When I was an undergrad one of the pervasive stories about Americans in the nineteenth century was that doctors used vibrators to cure women of “hysteria.” It was an intoxicating historical assertion–those stodgy, chaste Victorians were also secretly using sex to treat women’s mental health! Astonishing!
Except, it probably isn’t true.
In a recent peer-reviewed article, two historians attempt to debunk this narrative and the book The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines. They systematically went through her book and traced her sources and found that they were misinterpreted, missing, or mistranslated. Other historians have questioned her work in popular publications (here, in particular), but for scholars a peer-reviewed article carries more weight.
Now, you might wonder why any of this matters. So what if we have found academics behaving badly? And why didn’t scholars take the popular press critiques of the book seriously? It might be a nice story to scare undergrads into more careful citation but does it matter?
It matters because historians and the public were incredibly willing to believe this argument. Why? In part because they wanted it to be true. This new story was subversive–it suggested that Victorians were not what they had once seemed–and it also connected our modern society that sells sex and sexiness with our ancestors.
Historical interpretation is always a product of the culture that makes the history. It is no surprise that in the 1960s and 1970s we saw historians telling the stories of African Americans, women, and other minorities; this was the prevailing concern of the age. Similarly, in the 1990s we saw scholars interested in gender and sexuality. Those cultural biases shape the historical narratives that ring true and this salacious story of the Victorian age seemed plausible and academically challenging to scholars in the modern era. Peer review (when other scholars investigate a scholarly work to decide whether it is rigorous and interesting enough for publication) won’t always fix a problem like this–it doesn’t mean that other scholars check sources. Instead, it means that scholars ask if the argument is compelling, if the cited source base is wide enough, and if the piece fits into or challenges current scholarship in important ways. In that sense, the medically proscribed orgasm was a peer-review slam dunk.
So, should we be skeptical of all historical narratives?
No, but we should recognize that no historical narrative is going to be completely correct. We never have all the evidence we need from the past and we will always be a product of the culture we live in. That is where historiography comes in. The history of history lays out how our interpretations have changed over time and help us see what angles the scholarly community have addressed and where new interpretations might be possible. One of the challenges for scholar of the Victorian era now is to undo the damage that has been done. Two decades of history have relied on this book and argument and have to be rethought and maybe removed from our historiographical record.
If you aren’t blushing and embarrassed yet, here is an Atlantic article about these recent scholarly debate. And I think it is worth noting that we didn’t even need vibrator-inventing doctors to challenge the idea that Victorians were stodgy prudes. Look at this article about Nantucket “He’s At Homes” and think about what it says that generations of Nantucketers believed that wives waiting at home for their sea-faring husbands missed them sexually.