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Vibrators and hysteria: how a cure became a female sexual icon

Vibrators have been causing a buzz for as long as they’ve existed: sometimes this happens behind closed doors, and sometimes in the public sphere. But as the new film Hysteria shows, there’s still fascination…

The history of the vibrator is improbable, with some fascinating milestones. Giampaolo Squarcina

Vibrators have been causing a buzz for as long as they’ve existed: sometimes this happens behind closed doors, and sometimes in the public sphere. But as the new film Hysteria shows, there’s still fascination in this area of female sexuality.

The 19th-century American author and humorist Mark Twain once observed, on the difference between history and fiction, that: “it’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense”.

He was right: many truths about history are so strange that they are believable when fictionalised only if the author/creator can point to an historical precedent. Such is the case with Tanya Wexler’s film Hysteria.

Jessie Pearl

Wexler’s narrative about the invention of the vibrator is based in part (a very small part) on my historical work The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.

For those of you that don’t know, hysteria in this context refers to a once-common medical diagnosis, exclusively in women, considered to be suffering from wide array of symptoms including sexual desire and the nebulous “tendency to cause trouble”.

For this they would receive a “pelvic massage” — a manual stimulation of the genitals by the doctor until the patient experienced hysterical paroxysm or, as we know it now, an orgasm.

French pelvic douche device, circa 1860. Wikimedia Commons

As the daughter of novelist Natalie L. M. Petesch, I can assert with authority that fictionalisers have plenty of license, and those of us who love our historical fiction and film benefit greatly from these creators’ freedom to reshape facts into entertainment.

Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria, which premiered in Australia last week, and American playwright Sara Ruhl’s delightfully-imagined In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) get audiences thinking and talking about sexuality and its history in a context in which laughter lubricates the mental gears.

First vibes of revolution

Certainly, the vibrator’s history is wildly improbable, with some memorable milestones along to the road to its current status as an icon of women’s independent sexuality. In the video below I go into some of those milestones.

Wexler’s Joseph Mortimer-Granville, inventor of the electromechanical vibrator, is a much younger and more liberal fellow than the historical original (1833-1900), who was, to judge by his writing, a veritable model of uptight Pommy respectability.

His invention in 1883 was a late achievement in a life devoted to treating mental disorders and devising methods of memory improvement. The vibrator was intended to be used on the male nerve centres, principally those of the spine.

He was horrified by the very idea of using vibrators on women (although he didn’t say why). But many of his colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic ignored his maledictions on vibrating female patients.

One of these colleagues was Alfred Dale Covey, whose book Profitable Office Specialties, which included “vibrotherapy,” went into multiple editions in the early 20th century.

Illustration from Joseph Mortimer-Granville: nerve-vibration and excitation as agents in the treatment of functional disorder and organic disease. London 1883. Joseph Mortimer-Granville

The model Mortimer-Granville designed was manufactured by the Weiss Company, which was, and is, a perfectly legitimate British instrument maker.

It didn’t take long for Mortimer-Granville’s sober-and-serious medical instrument to discover the market for pleasure. The American inventor of a steam-powered, coal-fired vibrator called The Manipulator, George Taylor, wrote in 1869 that physicians had to be careful to limit the “treatment” of women’s pelvic disorders, as the patients would be inclined to demand too much of a good thing.

As we Americans say: “You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie, George.”

Dr Rachel Maines discussing the history of the vibrator.

The jolting chair, another predecessor of the electromechanical vibrator, is thought to be a French invention, as is the clockwork percuteur of the late 18th century.

Jolting chairs look like rocking chairs with handles; the patient pulls back on the handles to administer a pelvis-pounding jolt. The invention was reportedly based on the discovery, in the late 19th century, that “hysterics” benefited from travelling by rail on poorly-maintained track.

Some physicians, including the American Charles Malchow, hinted darkly that at least some of these patients were enjoying these journeys more than was entirely proper.

