“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.”
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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.