasm,” for hysterical paroxysm.

Mike: Yeah.

Aubrey: Then her third argument around vibrators, is that vibrators were primarily understood as sexual in nature. But they were marketed using this thing, she called Social Camouflage, which is essentially euphemisms and a list of alternative purposes for a vibrator that are specifically not sexual, that were designed to let a primarily sexual tool escape kind of social scrutiny.

Mike: All right, so you have to sell them as something else. It's like selling fucking poppers as room deodorizers. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: [crosstalk] -any another gay man in the chat would know.

Aubrey: Yeah. Maines releases this book in 2001 and it makes a huge splash. We get this movie within about 10 years in that same span. We get a play by a playwright called Sarah Ruhl, who's incredible who writes this beautiful play, based on this premise. There's a lot going on here and it gets latched on to in the public imagination.

Mike: You read the Maines book, right?

Aubrey: I read it in college. I read it again this month. 

Mike: Is it fun to read? 

Aubrey: I mean, it's a history of technology written by a historian of technology. It's written like, “Then the development was this.” When you're like, “No, but come on, also, the developments were around like fucking. You talking about the fucking part? Come on.”

Mike: [chuckles] I was hoping it would be full of a bunch of double entendre, like, “The main thrust of my book.” It's like asterisks [crosstalk] behind it, “I see what I'm doing. I just want you to know that I know.”

Aubrey: [laughs] You wanted her book to be the poem Senor Dildo?

Mike: Yeah, exactly.


Mike: Every chapter ends with the same word, exactly.

Aubrey: I read in college, I read it again this month. And this month, when I read it, it just didn't hold water the way that it did for me in college. It felt there were a whole lot more holes in it, it felt there were a whole lot more things that didn't jive with my understanding of that period. And frankly, there were things in it, that didn't seem true to me. And it turns out, they might not be true, and it turns out that quite a bit of this book, which created this very popular narrative that many folks know about the medical history of vibrators, isn't necessarily substantiated. Now we're going to fast forward to 2017, and this is our first alternate version of events that comes up.

Mike: Ooh, debunking.

Aubrey: Ooh, academic fight.

Mike: Love these.

Aubrey: We're in 2017, our next character to enter the story is a historian, Rachel Maines is a historian of technology. Hallie Lieberman is a historian of sex and gender at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2017, Lieberman publishes a book called Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. In 2018, the next year, she coauthors a paper that is straight up called Failure of Academic Quality Control: The Technology of Orgasm. She writes a whole paper. It's published in the Journal of Positive Sexuality. She goes back to all of the primary sources that Maines cites in her book and fact checks all of it and then writes a paper to be like, “Here's what I found.” 

Mike: This is like a diss track.

Aubrey: It is kind of like a diss track. The paper that Lieberman writes is pretty careful with its language and talks about this not as a problem with Rachel Maines, but as a systemic problem, wherein academics are not really fact checking each other, that they'll just read work from other academics, absorb that narrative and be like, “That must be what it is.” She talks about the dozens, if not hundreds of citations that lead back to this work and all of this sort of stuff. And she's like, “Yeah, yeah, but nobody fact checked it.”

Mike: Yeah. It's a lot of work. There's a lot of the stuff comes from like archives, you have to spend the day, you can't take materials out. It's a huge problem because actually going back to all these sources would be like a month’s long project in a lot of cases.

Aubrey: She says, “We found no evidence in these sources that physicians ever used electromechanical vibrators to induce orgasms in female patients as medical treatment. There is not evidence that doctors used it on people with vulvas at the time. There is not evidence that hysterical paroxysm was a treatment for hysteria. And there's actually not evidence of hysterical paroxysm outside of Maines’ book.”

Mike: Oh.

Aubrey: Right. 

Mike: Basically, that whole thing of like stealth orgasms, that didn't happen?

Aubrey: Lieberman is like, “I fact checked it, it didn't happen.” 

Mike: Huh.

Aubrey: So, it gets a little bit worse. I just sent you a little quote, also from this Lieberman paper. 

Mike: So, it says, “As we show below Maines fails to cite a single source that openly describes use of the vibrator to massage the clitoral area. Furthermore, none of her English language sources even mentions production of paroxysms by massage or anything else that could remotely suggest an orgasm.” So, basically, it's not there. The sources that she's citing as evidence for a claim don't even include anything remotely resembling the claim. 