A 1910 newspaper advertisement. Wikimedia

The jolting chair was intended to reproduce a stationary version of what some doctors in Paris considered to be a healthy experience.

As for hysteria, it was an amorphous (indefinite) disease paradigm that since the time of ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (450 BC) had been treated with massage of the female genitalia.

The diagnosis fell from medical grace in the American Psychiatric Association’s spectrum of mental disorders in 1952 after a 2,500-year history as what the 19th century French physician Charles LaSegue called “a wastepaper basket of otherwise unemployed medical symptoms”.

Symptoms, in addition to those already mentioned, included sleeplessness, nervousness, vague sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, shortness of breath and vaginal lubrication.

English women suffering from hysteria, 1876-1880. D.M. Bourneville and P. Régnard

The broad range of symptoms allowed almost any woman, and some men, to be diagnosed as hysterics and sent to doctors and/or to spas for treatment.

In the 1920s the vibrator began to appear in pornography, undermining its social camouflage as a medical device.

During the same period, Freudian theories of hysteria began to supersede the older paradigm of uterine etiology.

Physicians quietly dropped the device from their office practices, except for chiropractors, who concentrated their attentions on the skeletal muscles, not the genitalia.

Ephemeral Scraps

In the late 1960s, sex therapists in the United States found the vibrator to be a useful device in the treatment of anorgasmia (a type of sexual dysfunction in which one can’t achieve an orgasm), and in the 1970s, American feminist activists, including Betty Dodson, Dell Williams and Joani Blank, made the vibrator an icon of women’s sexual autonomy.

In a recent national study, vibrator use among American women was found to be more than 50%, and to be positively correlated with sexual health.

But as the biologist Alfred Kinsey’s British biographer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy once observed: “America is at once the most licentious culture since Rome and the most puritan country in the world”.

Wikimedia Commons

The American Christian Right, with its reactionary androcentric bias, just couldn’t stand the idea of all those women getting off by themselves.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, several states, including Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Kansas, passed anti-obscenity laws that prohibited the sale of devices for the massage of the human genitalia, and the ownership of more than five. All of these laws, except Alabama’s, have since been successfully challenged.

So let’s go with all the humour and conversation on this subject we can get. If entertainment such as Hysteria and In The Next Room keep the dialogue about sexuality going along with the laughter, let’s raise the curtain and enjoy the fun.

Further reading: Female orgasm: why O why?

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47 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    This article, regarding vibrators, raises the question of the validity of vaginal orgasm. Is there any such entity, or is it a question of anatomical variation that allows vaginal orgasm? Women who do not experience 'vaginal orgasm' are prone to feel sexually inadequate. As the clitoris is the repository of most, if not all, significant receptors in this area, what is the present consensus?

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    1. C Allan
      C Allan is a Friend of The Conversation.

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      I hope it's ok to reply here in a biologically expicit manner.

      I don't think there is any anatomical feature that makes a vaginal orgasm possible. The sensatory nerve endings simply aren't there. They're in the clitoris. It's that simple. However, a penis in the vagina is still a nice erotic feeling, I'm not claiming otherwise. I suspect this is because of the indirect stretching sensation which crreates a tension that can extend to the region of the clitoris.

      The tension can create arousal…

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    2. Martin Stær Andersen

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to C Allan

      Considering the singular central part sex and sexuality plays in human society, to the point that a host of religions have been based around it, the ignorance primitive myths through the centuries and millennia of the facts involved are quite astounding. I'm reminded of reading about a female surgeon who wanted to look up existing research and medical knowledge of the clitoris, only to find out that no-one, ever, had done any research into this vital and central of female sex organs. Despite centuries…

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  2. Annabelle Leve

    Researcher/Educator

    I just want to say how much I ENJOYED this article, and all the sensations it produced! Now to share it with my friends, thanks Rachel.

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  3. Comment removed by moderator.

  4. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    "So let’s go with all the humour and conversation on this subject we can get...."

