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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?