Were vibrators invented by 19th-century doctors to cure women of “hysteria”? It’s story so good we all want it to be true — but it probably isn’t. From Mara Hvistendahl writing in Scientific American:
For a sex toy, the vibrator’s roots seem amazingly antiseptic and clinical. Prescribed as a cure for the curious disease hysteria, the device for decades found clinical application as a supposed medical therapy.
Derived from the Greek word for “uterus,” hysteria occurred in women with pent-up sexual energy—or so healers and early physicians believed. Nuns, widows and spinsters were particularly susceptible, but by the Victorian era many married women had fallen prey as well. In the late 19th century a pair of prominent physicians estimated that three quarters of American women were at risk.
The prescription of clitoral orgasm as a treatment for hysteria dates to medical texts from the first century A.D. Hysterical women typically turned to doctors, who cured them with their hands by inducing a “paroxysm”—a term that hides what we now know as a sexual climax. But manual stimulation was time-consuming and (for the doctors at least) tedious. In The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, science historian Rachel P. Maines reports that physicians often passed the job off to midwives.
Thanks to the vibrator, doctors and midwives could give their hands a rest and patients could get the treatment they needed… in the comfort of their own homes.
Patients were happy, too. The number of health spas offering vibration therapy multiplied, and the service was so popular vibrator manufacturers warned doctors not to overdo it with the modern appliance: if they met relentless patient demand, even mechanical vibration could be tiring. By the turn of the century needlework catalogues advertised models for women who wanted to try the treatment at home, making the vibrator the fifth electric appliance to arrive in the home—after the sewing machine, the fan, the teakettle and the toaster.
Ok, it’s a great story, but Fern Riddell is here to ruin our fun.
So did the real Dr Granville invent an electronic device for massage? Yes. Was it anything to do with the female orgasm? No. He actually invented it to help stimulate male pain relief, just as massage is used today.
Victorian doctors knew exactly what the female orgasm was; in fact, it’s one of the reasons they thought masturbation was a bad idea. A few theorised that it might be beneficial to a woman for her period pain, but the majority of doctors saw the art of self-pleasure as highly dangerous to your health.
This attitude was not because they were on some sort of anti-pleasure, or anti-sex crusade, but because orgasms were actually important to the Victorians. Marriage guides discussing the sex act often claimed that a woman in a sexually satisfying relationship was more likely to become pregnant, as the wife’s orgasm was just as necessary to conception as her husband’s. A book called The Art to Begetting Handsome Children, published in 1860, contains a detailed passage on foreplay, and shows us that, for the Victorians, sex, pleasure and love were concepts that were universally tied together. In A Guide To Marriage, published in 1865 by the aptly named Albert Sidebottom, the advice to young couples exploring their relationship for the first time is that “All love between the sexes is based upon sexual passion”. This is something I’ve come across time and again in researching Victorian attitudes to sex: sexual pleasure, and especially female sexual pleasure, really mattered.
So if doctors were using vibrators to treat their female patients, everyone knew exactly what was going on. The idea that female orgasms were discovered by humanity a mere 200 years ago is absurd when you think about it — our ancestors were just as sexual as we are and knew how to have a good time. But the story is still fun, and might make for an enjoyable doctor-patient role-playing scenario!
Addendum: There is merit to the use of sexual intimacy to heal and recover from grief or stress, but that’s more psychological than medical. If any wives out there have experience treating their “hysteria” with “paroxysms” please let us know in the comments!