Aubrey: Correct. Lieberman also argues that they were used for a broad range of conditions. Vibrators are being used at this point to induce labor. 

Mike: Wow.

Aubrey: Granville himself used them to treat constipation, diabetes, aches and pains, not for hysteria or on women's bodies. The genital use that she finds, that Lieberman finds, is that vibrators as much as they were used sexually, were used and applied to men's perineum, to restore sexual vigor. So, not only were they not being used to provide pleasure to women, they were being used to give dudes boners basically.


Mike: Huge missed opportunity for there to be a follow up to this movie about a bunch of dudes going in. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: Like, I think there's something in my prostate, I think you need to vibrate that a little bit.

Aubrey: Do it again but with dudes. [laughs] 

Mike: Everything you said about power structures, I'm now ignoring, and I'm going to start working on that screenplay.


Aubrey: That's another one where it's totally take a 21st century lens and apply it here, and you're like, “Man, oh, man, one of those doctors somewhere was either gay or wanted to use a vibrator just for his own.” 

Mike: Yeah, just went for it. 

Aubrey: There's more to explore here than just like, “Hmm, a little saucy romp.”

Mike: Also, because we're so used to it now. But at the time, like an object that vibrates would have seemed magical. The whole concept of electricity would have seemed kind of sci fi. And so if you have this object, like a little wand that vibrates, I feel you would sort of use it for everything.

Aubrey: Absolutely. The treatments that vibrators are used for at this point are utterly bananas. It will cure your diabetes, it will cure your laryngitis, it will cure your aching muscles if you're a farm worker or if you work in a factory. They use them on-- They recommend using them on people’s scalps to reverse hair loss. It's a treatment for obesity. 

Mike: Sure. 

Aubrey: Sure. So, I couldn't really find anything that definitively sold Rachel Maines social camouflage model that, like, everybody knew, and they were just buying these. Lieberman argues, “Sure, there might have been some social camouflage, but there's no evidence that vibrators were being sold as a primarily sexual thing.” There's no evidence of the, “Everybody knew that it was mostly sexual.” What there's evidence of is all of the non-sexual uses. Here you go, I am going to send you-- that's what we like to see.

Mike: Oh. What the fuck? 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: Okay. So, it's an old ad. The headline on the ads says, "Here's health and power, vim and vigor.” And then what the fuck? 

Aubrey: There's like a little suitcase. 

Mike: Yeah, there's a big suitcase with like a bunch of tools in it, that looks like a fucking time machine. It has a bunch of the weird knobs and shit and cranks. And then there's a photo of a guy shirtless, holding something to his chest. It looks like a maraca. It's got like a little tiny handle and a really, really big bulbous head, and it's metal. Yeah, like the top of it, I guess it looks like a birdhouse or something. Then there's a woman who's also holding one on her arm. What the fuck? How are people even using this as a sex toy?

Aubrey: So, this is the dispute was, were these ads, undercover ads for sex toys? Or were they really being marketed for all of these purposes? Like treatment of diabetes, or gout, or hair loss, or whatever. This is the thing that where it's hard to know how they were actually being used because we have all these anti-obscenity laws. You can't actually advertise them. Actually, let's start there, and then we'll get into this how they were marketed business. Around this time is when we have really, really the heyday of obscenity laws. In the US, there was not anything bigger than the Comstock Act. It sounds like you're familiar with the Comstock Act.

Mike: Wasn't this the thing that they wanted to get around censorship laws? It's hard to get through the First Amendment, etc. But they made it like a logistical law. They're like, “Ooh, you can publish obscene things. We're not going to make a law preventing you from publishing obscene things. But we're just going to make a law thing that the post office, which is a government agency cannot do distribute obscene things.” 

Aubrey: You can't send it through the mail and you can't own it, and you can't give it away, and you can't sell it. 

Mike: Oh.

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: That's more strict than I thought it was.

Aubrey: Yeah, totally. Basically, you could make it and then destroy it, I guess. 

Mike: Great. 

Aubrey: The Comstock Act was signed into law in 1873. It's named for this guy Anthony Comstock, who was like an extremely staunch Christian who dedicated his life to fighting vice, by which he primarily just meant porn. The Comstock Act made it a criminal offence to send obscene, lewd, lascivious, immoral, or indecent publications in the mail. 