    Tried that yesterday and got a fail. In the light of which, and on consideration of the following:

    "...and in the 1970s, American feminist activists, including Betty Dodson, Dell Williams and Joani Blank, made the vibrator an icon of women’s sexual autonomy...."

    ...it seems reasonable to respond that the vibrator has become an icon for a self pleasuring philosophy.

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    1. Annabelle Leve

      Researcher/Educator

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      It's funny, but unlike the other respondents to this article, my enthusiastic response related to the historical link between madness/hysteria and female sexuality, and the vibrator link that came up alongside that as a way of understanding and playing with notions of female (yes and male) sexuality. As well as including stuff that I just didn't know about, hence my recommendation to friends, a good (educational) read. And possibly in many ways, nothing to do with masturbation at all? And come to think of it, why did I mention that word when I don't think the article refers to it (explicitly) once? (a comment in itself?)

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    2. Diana Brown

      Parent; language student

      In reply to Annabelle Leve

      The reviewer says Maggie G 'mistakes superiority for charm' (as if she couldn't be charmingly superior!), and that the film 'mistakes frivolous for funny' (since when were these mutually exclusive?) and goes on to contrast 'tough, genuine humour' with 'the supercilious'. 'Tough, genuine humour' hey? I wonder what that is. To me, humour is whatever makes me laugh.

      What I really don't understand is this: why is it not ok to go to the movies simply to be entertained? why does a story have to deliver a sound, historically accurate, politically astute message? why must I ingest a big lump of 'education' along with my entertainment? Dreary, dreary, jobsworth - tough, genuine humourlessness, I'd say.

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    3. Annabelle Leve

      Researcher/Educator

      In reply to Diana Brown

      thank you, both entertaining and an education (ah, for me, anyway)!
      http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/chacun_%C3%A0_son_go%C3%BBt
      Alternative forms chacun a son gout
      [edit]Etymology Misunderstanding of the French, à chacun son goût “to each his own taste”
      [edit]Phrase chacun à son goût
      Used to acknowledge that different people have different tastes or preferences.
      [edit]Synonyms
      to each his own
      there's no accounting for taste

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  5. Anne T O'Brien

    student

    I'm surprised by a silence both in this review and it seems, in the film: What about the women who did not want to be genitally fondled by an unknown man in a position of power? How were their relationships affected? What about the doctors who felt ethically torn about a professional imperative to sexually stimulate women?

    In this light, there are many reasons why an inventor of the vibrator would be, as you say,

    "horrified by the very idea of using vibrators on women (although he didn’t say why). But many of his colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic ignored his maledictions on vibrating female patients."

    Are ethical concerns or other concerns 'maledictions'? What would we say today about doctors who did such a thing to patients?

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Anne T O'Brien

      In the current era, they'd be done for malpractice, well and truly.

      But, let's consider some of the pros and cons

      The diagnosis of hysteria seems to have been a catch-all for the various symptoms of what is probably just a grumpy woman, acting up instead of being all prissy and well behaved as apparently we're supposed to.

      PRO
      A medical diagnosis for grumpiness means it's not her fault, she's just sick, so lay off it already.

      CON
      It's another example where causes have been ignored…

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  6. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I think this is an excellent article that highlights the oppression of women. Men took far too long to invent an electric vibrator for women.

    First of all, men took too long to discover electricity, then they took too long to understand female anatomy, and then they took too long to put two and two together and invent an electric vibrator that could satisfy women, and become a female sexual icon.

    So, it highlights the oppression of women, and it highlights who stupid and useless men are, and all women should be very happy and thankful about that.

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    1. Diana Brown

      Parent; language student

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      *laughing* love it, though you'll probably be pilloried for it, heigh ho.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Men will just have to wait for a woman or a feminist to invent some gadget that becomes a sexual icon for men.

      I don’t suppose they will have to wait very long for that to occur.

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    3. Diana Brown

      Parent; language student

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Dianna

      Um, yeah, actually, I thought he was being ironic. Was he not being ironic? How do you know?

