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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.

“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.”

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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.























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