Victorian-Era Orgasms and the Crisis of Peer Review

A favorite anecdote about the origins of the vibrator is probably a myth.

The French actress Rachel Flix
The French actress Rachel Flix (Corbis Historical / Getty)

It’s among the most delectably scandalous stories in the history of medicine: At the height of the Victorian era, doctors regularly treated their female patients by stimulating them to orgasm. This mass treatment—a cure for the now-defunct medical condition of “hysteria”—was made possible by a new technology: the vibrator. Vibrators allowed physicians to massage women’s clitorises quickly and efficiently, without exhausting their hands and wrists.

It’s a disturbing insight, implying that vibrators succeeded not because they advanced female pleasure, but because they saved labor for male physicians. And in the past few years, it has careened around popular culture. It’s given rise to a Tony-nominated play, a rom-com starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, and even a line of branded vibrators. Samantha Bee did a skit about it in March. A seemingly endless march of quirky news stories has instructed readers in its surprising but true quality, including in Vice, Mother Jones, and Psychology Today.

In short, the tale has become a commonplace one in how people think about Victorian sex. And according to a contentious new paper, it may also be almost totally false.

There is absolutely no evidence that Victorian doctors used vibrators to stimulate orgasm in women as a medical technique, asserts the paper, written by two historians at Georgia Tech. “Manual massage of female genitals,” they write, “was never a routine medical treatment for hysteria.”

“There’s no evidence for it,” says Hallie Lieberman, an author of both the new paper and Buzz, a popular history of sex toys. “It’s inaccurate.”

It’s not hard to see how the idea spread. The entire story of Victorian vibrators originates from the work of one scholar: Rachel Maines, a historian and a former visiting scientist at Cornell University. Her 1999 book, The Technology of Orgasm—described at the time as a “secret history of female sexual arousal”—argued that clitoral massage was used as a medical technique for centuries, from the time of Hippocrates to the modern day.

But that’s just not true, according to Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg, the chair of the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Tech. There is scant evidence that orgasms were widely understood as a cure for female hysteria, and there’s even less evidence that Victorians used vibrators to induce orgasm as a medical technique, they say. “Maines fails to cite a single source that openly describes use of the vibrator to massage the clitoral area,” their paper says. “None of her English-language sources even mentions production of ‘paroxysms’ by massage or anything else that could remotely suggest an orgasm.”

Instead, they argue, Maines conceals this lack of support by relying on a “wink and nod” approach to primary sourcing and by “padding her argument with a mass of tangential citations.”

In an interview, Maines said that she has heard variations of the paper’s criticism before—and that her argument in The Technology of Orgasm was really only a “hypothesis,” anyway. “I never claimed to have evidence that this was really the case,” she said. “What I said was that this was an interesting hypothesis, and as [Lieberman] points out—correctly, I think—people fell all over it. It was ripe to be turned into mythology somehow. I didn’t intend it that way, but boy, people sure took it, ran with it.”

Maines added that she was a little surprised it took so long for other scholars to question her argument, given how admittedly “slender” the evidence she gave in The Technology of Orgasm was. “I thought people were going to attack it right away. But it’s taken 20 years for people to even—people didn’t want to question it. They liked it so much they didn’t want to attack it.”

Even though Maines now calls her argument a “hypothesis,” her writing in The Technology of Orgasm does not take the same provisional tone. “In the Western medical tradition, genital massage to orgasm by a physician or a midwife was a standard treatment for hysteria,” she wrote in that book’s first pages. “When the vibrator emerged as an electromechanical medical instrument at the end of the 19th century, it evolved from previous massage technologies in response to demand from physicians for more rapid and efficient physical therapies, particularly for hysteria.”

“I intended it as a hypothesis. Perhaps the way I expressed it didn’t communicate that,” Maines said when asked about the book’s declarative tone. “Interpretations of historical data are open to interpretation.”

“In the book, she doesn’t refer to it as a hypothesis at all. She makes the claim that this is a fact, and it happened,” Schatzberg says. “To me, it suggests that Maines was aware of the weakness of her claim, and later, after it was taken up so widely, tried to backtrack.”

Certainly Lieberman did not imagine Technology of Orgasm to be hypothetical when she first encountered it. Her new paper with Schatzberg originated from a classroom aside in 2010, when Lieberman was working on a dissertation about the history of sex toys. Her adviser mentioned that he sometimes found it useful to understand other scholars’ work by checking their citations. “I started doing that on this book, and I found that nothing added up,” Lieberman said.

She brought the book to Schatzberg, who was a professor at the University of Wisconsin at the time, for a second opinion. They began going through the book citation by citation—and found what they believe to be significant errors. In one passage, Maines alludes to a technique described in 1660 by the British surgeon Nathaniel Highmore. The original quote, translated from Latin, describes a movement that “is not unlike that game of boys in which they try to rub their stomachs with one hand and pat their heads with the other.” Maines says this is a reference to the difficulty of producing orgasm through “vulvular massage.”

Not so fast, Lieberman and Schatzberg say. “The quote about the boys game occurs in a discussion of complex motions of the fingers, especially when playing stringed instruments,” they write. “Nowhere does this discussion even hint at massage of the vulva.” (When asked, Maines continued to insist that Highmore was referring to genital massage.)

