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The Strange, Fascinating History of the Vibrator

The sex toy has its roots in the prude Victorian era -- but its history tells us a lot about the current attack upon women’s sexuality.

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Victorian-era doctors disliked dealing with female patients. This highly masculinized profession saw women as overly emotional and barely capable of rational discussion of their bodies. For a profession actively attempting to separate itself from the quacks selling cure-all tonics out of the back of wagons, treating women’s conditions provided little professional credibility or prestige.

One of women’s most common medical conditions was broadly called “hysteria.” By this, doctors meant any number of symptoms that described "irrational" female complaints. Perhaps the most well-known subsection of this aliment was neurasthenia, a nervous condition afflicting Gilded Age women and some men. Neurasthenia symptoms ranged from headaches and fear of insanity to insomnia and “morbid fears.” While mostly afflicting women, men also received diagnoses of neurasthenia; common causes for men were thought to be overwork and masturbation. 

Male doctors found their hysterical and neurasthenic patients especially frustrating. Many doctors suggested that women would feel better if they engaged in sexual intercourse until its natural conclusion with a male orgasm. But given the ineffectiveness of vaginal penetration in satisfying many women, doctors resorted to other solutions. Doctors manually massaged the women’s clitoris until she achieved relief, i.e. experienced an orgasm, although it was not recognized as such. Annoyed doctors complained that it took women forever to achieve this relief; moreover, they thought this condition beneath their respectable professional demeanor to treat. On the other hand, the repeat business of these women was good for their pocketbooks.

Beginning in 1869, inventors developed steam-powered massage machines for medical offices. By 1900, doctors had a wide variety of devices to choose from, helping relieve the tedium of digitally massaging female patients. Even better from medical professionals’ perspective was the invention of a hand-held vibrator in 1905, allowing women to treat their own hysteria without visiting a physician. Soon, companies began advertising for the home vibrators, using slogans such as “all the pleasures of youth…will throb within you.” The home vibrators made economic sense for women as even the higher-end models cost no more than five or so visits to the doctor. Moral police officers worried that the home device would “accomplish little more than the titillation of the tissues.” Nonetheless, they proved quite popular with middle-class women whose homes had the electricity needed to operate the vibrators.

Despite the very real physical relief offered by vibrators, many doctors preferred to believe the vibrator was an asexual device. The medical profession thought sexuality only manifested itself in the penetration of a woman’s vagina by a penis. In late Victorian America, men saw middle-class women as adverse to sex which both facilitated men’s visits to the plethora of brothels in the cities and reinforced the idea of women provided a civilizing effect on men corrupted by the rough-and-tumble streets. When seemingly “pure” women did want sex, it was for reasons of maternal needs, not pleasure. That vaginal penetration did not please these women simply meant they lacked a sexual nature. At least one scholar does argue that doctors of the time did in fact recognize the reality of a clitoral orgasm, so we do not have a consensus on the matter.   

The attempt to desexualize the vibrator played into larger fears men expressed about female sexuality. Masturbation was on the minds of many Americans during the early 20th century. Men such as Theodore Roosevelt worried that “self-pollution” sapped the male of strength, virility and morality and that the practice threatened the future of American manhood. But the specter of female masturbation was far more terrifying. I have read debates between doctors over whether women should be allowed to ride bicycles or whether the pleasure they might induce from the seat made it an unacceptable moral hazard.

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