      Now THAT's ironic.

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    4. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Diana Brown

      Diana

      "Funny because its true" Homer Simpson

      I know because Dale's posting history is either 100% ironic - every single one, all the time (have you ever tried to be 100% ironic, always?) Or he actually believes that only men have contributed to society via inventions, paid employment, child care, health - you name it only men apparently have done it.

      I present as further evidence a history at On Line Opinion under the monikers Vanna and prior to that, Timkins - one advantage that OLO has…

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    5. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Is there a possibility of an estimate of how long men will have to wait?

      (Without mentioning string)

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    6. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Dianna Art

      Huh!

      “it was voted one of the Top 5 Vibrators by Cosmopolitan Magazine.”
      http://www.lovebeingwoman.com/page/creators.html

      But Cosmopolitan magazine has articles such as “The 5 shoes every woman should own”. So Cosmopolitan magazine would hardly rate as required reading for men.

      I guess men will have to give up on the idea a feminist or a woman will ever develop a sexual icon for men.

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    7. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      "Men will just have to wait for a woman or a feminist to invent some gadget that becomes a sexual icon for men.
      I don’t suppose they will have to wait very long for that to occur. "

      Ada Lovelace was one of the people who contributed to the invention of the computer, a necessary component of the internet. So you are quite correct, males do not have to wait for this to occur.

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  7. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    I would have thought that women are, by far, the most able to comment on the veracity or not of vaginal orgasm. The link provided by Paul Dalgarno seems to imply that it is uncommon and that is backed up by C. Allan's comment.
    Why do other female commentators dance around the subject, rather than give a straight forward answer?. If it's possible to arrive at the truth that must result in more honest and effective sexual relationships.

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    1. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      Some women can only have clitoral orgasms, some women can have vaginal and some women have both or none at all.

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    2. C Allan
      C Allan is a Friend of The Conversation.

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      When a woman is in a high state of sexual arousal, many areas of her body become erogenous zones. These can include the skin generally, and more specifically areas such as the nipples, neck, ears and the entry to the vagina.

      The particular erectile tissue, however, that triggers a true orgasm, is only located in the clitoris. This is a biological fact. While other areas contribute to arousal, a purely vaginal orgasm that is unrelated to the clitoris, is as likely as a nipple or ear orgasm. That…

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    3. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to C Allan

      C Allan

      Just because you have never experienced a vaginal orgasm yourself doesn't mean they are a myth.

      Nor have I ever seen evidence that women have divided themselves into clitoral or vaginal orgasmic people.

      Is there division in men between those who reach orgasm and those who don't?

      Failure to reach climax is an issue that affects both sexes - something that we can work out together.

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    4. C Allan
      C Allan is a Friend of The Conversation.

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Dianna Art

      Your first sentence typifies the basic argument of women who wish to defend the myth. I don't believe I made any references to my personal experiences. I relied on well accepted biological/anatomical evidence for my claim.

      There is indeed a division between men and women who believe/disbelieve in vaginal orgasms. It's interesting that medical experts who claim to have found evidence of a biological capacity for vaginal orgasms (and g-spots etc) are notable for their scarcity. A quick google search will show these individuals, and the publicity, controversy and divisions generated by their often dubious claims.

      The problem of failure to reach orgasm, mentioned again in your final sentence and still not relevant to what I have said, is something you'll have to work out for yourself. There is an abundance of literature on this subject.

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    5. C Allan
      C Allan is a Friend of The Conversation.

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Leprechauns are real. I know, because there is one that lives in my garden. I've seen it. Other people also have leprechauns that hang out in their gardens. They have told me this, so what I'm saying is true.

      :)

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    6. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to C Allan

      You are deliberately being utterly ridiculous.

      I possess a vagina and a clitoris - I know from personal experience how they work.

      I see that you do not take the female sexual experience of sexuality seriously at all - which means you are wasting my valuable time.