In another passage, Maines quotes a 19th-century physician describing how a vibrator can speed up the massage process. A doctor without a vibrator “consumes a painstaking hour to accomplish much less profound results than are easily effected by the [the vibrator] in a short five or ten minutes,” reads the quote.

But this does not describe genital massage, Lieberman says. “Vibrators were patent medicine,” she told me, and they were used as a labor-saving device for many different types of less titillating massage. This physician was actually advocating for vibrator massage of “the intestines, kidneys, lungs, and skin,” she says.

Even once Lieberman and Schatzberg had made these discoveries, publishing them was not a given. At first, Lieberman hoped to publish an article that combined her own research into the history of sex toys with a refutation of Maines’s thesis. But she found that anonymous peer reviewers resisted her framing of The Technology of Orgasm. Eventually, Lieberman removed all her critique of Maines from her article, and it was accepted for publication.

Lieberman, working with Schatzberg, turned that criticism of Maines into a full journal article—and they again struggled to find a journal that would publish it. According to emails reviewed by The Atlantic, editors now felt their criticism should focus on more than one book and that it should be more generous to Maines’s political context. One editor said they should treat Maines’s claims not as erroneous facts, but as outdated historical interpretation. “You are letting ‘facts’ slide over into what might fairly be called interpretation,” that reviewer wrote. “Don’t we, as example, continually revisit what the ‘facts’ of the industrial revolution were and how it happened?”

The article was published in The Journal of Positive Sexuality in August.

“Some people have said, ‘Oh, you’re attacking [Maines].’ But my life would have been so much easier if her work had been accurate,” Lieberman said. “I did not want to critique her, I do not want to attack her, I have no problem with her. I just want to build on someone else’s work, and when that work is incorrect, it creates problems for scholars in the field of history of sexuality.”

“It’s a real problem if you’re a grad student writing a dissertation, and in what seems to be the widely accepted work in your field, you can’t find any justification for,” Schatzberg said.

Other historians have previously identified problems with Maines’s work. Fern Riddell, a popular historian who studies Victorian sex, attacked the idea that “Victorians invented the vibrator” in a 2014 Guardian article. (Riddell did not respond to an email sent through her publisher.)

And Helen King, a classics professor at the Open University in the United Kingdom, wrote a lengthy scholarly rebuttal of Maines’s use of Greek and Latin sources in 2011. Maines “deliberately skewed” translations of the ancient texts she cited, such as interpreting a medical text “in which the lower back is massaged as ‘masturbation,’” King said in an email. “She played just as fast and loose with the secondary material; for example she cited a general article on Roman baths to support her hypothesis that piped water in the baths was used for masturbation, even though that article says nothing about water pressure or women, let alone masturbation!”

Reading the new paper, King said she had one thought: “What comes as a surprise is that Maines’ book is even more flawed than I’d thought … I do wonder if anyone at all looked at it for the press.”

That press was the Johns Hopkins University Press, which published The Technology of Orgasm 19 years ago. “As most senior scholars know, university presses peer-review their books by relying on other senior scholars to comment on the quality of the work,” said Greg Britton, its editorial director. “Before it was accepted for publication two decades ago, this book would have been selected by the editor, undergone a rigorous round of single-blind peer review, and then approved by a faculty editorial board.”

He added: “Presses do not, however, fact-check their books as Lieberman and Schatzberg acknowledge. More to the point, Professor Maines has always maintained that her assertions were a hypothesis open to further exploration.”

Maines nodded to King’s work as a precedent for the Lieberman and Schatzberg paper. She maintains that she never set out to pass off the notion of vibrators as a Victorian treatment for hysteria as historical fact; rather, she simply wanted to present the possibility as a way to get people thinking and talking about “orgasmic mutuality,” or female orgasms in addition to the traditionally more familiar male orgasm. And given its outsized impact in popular culture, especially through works like Sarah Ruhl’s Pulitzer Prize–nominated play In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), “I think I succeeded in that,” she says.

Schatzberg and Lieberman say they recognize the importance and legitimacy of the study of sex and pleasure, but that the facts still matter. “In this post-fact era, the one bastion where facts should still be loved, and honored, and respected, and relentlessly pursued is academia,” Schatzberg said.

In the past few years, the social sciences have been rocked by a “reproducibility crisis,” in which once-bedrock findings in psychology, nutrition science, and other disciplines have failed to replicate when tested. Lieberman and Schatzberg believe the same “publish or perish” incentives that drove that crisis also explain the vibrator story: Its success, they write, “serves as a cautionary tale for how easily falsehoods can become embedded in the humanities.”

“People are not rewarded for checking previous work,” Schatzberg said. “They’re rewarded for coming up with sexy new research findings. That’s true in the sciences, but it’s also true in the humanities.”

Lieberman said the entire episode seemed to illustrate the academy’s tendency to confirmation bias. “It was salacious. It was sexy. It sounded like a porn,” she said.“It fit into our belief that the Victorians weren’t as educated or knowledgable as we are about sex—and this idea that we progressively get more enlightened about sex, and that history follows this narrative from progression to progression. It fits so well into this. It fits into ideas that people had that women’s sexuality wasn’t understood.”

“One of the big takeaways for me is that the peer-reviewed process is flawed. Peer review is no substitute for fact-checking,” she added. “We need to fix this, and we need to start checking other people’s work, especially in history.”

To King, the takeaway was clear: “People wanted to hear this story,” she said. “Vibrator stories sell.”