ReproCo: Just the Tips The history of the vibrator

By KIM GARRETT

Let’s talk about vibrators! I’m sure you know a little bit about them and it’s likely that many of you own one. You probably know that they come in different shapes and sizes and are used for different functions, but I bet you don’t know how or why they were invented. The vibrator has a long and colorful history, one that’s not often examined or discussed in proper dinner conversation. Many are surprised to find that the vibrator, often seen as a liberating invention for women, comes from a period that was anything but.

For ages, philosophers, doctors, and psychologists diagnosed women with “hysteria”, which was thought to be a disorder in which a woman’s uterus would float about in her body, causing anxiety, faintness, depression, and sexual urges. Today, many of these symptoms can be attributed to sexual frustration, but doctors of the time saw nothing sexual about it. Doctors often advised horseback riding, marriage, and intercourse (for the married only!) for their hysteria patients. Many doctors also performed “pelvic massages” on their patients until the woman would have a “hysterical crisis”. In today’s terms, a doctor would massage the exterior lady parts until she had an orgasm. This was not seen sexual at the time, though, because only vaginal penetration was considered sex.

This pelvic massage became so popular that doctors quickly tired of performing it, passing it off to midwives and medical assistants. The woman was never allowed to do it herself though; this could lead to something often thought to be a cause of hysteria, masturbation! In the mid to late 1800s, peculiar machines began popping up in doctor’s offices. These were either foot or water-powered machines that performed “pelvic massages” more efficiently than ever before!

Doctors noticed that women achieved “crisis” much faster using these machines than through manual palpation alone, so they suggested that women buy them and start using them in their homes. As in-home electricity became more popular, electric vibrators became available. They were advertised in women’s magazines all over the place. It was not until the early-to-mid 1900s that the social taboo of vibrators began to form. During this time, vibrators began to pop up in stag films, with a female star often ditching her date for her electric vibrator. This, along with a few of Freud’s theories, as well as increased knowledge about female sexuality, lead to the retreat of the vibrator. It was not until the 1960s that the “personal massager” was easily accessible again.

Since then, not much has changed. Vibrators and sex toys are only advertised in the back pages of women’s magazines or in the nether regions of the internet. What makes them so taboo? Are vibrators a threat to traditional love and sex roles? Many historians think so, but that is a discussion for a different time. For now, take some time with your favorite electric friend and thank your “hysterical” ancestors!

If you would like more information on this topic, check out Rachel P. Maine’s The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria”, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction or the podcast “Stuff Mom Never Told You”. You can also e-mail [email protected] with any questions or suggestions.