When I stumbled across Hysteria (2011) – Tanya Wexler’s film about the history of the vibrator – I thought, great! This will be about empowering female sexuality and women putting their needs first! I was wrong; the film presented the history of the vibrator as an invention created by a man to cure ‘hysteria’. Something about the film and narrative didn’t ‘feel’ right, women within it had no (or very little) agency in the HIS-tory of a device which (traditionally) was meant for women’s pleasure .This is not to say the film is bad or there is no truth in this history, but where was women’s agency?! So I dug out some of my old notes on hysteria which I studied at University and did some (very basic) research on the history of the vibrator. Below is intended more as an introduction to exploring the history of the vibrator than a complete pleasure filled HER-story.
Hysteria was a medical diagnosis reserved exclusively for women – the origins of the word are traceable to ancient Greek and the idea of a “wandering womb”. Yes, the womb was thought to literally wander around a woman’s body causing her to do unimaginable things like have sexual desire and a general “tendency to cause trouble”. The wandering womb was believed to be the cause of hysteria and under a diagnosis of hysteria, women could be restrained at an asylum, or even be forced to undergo surgical hysterectomy. This was clearly a means of social control over women as only women could be diagnosed as having an “illness” which was solely about behaviour control.
One cure hysteria in Victorian Britain was a trip to the doctors for a ‘pelvic massage’ which caused hysterical paroxysm (which is argued to be a fancy medical term for orgasm). This was meant to relieve women of their ‘dangerous’ and ‘irritable’ behaviour. Then male doctors decided this method was too unnecessarily tiring for their hands and wrists, leading to the invention of a vibrating device. Dr. J. Mortimer Granville is the doctor that is seen to pioneer the device that becomes the vibrator, saving male doctor’s wrists across Britain! This put female pleasure as a medical issue (an industry controlled by men) at a time where there was increasing anxiety over female masturbation and clitoral orgasms which ‘proved’ (women probably knew about this for a long time) men were no longer needed for sexual enjoyment – they would instead have to be wanted. Rachel P. Maines argues that a machine was invented to continue women’s reliance on men for their sexuality.
This narrative of the history of the vibrator has come under attack for being exactly that – HIS-story. Firstly, it ignores the use of snippets of the past of women’s agency in the invention of the vibrator. For instance, the historian Lesley Hall found women sought sexual pleasure from early treadle sewing machines. Secondly, it is a classist account of the vibrator; the doctor’s treatment would have only really been available to white, upper-class women, who made up a tiny fraction of women in Victorian Britain. Fern Riddell questions if the doctors were even trying to cause the women to climax, pointing out the language and ideas of orgasms were different from today. The advertisements of the device show it to be used to massage all areas of the body.
Could finding herstory and agency in the vibrator maybe be how women were using these devices themselves without the doctor watching?
*****After I wrote this piece I had a conversation with a friend about the hysterical paroxysm being a form of sexual assault, I did not discuss that here because I think that would need it’s own research.