• Jon Knowles

Thanks to Jackie Rotman (NYT, June 26), vibrators are in the news again. Here’s a little history about them: Plato taught that a wandering uterus caused hysteria. Doctors began to stroke the clitoris to relieve it. By the 17th century, most believed the uterus wandered if a woman didn’t get enough sex or wasn’t pregnant often enough. But very few of them would admit they gave women orgasms when curing hysteria.

Most doctors of the 19th century believed that women could not have orgasms. But they still believed that the uterus was a “furious and insatiable animal”. So, professional stroking was necessary — for a fee. And they invented vibrators to make their work easier. In 1889, the Butler Electro-massage Machine appeared. By 1899, the vibrator was the second most used electrical appliance in the home (The sewing machine was the first.) But women knew better than to talk about the joys it gave them.

For the first 20 years of the 20th century, ads for these “Delightful Companions” ran in women’s magazines such as Home Needlework Journal, Women’s Home Companion, and the Sears and Roebuck catalog. In 1910, The American College of Mechano-Therapy ran this ad in Women and Men: “Your Hands Properly Used are all you Need to Earn $3,000 to $5,000 a Year.”

Film porn at the end of the ‘20s, such as Widows Delight, let the cat out of the bag. Ads for vibrators disappeared entirely from mainstream media. In the ‘70s, Eve’s Garden and Good Vibrations opened to sell women sex toys — for pleasure, and a lot of women still used them, but on the Q.T.

They remained a forbidden subject. In 1991, Professor Donald Silva lost his job at University of New Hampshire. He had quoted Little Egypt to describe metaphor: “Belly dancing is like Jello on a plate with a vibrator under the plate.” And in 1998, Clarkson University refused to continue its contract with Rachel Maines. She had published her landmark book, The Technology of Orgasm — “Hysteria,” the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Clarkson feared its success would interfere with alumni funding!

Today, Walmart, Amazon, and other retailers sell vibrators as part of the growing “femtech” market — worth $50 billion by 2020. But mainstream advertisers —not at all shy about erectile dysfunction — refuse to acknowledge them.

For citations see:

Book One — 40, 150, 666, 825, 828

Book Two — 14, 111, 129, 157, 314, 441–2, 513, 684, 695

  • Jon Knowles

Updated: Jun 23, 2019

A World War II U.S. government poster to get GIs to avoid sex infections (Brandt, 1987, fig. 19).

Fintan O’Toole needs to brush up on his American history. He uses his review of Noelle Gallager’s Itch, Clap, Pox: Venereal Disease in the Eighteenth-Century Imagination to scold our current president for his odious views of women. It appears in his “Vile Bodies,” in June’s The New York Review of Books.

He calls Trump to task for his hateful belief that only women cause sex infections. Fair enough. But he further claims that Donald’s view is unusual and ahistorical. He argues, weakly, that men gave up this belief as far back as the 19th century. But to do this he overlooks the real history. In fact, America indicted all women interested in sex as “booby traps” for infection for most of the 20th century. Men were only victims as they fell into those traps. Here are just a few brief examples:

During the First World War, the military warned GIs that all women, not only sex workers, carried sex infections. It had the government police “flappers” to keep them from spreading them. Women agents policed the streets across America on the look out for “wayward” girls. The Public Health and Research Act of 1918 allowed authorities to detain and examine any “person” they thought might carry a sex infection. They detained more than 15,000 women. They only charged one out of three as sex workers. And they only detained one guy.

By the time of World War Two, the military and government saw all women equally as “booby traps” for syphilis and gonorrhea. They arrested so many of them for being “too sexy” that there was no longer room for them in jails, and the government had to open 30 “civilian conservation camps”. It warned GIs this way:

Avoid prostitutes, Pick-Ups, Push-Overs and “Easy Women.” They are not and cannot be

made safe. Pick-Ups and other “easy women” are by all odds likely to be infected too.

Another thing to remember is that a girl, free of infection at one time, may now have VD

and can easily pass it on to you.

Men were not responsible.

Trump and a whole lot of other men still embrace this nearly universal 20th century point of view. It lasted until medicine and safer sex decreased the cases of gonorrhea and syphilis at the end of the century.

Our history is important, and we need to own it. We also need to stop seeing our president as an uncommon man. The fact is, he is a very common man —in most all meanings of the word. That’s what makes him so dangerous.

For citations, see How Sex Got Screwed Up, Book 2, pages 296–305.

  • Jon Knowles

Updated: Jun 2, 2019

Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) is my greatest hero. She changed the world for all the women of the world by making it possible for them to have coitus without becoming pregnant. For thousands and thousands of years, women had to have children or go without marriage or having coitus. And the patriarchal world liked it that way. Sanger overturned most people’s thinking about that and gave women a way to control their own reproduction — the pill. This may have been the most important contribution to human rights in the 20th century. But Sanger is not everyone’s hero. Far from it. Today, for example, New York City has a commission to name important New York women to honor with public memorials. Sanger, arguably the most important woman in world history, is not on the list. The reason is that the anti-reproductive rights movement has successfully smeared her reputation with outright lies and misrepresentations in order to besmirch her brainchild, Planned Parenthood. It continues to produce falsehoods that she was a racist and a eugenicist who believed society should force certain women to not have children. The truth is that Sanger believed that all women should decide for themselves whether or not to have a child. But these lies about her are attractive to many and are now part and parcel of some women studies programs across the country. Even Planned Parenthood itself has mostly given up defending her. With current challenges to Roe v Wade, it believes it has bigger fish to fry.

There are many people who couldn’t care less about history. Sanger matters little to them. Nor do Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) and FDR (1882–1945). It also matters little to them that two of the women New York will honor, Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), believed that women and men should only have coitus when they wanted children — Voluntary Motherhood. Sex was not important to them, which makes them favorites of the anti-reproductive rights movement.

Sanger believed that women had to control their own bodies before they could afford to worry about for whom to vote. Many people who appreciate history admire her for that. They also stand up for her inarguable role in gaining that right for women around the world. Read more about Sanger in Book Two. Or read Ellen Chesler’s Woman of Valor — Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America or Jean H. Baker’s Margaret Sanger — A Life of Passion. Let’s do what we can to keep Sanger’s memory alive and true.

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