Sex & Relationships

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.

Despite their popularity, vibrators disappeared from the market in the 1920s. The devices were devised for middle-class women, but in a nation as racially and ethnically diverse as the United States in the early 20th century, there were many competing sexual norms. Many working-class women, less affected by middle-class sexual norms, knew what the vibrator could do. The large-scale prostitution industry, although under attack after the crackdown on semi-legal and regulated red-light districts in the 1910s, adapted to new technologies and began creating pornographic films. These films began deploying the vibrator, destroying the fiction that the device was divorced from human sexuality. It seems that as soon as the connection between sexual pleasure and vibrators became firmly established in American culture, their acceptability as medical treatment vanished and the product disappeared from mainstream society. It was not until the early 1970s that the vibrator again became a common product.

On one level, this story may amuse us. It’s certainly difficult to disparage the development of a device that brought women very real physical relief and pleasure. Yet this is also a story of male hostility to women’s bodies and sexuality, the assumption that women’s medical complaints were beneath men to take seriously, and the denial and suppression of female sexuality in favor of male pleasure cloaked in rhetoric of science and medicine.

Recent Republican attacks on women’s bodies and their demonizing of female sexuality reminds me of the rampant sexual hypocrisy of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.

The anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock and his campaigns to prosecute birth control providers are reminiscent of Rick Santorum’s attitudes toward women. Rush Limbaugh’s sexualized personal attacks on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke for arguing in favor of requiring private insurance plans to cover contraception hark back to a period when a woman discussing sexuality in public faced the loss of her respectability. Virginia’s attempt to pass an anti-abortion law that included a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound, effectively a state-sponsored sexual assault of any woman who wants to terminate a pregnancy, suggests the days when women lacked control over their own reproductive systems, with men deciding whether mothers were fit and sterilizing those deemed unworthy.

Exploring century-old sexual debates provides essential context for the current attack upon women’s sexuality. Limbaugh, Santorum and other prominent Republicans long for an idealized past where female sexuality remained in the home, under a patriarchal system that punished women for their sexual sins while rewarding men for sowing their wild oats. Wealthy white men have a long history of trivializing women’s medical and sexual needs while shaming those who express sexuality in public. 

As Republicans continue their attacks on women’s control over their own bodies, the nation’s sexual history is essential knowledge. So long as Republicans advocate for a past of sexual repression, we need to know what actually happened in order to fight for a more progressive and equal present and future.

Erik Loomis is a professor of labor and environmental history and a blogger at Lawyers, Guns and Money.