[Love & Sex Issue]

Sex toys and strange medicine: The history of the vibrator

Before they were sex toys, vibrators were considered medical devices and were used by doctors to treat female “hysteria.”
Courtesy The Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum
Lynn Comella

On a recent afternoon at UNLV, Carol Queen sat at a conference table in front of four antique vibrators. Queen is the longtime staff sexologist at Good Vibrations in San Francisco and the curator of its vibrator museum—yes, there’s a museum devoted to these sexy marvels of modern engineering—and she was in Las Vegas delivering a lecture on the history of the vibrator.

The devices in front of her were not the sleekly designed toys you might recognize from your favorite sex shop.These looked more like small power tools, electric thingamajigs from the 1930s and ’40s that you would never think of allowing anywhere near your body, let alone your private bits.

Your grandmother, or great grandmother, however, may have thought otherwise. But the real story, Queen concedes, is that they likely wouldn’t have thought of the devices as sex toys at all.

The history of the vibrator is a fascinating story about medical invention and ingenuity that long predates the rise of the modern sex toy shop. Queen’s lecture drew heavily on the work of historian Rachel Maines, the author of The Technology of Orgasm, which, to date, is the most comprehensive history of the evolution of vibrator technology and its travels from the 19th century doctor’s office to the bedside tables of women all over the world.

At the center of this story is a Western medical tradition that routinely used “genital massage” to treat female “hysteria,” a condition with a wide range of symptomology, from anxiety to melancholia to insomnia. Hysteria was thought to be caused by a disturbance of the uterus, which was said to wander the body causing problems of various kinds. It was a theory that dated back thousands of years to the time of Hippocrates, and one that continued to have cultural currency until 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association dropped the diagnosis altogether.

To alleviate the rash of symptoms frequently attributed to hysteria, many well-do-to women, especially during the Victorian era, turned to their physicians for relief. The 2011 film Hysteria—loosely based on the life of the British physician who invented the electric vibrator and starring the oh-so-charming Maggie Gyllenhaal—captured the extent to which hysteria was considered to be a “plague” of the times, a debilitating disease affecting many overwhelmed and nervous housewives.

According to Maines, physicians inherited the task of producing “hysterical paroxysms”—what we today would call the female orgasm—because it was “a job nobody else wanted.” The manual massage techniques regularly used by physicians were tedious and labor-intensive. The invention of the electric vibrator in the 1880s was embraced as a revolutionary technology, a way to treat female hysteria that neither fatigued physicians nor required any specialized training.

“It seems pretty clear that this was not talked about as a sexual issue,” Queen noted. “Women would get the treatment, either by hand or by a vibrator, and have a ‘hysterical paroxysm of relief’—what I call an orgasm to this very day—and feel better for a while. The doctor would not say, ‘Mrs. Smith, that was a fine orgasm that you just had. You seem to be so much more relaxed.’ He would put it in different terms than that. And as far as we know, the women who were getting this treatment weren’t putting it into [sexual] terms either.”

How could it be that female patients and their doctors failed to recognize that “hysterical paroxysms” were actually part of the female sexual response cycle? The answer, it seems, can be found in what was then the dominant understanding of sexual activity, what Maines refers to as an “androcentric model” of sexuality, which consisted primarily of sexual penetration and male orgasm—none of which was taking place during the treatment of female hysteria. Unfortunately, we know little about how women themselves interpreted and made sense of what was happening to their bodies.

“There is, as near as I can tell, every indication that many of the doctors didn’t understand that this was a sexual response,” Queen remarked. “There was a disease that was problematic. This technology had proven to be a good healing modality for that disease.”

It was also an era that predated any real appreciation of the role of the clitoris in producing the female orgasm, which made it easier for patients and doctors to understand the practice of female genital massage in clinical rather than sexual terms.

Fifteen years after the first vibrator model was introduced in the late 19th century, more than a dozen manufacturers were producing portable battery-powered and electric vibrators that were commonly advertised as a health and beauty device in women’s magazines. By the end of the 1920s, however, vibrators had started to disappear from doctor’s offices and from women’s magazines, perhaps due to a greater understanding of female sexuality on the part of physicians, or the appearance of vibrators in stag films, or both.

According to Queen, once the vibrator started to appear in stag films, “The cat was out of the bag.” Health purposes notwithstanding, the vibrator’s newfound association with female sexuality irrevocably changed its cultural meaning.

By the early ’70s vibrators were openly marketed as sexual aids. With help from the women’s movement and proponents of female masturbation, such as Betty Dodson, vibrators were framed as “tools of liberation” that enabled many women to achieve greater control over their sexuality and orgasmic response.

From the Rabbit on Sex and the City to women’s magazines depicting vibrators to the sexuality-oriented discussion on cable TV and women-owned sex shops, Queen says, “the vibrator’s PR has been on an upsurge.”


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