Parenting

Was The Vibrator Really Invented To Treat 'Hysteria' In Women?

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A few weeks ago, I stumbled on an article in Scientific American that told a salacious story I couldn’t believe I’d never heard before: The vibrator, that trusty orgasm-inducing tool owned by nearly four in five adult women in the U.S., had been invented during the Victorian era as a treatment for “hysteria.”

Wha? How I had never heard this before? I love vibrators!

My curiosity piqued, I did a little digging. Articles in other respected publications told the same story. Hysteria was apparently a common problem among 19th century women, I read in article after article, so common that three quarters of American women may have been suffering from it. The treatment? Manual stimulation as performed by a doctor to induce “paroxysms.” Yes, “paroxysms” means what you think it means.

Hysterical Women Just Need A Nice Paroxysm

The story asserts that women truly believed themselves ill, as did the doctors who performed their “treatment,” and neither party viewed the treatment as sexual in nature. The problem was that getting these hysterical women to the point of paroxysm was a labor intensive and time-consuming process. As such, the tedious job would often be outsourced to midwives.

Can you imagine? This has the potential to be a whole-ass porn genre. I think I may write some short stories later, about an angsty, tense Victorian woman who can’t relax for this inexplicable pulsing in her loins, only to have her befuddled doctor pass her along to the cute midwife with brown doe eyes peeking shyly from beneath her lacy bonnet. “I swear to our Lord it’s not improper, Miss,” the midwife will say as she rubs. “It’s a verified medical treatment!”

Poor, Tired Midwives

Apparently even the midwives got tired, though. Serendipitously, an inventor named Joseph Mortimer Granville had just patented an “electromechanical vibrator” in the early 1880s, intended to treat general muscle aches. It then occurred to medical professionals that the device may be used on, ahem, “other parts of the body.”

This new machine revolutionized the treatment for hysteria. The time to achieve paroxysm was reduced from an hour down to a mere five or 10 minutes.

Eureka!

As the story goes, the vibrator’s popularity exploded (so to speak), to the point that it became one of the first electric-powered appliances to arrive in the modern 20th century home, following the sewing machine, the fan, the teakettle, and the toaster. Throughout all of this, the vibrator being placed on the clitoris to achieve “paroxysm” was supposedly viewed as a clinical remedy and not sexual in nature.

We of course assume that people with vaginas knew exactly what they were doing when they put this device between their legs. They likely would have engaged in the “treatment” with feigned ignorance similar to how in my 20s I pretended that my vibrating back massager was something I only used on my back. Nevertheless, the common use of the vibrator supposedly fell out of favor when Sigmund Freud came along and informed the world that paroxysms are, in fact, sexual. So embarrassing.

Technology Of Orgasm

This explanation for the invention of the vibrator first took hold in 1999 with Johns Hopkins University Press’s publishing of Rachel Maines’s book, “Technology of Orgasm.” It presented as a scholarly, thoroughly researched tome with 465 citations, including sources in Greek and Latin, put out by a well-known, respected publisher. What wasn’t to believe?

Maines’s book was used as source material for multiple restatements of the vibrator origin story she’d penned. A 2007 documentary called “Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm,” the 2009 Tony-nominated play “In The Next Room (or the Vibrator Play),” and the 2011 film “Hysteria,” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, all relied on the material in Maines’s book to inform their reporting. The Guardian published a wonderful article in advance of “Hysteria’s” release, presenting the vibrator origin story as fact. “The vibrator was, in fact,” the article states (emphasis my own), “invented by respectable Victorian doctors, who grew tired of bringing female patients to orgasm using their fingers alone, and so dreamt up a device to do the job for them.”

I have no idea how I missed this titillating story, but somehow I did. Imagine my disappointment when I learned it’s simply not true.

The Truth About The Vibrator

Hallie Lieberman, a sex historian and the author of “Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy,” is one of only a few people who went to the trouble to fact-check Maines’s work by going directly to the cited material to read for herself where Maines got her information.

What Lieberman found was a shameful amount of inference, guessing, truth-twisting, and sometimes even outright lying in order to support the story that Maines presented in her book.

In an interview, Maines defended herself, saying she’d published her version merely as an “interesting hypothesis” and had not intended anyone to take it as fact. But her book is written in an authoritative tone and presented as a historical deep-dive of meticulously cited primary source material. I find it hard to believe she didn’t know she was twisting the truth.

One thing Maines got right is that the electric vibrator was invented by Doctor Joseph Mortimer Granville in the 1880s. But he’d intended his invention to be used on men, primarily as a treatment for pain, like a massager. There is a single spot in Granville’s book that suggests vibrating a man’s perineum to treat impotence.

And doctors didn’t come to a sudden eureka moment that Granville’s invention could relieve their exhausted hands from masturbating all their hysterical female patients. That simply was not a thing, according to historian Fern Riddell’s article in The Guardian entitled, “No, no, no! Victorians didn’t invent the vibrator.”

Riddell notes that people in the Victorian era were well aware of the existence of orgasm in people with vaginas. A marriage advice book called A Guide To Marriage, published in 1865, encouraged husbands to ensure their wives were sexually satisfied. Other books from the time offered similar advice. They may have had strict rules about pre-marital behavior, but the Victorians cared about female sexual pleasure. Also, they weren’t complete idiots.

The vibrator, once it was able to be used in the home, most certainly was used as a source of pleasure. I mean, hello, it vibrates. But the idea that doctors and midwives were cluelessly strumming the townswomen’s clitorises with no idea that this was a sexual behavior or that they dropped to their knees in gratitude when the electric vibrator came along to offer their cramping hands much-awaited relief from this burdensome task — that’s complete and utter bullshit. Which is unfortunate, honestly, because what a great story.

That’s all it is, though. A story. Fiction, and we need to recognize it as such.

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