Mike: Totally normal terms with fixed definitions. 

Aubrey: We all know technically what immoral means, we all agree on that. What that means for the research here, is that advertising of sex toys and acknowledging that they might be used for sexual pleasure would have been a criminal offense. And this is the thing that because these are our primary-- primary sources, we don't really know. What we do know is that these ads appeared in the Sears, Roebuck catalog. They appeared in The New York Times. They appeared all over. These were like a big deal ads that were everywhere. And they were all making these big claims about the health benefits of using vibrators.

Mike: I'm not seeing any coded language in here. Oftentimes when you're marketing a product is one thing and you're telling people to use it as another, you'll have these like double entendre or something. This just says, “Vibration is life. In vibration there exists many of the secrets of life.” It just seems normal wellness claptrap that we read for the show constantly.

Aubrey: All the time. Over time, we start to get other ads that start to be more specifically targeting women. So, I just sent you one for the Venus-Adonis Electric Normalizer.

Mike: Ooh, electric normalizer. It looks like an iron. It's like a lady doing fitness-y, like Jane Fonda fitness stuff, but she's got this little vibrating. Yeah, like thing the size of an iron that seems to be attached to her with some sort of strap.

Aubrey: Yeah. They're marketing it at this point as like pleasurable massage, like, “Relax, have a massage,” but also specifically, “An enjoyable, helpful means to slim trim hips, small waist, flat abdomen, shapely legs, a streamlined figure, and physical wellbeing.”

Mike: See, people think there's something magical about vibrating. There's no biological reason why an object vibrating would reduce your body fat. It's just a complete absurd.

Aubrey: No, it's those big belts from the 50s where people just get on this treadmill looking platform and just have a big rubber belt agitating their middle section. They're like, “I'm losing weight all day.” Really, like, “Are you?”

Mike: I think people just think that if something is “technological” that it just does everything. They're like, “Oh, it's technology.” Hips, acne, whatever.

Aubrey: Totally. Vibrators were seen as such a magical thing that they were used in part to sell consumers on the idea of signing on for modern electrical appliances broadly. So, I'm going to send you a quote from this piece in the conversation, which is just great.

Mike: It says, “For American housewives in the 1930s, the vibrator looked like any other household appliance. A nonsexual new electronic technology that could run on the same universal motor as their kitchen mixers and vacuum cleaners. Before small motors became cheap to produce, manufacturers sold a single motor base with separate attachments for range of household activities, from sanding wood to dry hair or healing the body with electrical vibrations.” Also, they had one like leaf blower engine setup, and then they could like attach different things to it, to make a meringue or yes, sand their deck, whatever they needed it for.

Aubrey: Lieberman's argument here is, “You can't really make the claim that these were widely understood to be sexual, if there's no evidence that they were widely understood to be sexual at the time.” That's a very, very, very 20th and 21st century lens, to put on a 19th century thing.

Mike: People, they were selling vibrators as just like a vibrating object. It wasn't like wink-wink.

Aubrey: Totally. If there was a wink-wink happening at any point, we don't really have evidence of the wink-wink.

Mike: Right. 

Aubrey: One of the things that Lieberman brings up, is that you could get things that were billed as rectal attachments. 

Mike: [gasps] What?

Aubrey: Yes, but they were, like, “It's for medical purposes.” It's for a cure for X in such condition or for your digestion or for restoring sexual vigor to men.

Mike: I mean, in a way, that is what it's doing.

Aubrey: It is, kind of, yeah.

Mike: Mm-hmm. 

Aubrey: [chuckles] In addition, around this time, part of those rectal attachments and essentially like penetrative attachments are being sold for treatment of medical conditions that were thought to be brought on by too much masturbation. They were, like, “You're masturbating too much. You need treatment with a vibrator.” [chuckles] 

Mike: Wait, what? So, put a vibrator up your butt?

Aubrey: Yeah. Basically, the belief at this point was that men who masturbated “too much” were thought to bring on impotence. For women, too much masturbation was believed to bring on hysteria. And this was where we get the like, masturbation causes blindness stuff. People are like, “Well, I got to do the anti-masturbation thing of using a vibrator.” 

