Hysteria, the Movie, or: What Doctors Did for Victorian Women

Just released on September 21, Hysteria is a light comedy about a dark and silly time. So touchy is its topic, in fact, that it took the producer, who is a woman, about ten years to find a studio willing to back the project. So unnerving is the topic that the author of the book on which the movie is based, who is also a woman, lost her job as an assistant professor when it was published.

Hysteria, the movie, and the book, titled The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines, explore the modern history of the vibrator. And a surprising story it is. The movie, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy, approaches the topic with a comedic touch. It is described by Movieline.com as “spirited, a jaunty trifle that’s low on eroticism but high on cartoony coquettishness.”

But beneath the silliness—because, really, how else can this be portrayed?—lies the basically true story of the invention of the vibrator. The unnerving truth may be that the paternalistic and harebrained notions that led to the invention of the vibrator continue to entangle themselves in our “modern” cultural psyche. The movie, but more insistently the book, raises some instructive and faintly unsavory questions about embedded cultural expectations regarding women and sex.

First, we’ll look at the vibrator story, and then, in a future post, we’ll explore the cultural attitudes lurking beneath.

If you’ve ever read novels from the late 1800s—the Victorian period in England—such as those by Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters or Edith Wharton in New York, you may have noticed a certain… reticence… a naiveté, an innocence about sexual matters. “Making love” in these novels refers to the most innocuous verbal expressions of admiration. Respectable women were corseted, cosseted, and shielded from turbulence of any sort. The preoccupation of a young woman was to attract a suitable match, and having done so, she was to run an efficient household and be an asset to her husband. Little was heard of her henceforth.

Having read many of these novels, I’ve often wondered how children were ever conceived.

So I was amazed to discover that these same respectable Victorian women were prescribed a very unusual medical procedure by their doctors to alleviate emotional afflictions, which were diagnosed generally as “hysteria” or “neurasthenia.” Symptoms ranged from anxiety and nervousness to headache and sleeping difficulty to abdominal “heaviness.”

A procedure that seemed to temporarily relieve these symptoms was known as a “pelvic finger massage,” typically administered by those very proper doctors. The goal of this treatment was to induce a “hysterical paroxysm.”

So—to put it in contemporary terms—doctors were masturbating their female patients to orgasm in order to relieve the sexual (and other) frustrations that women in this era commonly experienced. And this in a culture that viewed a glimpse of ankle as risqué.

“It's very difficult to imagine that 100 years ago women didn't have the vote, yet they were going to a doctor's office to get masturbated,” said Gyllenhaal in an interview with the UK’s Guardian.

At the time, however, the procedure wasn’t thought to be sexual. In fact, doctors considered it routine, tedious, and boring.

“Annoyed doctors complained that it took women forever to achieve this relief,” writes Eric Loomis in “The Strange, Fascinating History of the Vibrator.” Yet, since repeat business was virtually assured, doctors weren’t complaining about the steady income.

So, they invented a machine to do it for them. Thus the vibrator was born.

Early models ranged from comic to frightening. A steam-powered vibrator called the Manipulator, invented by an American doctor in 1869, required the patient to lie on a table with a cutout at the business end. A moving rod was powered by the steam engine in another room.

Lack of mobility was a problem with this contraption—a doctor was committed to a large, stationary object that consumed two rooms. And if the engine was coal-powered, who did the shoveling?

The next model was electric, and the battery only weighed 40 pounds. This was developed by Dr. J. Mortimer Granville, our erstwhile hero in the movie Hysteria. So it was that the vibrator predated the invention of the vacuum cleaner or the electric iron by over a decade. I ask you, where are our priorities, ladies?

Despite their size and lack of attention to attractive design, the things worked. From over an hour of manual manipulation, a woman could now reach “paroxysm” in five minutes.

But progress marches on, and by the turn of the last century, more domestic households had electricity, and vibrators had become small, portable, and widely available. Reputable magazines and catalogs sold them alongside the toaster and the eggbeater. A woman could buy a “massager” for what a few visits to the doctor cost, and thus the medical profession lost its cash cow.

Advertisements in magazines like Women’s Home Companion, Sears & Roebuck, and Good Housekeeping promised that “all the pleasures of youth… will throb within you” and “it can be applied more rapidly, uniformly and deeply than by hand and for as long a period as may be desired.”

It beggars the imagination to believe that no one through all these decades considered that massaging a woman’s genitals had anything to do with sex. And in fact, the Guardian article states, “Despite the lack of evidence to suggest otherwise, it seems unlikely [that women really did not know what they were buying]–and the manufacturers surely knew what they were selling.”

This level of schizophrenia is the vexing conundrum at the heart of the vibrator phenomenon.

In a future post, we’ll explore the more recent history of the vibrator and the questions suggested by this massive blind spot.


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.