Introduction of the Vibrator to Treat “Hysteria”

The electromechanical vibrator, possibly one of masturbation’s best friends, was initially introduced in the late 1800s as a device used by physicians to treat female “hysteria”.

This “condition” was originally thought to be related to an excess of sexual tension, and the treatment was to provide vulva massage to a female patient until she experienced a “release”. Electric vibrators offered physicians a fast and effective way to “treat” the many symptoms of hysteria. When they began appearing in early porn loops, they fell out of favor with the medical establishment, but found a new home in sex stores around the world.

Masturbation History: Telling Lies in 1712
Publication of the First Influential Anti-Masturbation Tract
The war on masturbation began in proper somewhere around 1712 when an anonymous doctor published a text entitled: Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences… The text warned against the dangers of defiling your own body, and offered a series of cures (that could be purchased). According to historian Thomas Laqueur’s Solitary Sex, one can trace much of hysteria and misinformation surrounding masturbation to this first work of fiction masquerading as medicine

Hysteria, from the Greek for "suffering uterus,"

For most of their history, the vibrator has been camouflaged, their sexual purpose hidden behind "massage therapy." The first vibrators were developed 130 years ago to treat an illness called "female hysteria." Hysteria, from the Greek for "suffering uterus," involved anxiety, irritability, sexual fantasies, "pelvic heaviness" and "excessive" vaginal lubrication -- in other words, sexual arousal during the Victorian era, when women were not considered sexual beings. Physicians treated hysteria by massaging their patients' clitoris until they experienced relief through "paroxysm" (orgasm).
This had been standard practice for over a thousand years. Naturally it didn’t cure hysteria, and patients had to receive treatment on a regular basis. Doctors found this massage to be tiresome, as it took lengthy periods of time and required too much technical knowledge. Thus, when Joseph Mortimer Granville, a British physician, patented the electromechanical vibrator in the early 1880s, doctors saw a way to save time and energy. Like so many other professions of the time, a machine came to the rescue. Now a doctor could see 6 patients in an hour instead of just 1, vastly improving their profits. During the 1860s, health spas offered higher-tech alternatives to manual therapy, water jets and steam-powered vibrating devices.

It seems almost mind bogglingly bizarre that in Victorian society women were going off to the doctor to obtain the pleasure they clearly didn’t receive at home, and that society considered it to be normal. Rachel Maines, the author of The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, explains this in terms of the “androcentric model of sexuality” i.e. that sex consisted only of penetration to male orgasm. Since the external use of vibrators didn’t involve the vagina, it could not be considered to be sexual contact, and thus was a purely medical encounter. Indeed, more controversy accompanied the introduction of the speculum and the tampon than did the vibrator. Maines points out that the façade was maintained for so long because to suggest otherwise meant that men should be doing more than mere penetration, and this would really stuff up the comfortable status quo. She also suggests that many doctors didn’t recognise the paroxysm for what it really was – an orgasm – and thus obviously hadn’t ever seen one in their wives.

Some of the early models resembled heavy engineering machinery, and were ridiculously expensive. The “Chattanooga” model retailed for over $200 at the turn of the century. By 1905, however, vibrators had become smaller and cheaper, with a larger range of attachments.

As technology advanced, the vibrator soon moved out of the doctor’s surgery and into the home, where treatment could be self administered at a much cheaper rate. Popular women’s magazines of the time were filled with advertisements for mail-order vibrators, promising health and wellbeing. “The pleasures of youth will throb within you!” gushed one. The Sears and Roebuck catalogue featured a multi-purpose appliance that included a buffer, grinder and mixer along with the vibrator attachment. “Will be found to be very useful in many ways around the home!” it beamed. Indeed, the vibrator was part of the early vanguard of electrical appliances; it preceded the introduction of the vacuum cleaner by 9 years and the electric iron by ten – “possibly reflecting consumer priorities” says Maines.

The medical reign of the vibrator came to an end in the 1920s, when early "blue" movies showed women using the devices for sexual stimulation, stripping the vibrator of their social camouflage and respectability as "everyone’s favourite appliance". Doctors, increasingly knowledgeable of women’s sexuality and unable to maintain the facade, stopped using the vibrator and by 1930, they were no longer openly advertised in journals and mail order catalogues.

Adult toys

We are often disappointed after lovemaking. Why?
Because most of us are like owners of a precious Stradivarius violin
that we have never learned to play.