Mike: I need my sight.

Aubrey: So, this is like how this is being marketed. But, again, it's not necessarily how it's being used.

Mike: If the women are surely getting the rectal ones and just using them non-rectally, I presume.

Aubrey: Or using them-- [crosstalk] Yes, totally. Whatever. Undoubtedly, there were people who were using these sexually. The question is like, how many people. The question is, when people saw these ads, did they understand them to be coded in some way or to be-- was this like an open secret? I guess, is the question. 

Mike: What happens after Lieberman's article comes out, and she's like debunked the heck out of Rachel Maines, what happens?

Aubrey: This is where it gets really fun and fascinating to me, especially on the heels of our episode, I don't know a month ago about Walter Willett and Katherine Flegal. If we had a Walter Willett in this situation, what we would have is an astonishing blow up. And essentially what happens with this one is a reporter goes to Rachel Maines. And it's like, “Hey, this other historian says your work is not as factually sound as you think it is.” And Rachel Maines just responds with like, “Yeah, it's totally appropriate normal for other scholars to look into scholars’ work, especially like younger scholars to question the work of older scholars. That's good, and we don't have to agree.”

Mike: We love to see it. 

Aubrey: We love to see it.

Mike: Although it's nice that they're nice to each other. But also, there's a pretty large factual claim here that I feel like it needs to be addressed. 

Aubrey: Yep, sure does. 

Mike: Because for all we know, Lieberman is lying. All we have is the opinion about the contents of primary sources from two different people.

Aubrey: Yeah. That's exactly right. 

Mike: So, does anybody go back and check? 

Aubrey: Not to my knowledge-- Not to my knowledge have there been further checks on, like, “Okay, what does it actually say?” Lieberman writes this big paper, that is like, “The big problem here is that nobody fact checked it. So, I fact checked it.” And then it comes out and people are like, “Good point,” and then nobody fact checks it. 

Mike: Yeah, I know. And then nobody seems to do anything. It doesn't seem there's like been an epilogue where like something happens as a result of that. 

Aubrey: Lieberman gets some op-eds in some high-profile papers. She gets an op-ed in the New York Times talking about like, “This is maybe a myth.” She gets some sort of popular media placed elsewhere. So, there are little ripples, but nothing makes it as far as the fucking Maggie Gyllenhaal movie.

Mike: Right. Of course.

Aubrey: It's a tricky thing. I don't want to like cast aspersions on Maines’ intentions or how she got to where she was going, or any of that kind of stuff. But it is really, really hard to figure out how one historian could look at a primary source and go, “Aha, doctors invented vibrators to use on women who were hysterical. And have another historian look at the same primary source and go, “That's not there.” It's really hard to get to how this happens, other than, “I found a narrative. And then I figured out how to make that narrative true.”

Mike: Right. You look through these primary sources, and you're like, “Ooh, under this one reading, they could have meant this or something.” But you don't realize that you're looking for a story you're already telling yourself. 

Aubrey: Yeah. It feels so clear to me that this comes from the blanks that are getting filled in here are getting filled in by a boomer white woman. There's stuff about this that is a very generational view on sexuality, which was just, like, women knew women's sexual pleasure transcends any sort of timeline. It's like a very free love kind of argument. The Lieberman book then feels much more like a millennial take on it, which is like, “Wait, it's more complicated than that. I don't know what it is. But I don't think it's this.” Which also feels like a very millennial critique. “Wait, wait, wait this doesn't feel right.” I don’t know what the right thing is, but this isn't it. Hang on.”

Mike: “Slow down, mom.” 

Aubrey: Absolutely. 

Mike: It also feels to me, it's important that Lieberman is a social researcher and Maines is a technology researcher. 

Aubrey: Absolutely. 

Mike: I've come across this as well, that when you're somebody who's looking at the technology first, it creates these kinds of blind spots where it's like you make the technology more important, potentially than it was at the time or more exotic than it was at the time, and you strip away all the ways in which technology always fits into existing social structures and social understandings. And just like normal, people being people stuff.

Aubrey: Part of the story that we're talking about today is the problem with primary sources. And the sort of shortcomings of primary sources. It's worth noting that the overwhelming plurality of primary sources that we do have, are about really class privileged white women who are ostensibly straight people and cis people. That's who would have had the income to hire a doctor, that's who would have been able not to work and to have a husband care for them and not be expected to do any other jobs. That's who we're talking about here, because that's who we've got information on.

