A Brief History of the Vibrator
As far back as 1653, when physician Pieter van Foreest published a treatise on women’s diseases, women’s sexuality has been sorely misunderstood. To be sure, sexually frustrated women were viewed as suffering from “hysteria” (literally, “womb disease”). van Foreest prescribed what would become known as “vulvular massage” -- suggesting that a midwife or doctor could cure “hysterical” women through “the massaging of the genitalia with one finger inside,” using “oil of lilies, musk root, crocus, or [something] similar.”
This was nothing new. In the Western medical tradition, bringing women to orgasm via genital massage by a physician or midwife was a standard treatment for hysteria, an illness considered both chronic and common in women. Descriptions of this treatment appear as early as Hippocrates and in the first and second centuries, A.D. It’s interesting that very little attention has been paid to a medical treatment for a complaint that is no longer defined as a disease but that from at least the fourth century B.C. until the American Psychiatric Association dropped the term in 1952 was known mainly as hysteria.
The fact is that all the symptomology (<-- new word LOL!) described what is consistent with normal female sexuality, for which relief, not surprisingly, was gained through orgasm, either through intercourse, of by means of a massage on the physician’s table. That normal female sexual functioning was described as a disease can be laid at the feet of a society in which sexuality is seen almost exclusively through a male-dominated (androcentric) perspective. Androcentric (<-- new word!) views not only shaped the definition of sexuality, and their consequences for women, but also the instruments designed to cope with these so-called diseases.
The use of hydrotherapy was used to bring “hysterical women to orgasm. It was messy and not very portable.
What I found even more interesting was that many doctors detested doing vulvular massage and that’s where the “technology of orgasm” comes in. According to historian Rachel P. Maines (and today I borrow heavily from her book, The Technology of Orgasm), the vibrator emerged as a response to the demand from physicians for a more rapid and efficient therapy for hysteria. As I mentioned, symptoms defined as hysteria were in actuality normal female sexual functioning. The male-dominant (androcentric) view of sexuality didn’t take into consideration that its ideal of intercourse failed to consistently produce orgasm in more than half of the female population.
Therefore, the task of relieving female arousal was given over to the medical establishment, which defined female orgasm as an illness! In effect, doctors inherited the task of producing orgasm in women because it was a job nobody wanted.
There is no evidence to show that male physicians enjoyed providing vulvular massage treatments. On the contrary, physicians, part of the male power elite, sought to substitute other devices for their fingers, such as the business end of an almost infinite line of impersonal mechanisms.
An enterprising British doctor created this contraption above. It allowed doctors to service more women suffering from “hysteria.”
At the same time, hysterical women represented a lucrative market for physicians. These patients never recovered nor died of their condition but continued to require regular treatment. One 19th-century physician estimated that as many as three-quarters of the female population were “out of health,” and comprised the largest market for “therapeutic devices.”
Entrepreneurs quickly realized that there was a huge market for vibrators. In fact, the need for better vibrators was the driving force behind the creation of the small electric motor.
Doctors also found it difficult to bring women to orgasm. The job required skill and attention. One doctor noted the difficulty in producing orgasm through vulvular massage. He stated that it was not unlike “the game of boys in which they try to rub their stomachs with one hand and pat their heads with the other.” LMAO!!
By 1917, there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes.
While the female is expected to reach orgasm during coitus, more than half of all women, and possibly more than 70 percent, do not reach orgasm by penetration alone. While this has been better publicized by modern-day sex-researchers, it was known in previous centuries. The majority of women have been defined as abnormal or “frigid,” somehow derelict in their duty to live up the androcentric model of sexuality.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the vibrator became what academics like to call a camouflaged technology. Mail-order catalogs full of household gadgets feature beautiful women with long, silky hair loosening their tight shoulder muscles with banana-shaped vibrators.
Historically women were discouraged from masturbating because it was believed this practice would impair their health, and most men in previous centuries (and even today!) have failed to understand that penetration alone is sexually satisfying to only a minority of women.
The second part of this blog will be posted next Friday...