… and she never, ever looked back …

I discovered today that vibrators were originally invented for medical use. An excellent article in the Guardian describes the history of the invention of the vibrator, in the context of an interesting new movie called Hysteria, which gives a fictional account of the life of its inventor.

The vibrator, it turns out, was invented before both the electric kettle and the vacuum cleaner, but was originally intended for use by doctors, who found the task of administering “pelvic massage” to treat women’s pervalent hysterical states far too tedious. The article reports:

The pelvic massage was a highly lucrative staple of many medical practices in 19th-century London, with repeat business all but guaranteed. There is no evidence of any doctor taking pleasure from its provision; on the contrary, according to medical journals, most complained that it was tedious, time-consuming and physically tiring. This being the Victorian age of invention, the solution was obvious: devise a labour-saving device that would get the job done quicker.

This labour-saving device was very quickly miniaturized, and soon was being sold direct to the patient, saving doctors the tiresome but financially rewarding task of bringing their patients to orgasm. It also appears that the readers and writers of women’s magazines at the time were aware of more than just the medical benefits of these devices:

For the next 20 or so years, the vibrator – or “massager”, as it was known – enjoyed highly respectable popularity, advertised alongside other innocuous domestic appliances in the genteel pages of magazines such as Woman’s Home Companion, beneath slogans describing them as “Such delightful companions”, and promising, “All the pleasure of youth… will throb within you”. In 1909, Good Housekeeping published a “tried and tested” review of different models, while an advert in a 1906 issue of Woman’s Own assured readers, “It can be applied more rapidly, uniformly and deeply than by hand and for as long a period as may be desired.”

So, in the 19th century Doctors had a lucrative side business as, essentially, a type of sex worker, and in the early 20th century it was acceptable for women to order a vibrator from any magazine, and to use it for its curative properties. I guess they discussed them at their tea parties … as Maggie Gyllenhall, actor in the upcoming movie, notes, it’s a little weird that

 100 years ago women didn’t have the vote, yet they were going to a doctor’s office to get masturbated

Strange indeed. Imagine what Rush Limbaugh would say if Obamacare mandated that service to Catholic healthcare providers …

There is, of course, a serious side to this topic. The movie is based on a book and some publications by an academic, whose career appears to have been threatened because she showed an interest in the history of the vibrator, and it appears that there is some resistance in academia to understanding this aspect of the history of psychiatry. It might seem trite on the surface, but the development of psychology and psychiatry is intimately connected to the efforts of doctors to define women as mad and inferior, and hysteria played a central role in the development of a lot of modern theory. Examining the history of the vibrator also means getting a better understanding of just how deeply held the beliefs of doctors at the time were. This notion of “hysteria” wasn’t just some fictitious silliness from one of Freud’s texts, but clearly influenced widespread medical practice, and a whole industry thrived on the treatment of this non-existent condition. It’s worth noting that this labour-saving device was invented and popularized before several important household appliances, so it wasn’t just a trivial sideline in the industrial revolution. Yet there is almost no scholarly research on either the device itself, its relationship to medical practice, or what the existence of this industry says about the pervasiveness of the pernicious notion of hysteria in the 19th century. The article finishes by noting this point:

If the story of the vibrator tells us anything … it is that men have been determined for millennia to deny the most obvious truth about women’s sexual requirements. Explanations for this collective denial have ranged from profound fear of female sexuality to sheer laziness. Either way, Maines says, “The constant from Hippocrates to Freud – despite breathtaking changes in nearly every other area of medical thought – is that women who do not reach orgasm by penetration alone are sick or defective.” Western society has steadfastly preferred to pathologise around 75% of the female population as frigid, hysterical or, as the Victorians liked to say, “out of sorts”, than acknowledge the inconvenient truth that coitus might not be entirely satisfying to women.

The thing I find astounding about this aspect of the history of sexuality is what it says about men’s attitude towards sex, and particularly their lack of interest in the female body. Sure, playing with vibrators is fun, but all that sticky stuff down there is an enjoyable and essential part of a full sex life, and I would have thought that most men who have a genuine interest in and desire for the female body would naturally gravitate to the sort of playfulness that renders vibrators (largely) obsolete, and certainly one would think that through just simply playing around in a natural way, men would have worked out what women like, and would see it as a natural thing. But no, somehow for centuries they all managed to labour under the false notion of the vaginal orgasm, with all the confusion and blandness such an ideal introduces to sexual intercourse. Did they not notice? Were they not concerned? What were they doing? How could they have been satisfied? Reading about the advertisements in women’s magazines of the time, I can’t help thinking that despite their inferior position and straitened circumstances, women had worked out what was going on long before men, and for all their freedom of expression and exploration, it is men who have been the repressed ones for most of history. Which just goes to show that the people with the most social power are not always the ones best equipped to use it …

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