Mike: That's what gets saved in history, is rich ladies laudanum diaries. It's not random factory workers writing down their thoughts at the end of the day. I mean, it's also in a society that doesn't also have like mass literacy, either or literacy is something that only the wealthiest and most educated 10% of the population has. All of your primary sources, by definition are going to be coming from like a very unrepresentative part of the population, like, this is just a problem with historical research writ large.

Aubrey: Yeah. Who has the resources to publish, who has the resources to create and make ads, and publish ads, the sort of primary sources are marketing. They're marketing to people with disposable incomes.

Mike: Yeah. I mean, of course, historians know all this. But it's easy to then look back in history and say, “Oh, based on all these sources, this is what society was like.” And it's actually like, “No, this is what the people who were buying stuff society was like.”

Aubrey: This is what society was for the people who we let write stuff down. 

Mike: Yeah. 

Aubrey: Here's the other thing that influences the research here. In addition to these obscenity laws, both of these scholars have talked about the contemporary constraints on their work. Rachel Maines actually says very publicly, that she struggled to get a publisher for her book. She struggled to keep her job that she was told by her university that they were afraid that alumni would stop donating if they found out that this was a topic of scholarship. This is in 2001.

Mike: Oh, wow. 

Aubrey: Uh-huh. And she is very straightforwardly, like, those messages were delivered by men with more institutional power than me and I believe that they experienced my work as an implied criticism. 

Mike: Hmm. 

Aubrey: There is such a deep discomfort, particularly among straight men, about talking about women's sexual pleasure or the sexual pleasure of anybody who's not also a straight dude.

Mike: Everything is the controversy about WAP this summer. 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: Everything is a version of that, of just like a woman is talking about how much she likes having sex.

Aubrey: All of these dudes are Ben Shapiro. Yes.

Mike: [laughs] 

Aubrey: The last thing I would say on this topic, which is just like a little coda, is the Comstock Act has been dismantled pretty much. But all of those that whole network of local obscenity laws still remains in place in lots of places. 

Mike: Oh, yeah?

Aubrey: One of the big cases just after this Rachel Maines book was released in 2003, in Cleburne, Texas, a woman was arrested for selling sex toys to a couple looking for a marital aid. That couple turned out to be undercover police officers.

Mike: The use of cops’ time-

Aubrey: It's astonishing, no?

Mike: -it's baffling to me. Why?

Aubrey: It's astonishing. They end up dropping the charges against her-

Mike: Okay, good. 

Aubrey: -because if she was found innocent of these charges or she decided to appeal, that could lead to the repeal of the Texas law.

Mike: If they wanted to keep the law, they can keep threatening people with it and get them to plea deal out. 

Aubrey: Yes. 

Mike: [laughs] Great work. 

Aubrey: That's part of the reason why sex toys are still marketed. Like if you go into a CVS or Walgreens, you'll see all these things are like massagers and novelty items and marital aids because there are still plenty of markets where you actually can't sell something that is explicitly marketed as a sex toy.

Mike: I mean it's similar to the Comstock Laws. And you're casting the law as broadly as possible and then that gives you the discretion to basically arrest and harass anybody that you don't like.

Aubrey: Yeah. Part of what I find so interesting about this story is that it really ties together a bunch of stuff that we talk about pretty frequently, which is like, you decide on an outgroup, you reverse engineer a diagnosis to reinforce that outgroup status. You put all these constraints on the treatments or access that that outgroup has to rectifying the thing that you have decided is wrong with them. And normally, we're talking about bias in interpreting data. In this case, the way that bias shows up is straight up in the sources that we have access to.

Mike: Which is why I preemptively am jealous of the historians of the deep future which will have Tumblr to look back on, to find out the smartest thoughts.

Aubrey: [laughs] I really want you to get in a time machine, H. G. Wells style, and go 50 years into the future and be, like, “I'm a historian of beauty YouTubers.”

Mike: [laughs] 

Aubrey: [laughs] 

Mike: That's kind of what I'm doing at this point in my career. 

Aubrey: I'm the foremost historian on Tati Westbrook ask me-- AMA.


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