vibrators, and most people immediately think of women’s sexual pleasure. And no
wonder: Vibrators easily provide direct clitoral stimulation intense enough to
produce orgasm reliably and enjoyably during either masturbation or partner
sex. Vibrators can enhance the pleasure of lovemaking, and are especially
helpful for women who have difficulty having orgasms in other ways.
women’s sexual pleasure was the furthest thing from the minds of the male
doctors who invented vibrators more than a century ago. These physicians were
interested in a labor-saving device to spare their hands the fatigue they
developed masturbating a steady stream of 19th century ladies who suffered from
“hysteria,” a then-vaguely defined ailment that today we recognize as sexual
frustration. Therein hangs a strange tale that provides quirky insights into
both the history of sex toys, and cultural notions about women's sexuality.
Scourge of “Hysteria”
the 20th century, American and European men believed that women did not
experience sexual desire, and that intercourse culminating in male orgasm was
all women needed to experience sexual satisfaction. Women basically concurred. They were socialized to believe
that “ladies” had no independent interest in sex, and were merely the passive
receptacles for men’s unbridled lust, an unfortunate trait they had to endure
in order to have children.
surprisingly, these beliefs led to a great deal of sexual frustration on the
part of women, who complained to their doctors of anxiety, sleeplessness,
irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasies, feelings of heaviness in the lower
abdomen, and production of vaginal lubrication. This syndrome became known as
“hysteria,” from the Greek term for uterus.
centuries, doctors prescribed various remedies for hysteria. In the 13th
century, physicians advised women to use dildos. In the 16th century, they told
married hysterics to encourage the lust of their husbands. Unfortunately, that
probably didn’t help too many wives because modern sexuality research clearly
shows that only 25 percent of women are consistently orgasmic from vaginal intercourse.
Three-quarters of women need direct clitoral stimulation some of the time or
every time to have orgasms. For hysteria unrelieved by husbandly lust, and for
widows, and single and unhappily married women, doctors advised horseback
riding, which, in some cases, provided enough clitoral stimulation to trigger
Massage to “Paroxysm”
women found little relief from horseback riding, and by the 17th century,
dildos were less of an option because the arbiters of decency had succeeded in
demonizing masturbation as “self-abuse.” Fortunately, an acceptable, reliable
treatment appeared—having a doctor or midwife massage the genitalia. With
enough genital massage, hysterical women could experience sudden, dramatic
relief through “paroxysm,” which virtually no medical authority called orgasm,
because, of course, everyone knew that women did not have sexual feelings, so
they could not possibly experience orgasm.
19th century, physician-assisted paroxysm was firmly entrenched in Europe and
the U.S. It was a godsend for many doctors. At that time, the public viewed
physicians with tremendous distrust. Most doctors had little or no scientific
training, and had few treatments that worked. This caused a great deal of
patient dissatisfaction. But
thanks to genital massage, hysteria was a condition doctors could treat with
great success. Treatment produced large numbers of grateful women, who returned
faithfully and regularly, eager to pay for additional treatments.
Fatigued Arms and Hands
for doctors, however, hysteria treatment had a downside—tired fingers and hands
from all that massage. In medical journals of the early 1800's, doctors
lamented the fact that many hysterics taxed their physical endurance. They had
trouble maintaining the treatment long enough to produce the desired
being the mother of invention, physicians began experimenting with mechanical
substitutes for their hands. They tried a number of genital massage
contraptions, among them water-driven devices (the forerunners of today's
shower massage attachments), and steam-driven pumping dildos. But these
machines were cumbersome, messy, often unreliable, and sometimes dangerous.
the decades after the Civil War, electricity became available for home use, and
the first electric appliances were invented: the sewing machine, the electric
fan and teakettle, and the toaster—followed soon after, around 1880, by the
electromechanical vibrator, patented by an enterprising British physician, Dr.
Joseph Mortimer Granville. The electric (also battery-powered) vibrator was
invented more than a decade before the vacuum cleaner and the electric iron.
electric vibrator was an immediate hit. It produced paroxysm quickly, safely,
reliably, and as often as a woman might desire it. By the dawn of the 20th
century, doctors had lost their monopoly on vibrators and hysteria treatment as
women began buying the devices for home use, thanks to advertisements appearing
in such magazines as Women's Home Companion
and Needlecraft, and the
then-venerable Sears & Roebuck Catalogue, whose copy gushed: “...such a delightful
companion....all the pleasures of youth...will throb within you....”
gave women vibrators, but within a few decades, electricity almost took them
away. With the invention of the motion picture, vibrators started turning up in
stag films during the 1920’s, and as a result, lost their social disguise as
“massagers,” and their acceptability along with it. Advertisements for them
disappeared from the consumer media, and they were difficult to find well into
inventions are so useful, so necessary for so many people that they are
destined to survive and thrive despite lingering attempts at suppression, for
example, bans on vibrators in Georgia and Texas. The latest research shows that
today, an estimated one-third of American women own vibrators, and 10 percent
of couples use vibrators reasonably regularly in partner sex.
think: We owe it all to physicians’ fatigue.
The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” The Vibrator, and
Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, by Rachel Maines.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.