Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

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

“It’s making these people look like idiots and I don’t believe that was the case. Medical literature shows that doctors knew the role of the clitoris. And it makes light of women’s sexuality,” says Hallie Lieberman, a self-proclaimed “dildographer” and PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying the marketing of sex toys throughout history.

“[Maines’ book] really plays on this idea that the doctors didn’t know what the clitoris did, which I think is wrong,” said Sarah Rodriguez, a research assistant professor in medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Ms. Lieberman and others point to a number of sexual anatomy textbooks spanning from the 1820s into the 1900s that describe the clitoris as a primary sexual organ, one capable of erection. In 1890, physician Leonard Rau called it the “principal seat of sexual orgasm in the female.” An “electric bell” is how one gynecology professor put it in 1900. More accessible was Marie Stopes’ popular 1918 sex manual Married Love, which makes explicit reference to the clitoris and its role in orgasm. The book sold nearly 750,000 copies by 1931.

Ms. Lieberman suggests hysteria continues to enthrall modern audiences because with “women, it’s always a mystery, whether they’re aroused. ... It’s hard to reliably give women a clitoral orgasm. There’s still a search for the Holy Grail of that.”

Indeed, in some sense the female orgasm remains elusive, as evidenced by pharmaceuticals’ failed hunt for a “pink Viagra” to treat the equally contentious FSD or “female sexual dysfunction,” a diagnosis in the current DSM, the go-to handbook for psychiatrists.

While Ms. Lieberman doesn’t go as far as to label the controversial FSD and its sister malady, hypoactive desire disorder, as today’s hysteria, she suggests the cure may be vibrators, of all things.

“I believe we should be having great sex throughout the life cycle,” she said. “Vibrators need to be promoted by physicians because they do give a lot of anorgasmic women orgasms.”

------

Treating ‘hysteria’ through the ages

450 B.C. The concept of hysteria is believed to have originated with the Greek physician Hippocrates, who thought the uterus moved around the body when it lacked fluids, threatening suffocation. Manual massage performed by physicians was thought to ground the organ.

1660s English physician Thomas Sydenham suggests hysteria is the most common malady after the fever. Physician Nathaniel Highmore speaks to the difficulty of the massage: it’s “not unlike that game of boys in which they try to rub their stomachs with one hand and pat their heads with the other.”

1800s French physician Charles Lasègue decries hysteria as a “wastepaper basket of otherwise unemployed medical symptoms,” says Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm.

1883 French physician Auguste Tripier controversially suggests that the manual massages are plain masturbation.

1883 British doctor Joseph Mortimer Granville inadvertently invents the first vibrator: colloquially known as the “Granville’s Hammer,” it was intended as a muscular massage for men.

1899 Vibrators become available for home sale, with models proliferating the following year

1904 The Chattanooga, a massive contraption on wheels, goes on sale for a prohibitively expensive $200; it includes an anal probe for men suffering from hysteria - yes, they existed.

1909 Alfred Dale Covey suggests vibro-therapy in a book called “Profitable Office Specialties”; the vibrator drastically reduces the time it takes a woman to reach “paroxysm.”

1918 A Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue advertises vibrators alongside other household implements under the teaser, “Aids That Every Woman Appreciates.”

1920s Vibrators appear in pornography and soon disappear from medical practice

1970s Betty Dodson advocates masturbating with vibrators as a feminist practise, teaching women how to climax in her New York City apartment

1976 Texas passes anti-obscenity laws that make it illegal to sell sex toys, with Kansas and Georgia following suit.

1998 Alabama bans the sale of sex toys, as well as ownership of more than five vibrators.

2010 Alabama woman Sherri Williams finds a loophole in the law and opens a drive-thru sex shop that has couples signing a medical checklist; this exempts her from prosecution.

2010 MTV forces Trojan to remove the word “vibrator” from TV spots for its Vibrating Tri-Phoria (tagline: “so good, it will blow your hair back”).

Today The current shift is to eco-friendly sex toys, from phthalate-free, medical grade silicone and glass, to throwbacks like Earth Angel, which is hand-cranked, requiring no batteries. Another evolution is the We-Vibe II, which fits onto the woman and helps her to climax with a partner during heterosexual sex.























Single page

Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories