An Hysterical History

As we saw in the last post, vibrators were developed by doctors in the late 1800s to replace the “pelvic finger massage” they routinely administered to female patients. The massage was intended to relieve symptoms of “hysteria” or “neurasthenia,” such as anxiety, sleeplessness, and general malaise. Done successfully, it induced a “hysterical paroxysm,” which offered temporary relief to patients. By some estimates, over 75 percent of women suffered from these symptoms.

By the early 1900s, small electric vibrators had a comfy niche in middle-class homes right on the shelf between the toaster and the electric iron. At the time, they were perceived as medical devices that had nothing to do with sex.

The porn industry, however, was not so easily deluded. In the late 1920s, early porn films embraced the gadget for its own version of “doctor.” In this context, the “hysterical paroxysm” looked unmistakably like (gasp!) an orgasm. Once that connection was made, the veneer of the vibrator as a nonsexual treatment for a medical condition became uncomfortably hard to sustain, and the vibrator quietly disappeared from respectable society and doctors’ offices.

It became so utterly invisible, in fact, that in the 1970s only 1 percent of women had ever used one, according to the Hite Report, a famous study of female sexuality. “This was perhaps unsurprising, given that most vibrators by then were modeled on a very male notion of what a woman would want–a supersized phallus–replicating, in other words, the very anatomy whose shortcomings had precipitated the invention in the first place,” writes Decca Aitkenhead, in the Guardian.

At the heart of the matter was that:

  • At the time, women (of a certain social class) were simultaneously idealized and condescended to. They weren’t supposed to be sexual, to want sex, or to enjoy it.
  • The only “real” sex was penis-in-vagina penetration until the male reached orgasm.
  • If this didn’t satisfy a woman, the fault was hers. She was either defective, frigid, or “out of sorts” (in Victorian parlance).

Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of the Orgasm, the seminal work tracing the history of the vibrator, commented in an article in the Daily Beast, “In effect, doctors inherited the job of producing orgasm in women because it was a job nobody else wanted. The vibrator inherited the job when they got tired of it, too.”

That many women were not completely (or at all) satisfied by ordinary coitus was a source of confusion, frustration, and threat to some men. According to the Hite Report, most women can reach clitoral orgasm through masturbation. But the idea of women masturbating was also extremely threatening.

“I have read debates between doctors over whether women should be allowed to ride bicycles or whether the pleasure they might induce from the seat made it an unacceptable moral hazard,” writes Erik Loomis in “The Strange, Fascinating History of the Vibrator.”

Lest you think that we’ve evolved beyond these repressive and delusional ideas and that female sexuality is more acceptable today, think of the recent diatribe against a college student who spoke in favor of requiring health insurers to provide contraception. Or the statements alluding to “legitimate rape,” or the suggestion that a woman can’t get pregnant because her body “will shut the whole thing down.”

Have we really come all that far, Baby?

In any case, the discredited vibrator slunk back into view in the 1960s, first as a kinky sex toy and then as a symbol of women’s sexual liberation by feminists.

In a major national study of sexual behavior conducted in 2009, of over 2,000 women surveyed, 52.5 said they had used a vibrator.

If nothing else, the peculiar story of the vibrator should help us recognize how strongly we are influenced by cultural messages. A vibrator is not a medical device nor is it some unsavory symbol of sexual deficiency. For those of us who need extra stimulation to keep our sexual parts lubricated and functional, it’s just one important tool.


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