      :)

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    7. C Allan
      C Allan is a Friend of The Conversation.

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      My argument for the existance of leprechauns is a direct analogy to the approach you're taking in this discussion. Seriously.

      We can agree that this is going nowhere though. ;)

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    8. Peter Gerard

      Retired medical practitioner

      In reply to C Allan

      C Allan: Your comment, in my opinion, sums up the situation very well and, from a mere male's point of view, makes sense.

      Thanks.

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  8. Tony Maggs

    Inventor and CEO, LIttle Rooster Limited

    From medical relief to heightening sexual pleasure, the history of the vibrator is both terrible and hilarious. That we are still discussing cliteral vs vaginal orgasms I find a little odd (are my own orgasms shaftal or entirely pupical? Do people even discuss this?).

    I think that the future lies in being a little less concerned about exactly what kind of pleasure someone is getting. My own modest contribution to the history of the vibrator is to have invented the world's first alarm clock…

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    1. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Tony Maggs

      Tony,

      You are referring to the wind-up type alarm clock? Are these still manufactured? Well, would put a stop to throwing alarm clocks across room if they provided a little comfort first thing in the morning. Although prefer to choose whether I am sexually aroused upon awakening.

      Agree with you re: "as we get more comfortable with notions of female pleasure and no longer create a huge distinction between sexual and non-sexual." To which I would add the massive effort our society makes on concentrating on the few differences between men and women rather than the significant percentage of commonality - we are members of the same species.

      Do other sentient beings have so much angst about "la difference"? Or do they just appreciate it?

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    2. Tony Maggs

      Inventor and CEO, LIttle Rooster Limited

      In reply to Tony Maggs

      Hi Dianna,

      Sadly I didn't invent the wind up alarm clock, no - but whether one uses a wind up, or a digital, or a radio, or a phone the effect is still to irritate you out of sleep. My invention (details here if you are interested, website contains a Goya nude that was banned by the USPS when Spain put it on a stamp in the 1930s, but nothing more risque than that http://www.littleroosterstore.com/pages/about ) rests against the clitoris and labia and vibrates, at first gently ,and then with increasing power. What bemuses me is that it has taken so long for someone to come up with a pleasant way of waking - alarm clock vibrators existed before, but they shake the whole mattress, are mainly used by profoundly deaf people, and make every morning start with a shock!

      Do you feel as though you now get to choose whether you are sexually aroused upon awakening? I wake up in all sorts of moods myself.

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    3. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Tony Maggs

      Tony

      Having quiet chuckle - thanks I needed that.

      Enjoyed your website - particularly the coy expression on the Goya nude. Good luck with that.

      On consideration of my own particular personality I think I will stick to waking with the radio followed by the beeps. I don't have to go out to work being home based worker. No more of the insanity of trying to reach a workplace at a set time every day.

      Interesting about vibrating beds to waken deaf people - had never considered that.

      Cheers

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    4. Tony Maggs

      Inventor and CEO, LIttle Rooster Limited

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      My pleasure. I love that Goya! She is being so transgressive (Goya was interrogated by the Spanish Inquisition as to her identity and, it is believed, did not reveal it: one cannot get much more transgressive than that) and just look at her expression. Priceless.

      The painting is also the first recorded time female pubic hair was clearly depicted in Western art. I've covered that hair with a Little Rooster, which in my mind, though nobody else's, makes me a modern day Duchamps ;)

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  9. Tony Maggs

    Inventor and CEO, LIttle Rooster Limited

    cliteral? Clitoral, dammit!

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  10. Emma Anderson

    Artist and Science Junkie

    "So let’s go with all the humour and conversation on this subject we can get. If entertainment such as Hysteria and In The Next Room keep the dialogue about sexuality going along with the laughter, let’s raise the curtain and enjoy the fun."

    I've put in my two cents and the curtain hasn't raised. The tension is building, when will we get to see the peep show? Will we have to self-stimulate if the doovy is bung?

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