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How female 'hysteria' led to the invention of the vibrator Add to ...

They’d tremble, flush a deep red, moan and feel remarkably better afterward, a spring in their step as they left their physicians’ operating theatres.

Victorian women climaxing – unbeknownst to even themselves – populate Hysteria, a film that enjoyed a raucous premiere at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, and the drama In the Next Room or the vibrator play, currently on at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre.

The film and the play are the latest incarnations to cast a bemused glance back at “hysteria,” the catch-all Victorian malady that pathologized female desire and had doctors masturbating patients, first with their hands and later with rudimentary vibrators, in hopes of treating a wide variety of symptoms, from anxiety, depression and insomnia to nymphomania and frigidity – not to mention the much frowned-upon practice of reading novels.

Even as the vibrator has been co-opted by mainstream companies such as Durex and Trojan (the “Tri-Phoria” model promises to “blow your hair back”), hysteria and its place in the vibrator’s history continue to fascinate the masses, and get academics squabbling.

In Hysteria, the well-to-do women visiting Mortimer Granville’s medical clinic complain of distracting thoughts and hating their husbands. His “medical treatment” – first digital and later aided by a crude vibrator when his hands go numb – sends the women into paroxysms of pleasure and pain. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feminist character foretells that hysteria is little more than an all-encompassing diagnosis for “nervous housewives” ignored by inattentive hubbies.

In the Next Room or the vibrator play focuses on the agony of a cabin-fevered wife as she’s forced to take in the orgasmic sounds of her husbands’ hysteria patients beyond the parlour walls.

“I have heard that some women do not need the vibrating instrument to give them paroxysms, that relations with their husbands have much the same effect,” the wife hazards at the play’s conclusion.

Director Richard Rose suggests hysteria continues to intrigue because it speaks to sexual unease: “Not being able to communicate one’s desires out of embarrassment, awkwardness or because of social issues, that darkness or shadow between people about their sexuality, is a recurring issue.”

In the Next Room was written by American playwright Sarah Ruhl, who worked from a landmark 1999 book on the vibrator, Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm. The book also informs the film, as well as a puppet rock musical called Oh My, Dr. Maines says.

“There’s a lot of things in them that depart from the history but I don’t really care as long as it gets people talking about the really important issues,” said Dr. Maines, who is visiting scientist in the Cornell University School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Hysteria, Dr. Maines says, literally meant “womb disease.” The loosely defined condition emerged in Hippocrates’ day and involved “anything that made the woman troublesome to those around her.”

Manual massage by physician became a “standard medical treatment in Europe at least by the 5th century AD, running through about 1900,” Dr. Maines said. The appearance of the mechanical vibrator in 1883 relieved doctors of the drudgery of performing the massage: Some manual sessions would span close to an hour and the vibrator reduced this to mere minutes.

In a sense, hysterics were the ideal patients: “They’re not going to die of their disease, but they’re not going to recover from it either,” Dr. Maines chuckled.

Still, heated debate persists as to whether the Victorian doctors comprehended the sexual nature of the work.

“It’s not defined as sexual,” Dr. Maines insists. The paroxysm, “the thing with the contractions and the release of fluid and all the heavy breathing and the flushing of the face, it was like the breaking of a fever when you have a cold.”

She says that naivety defined the times: Most 19th century doctors didn’t speak about the clitoris, instead promulgating myths that women either didn’t have orgasms or derived their sole pleasure from penetration.

“Very few [doctors of the time] ... actually say ‘this is an orgasm.’”

Her critics disagree, suggesting the modern adaptations of her book glaze over nuances of the era.

“I do not think that your average female patient would have been totally, ‘Oh, doctor knows best,’ if he started ferreting around in her private parts,” said Lesley Hall, a senior archivist at London’s Wellcome Library.

“Masturbation was seen as really bad,” said Dr. Hall, who is also the author of Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain Since 1880. “Any kind of sexual activity for women which was not penetrative sex with their lawful wedded husband with at least the possibility of conception was [thought] to lead to all sorts of health problems.”

And while women of the time didn’t necessarily know what masturbation was, Dr. Hall believes “doctors did.” For this reason and the threat of professional liability, she and other scholars suggest the treatment was performed on the fringes – the lineups of women in the filmic adaptation are sheer poetic licence.

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