Feel the vibe

A friend mentioned seeing this film which made me dig out an old article once written for the now extinct Ms-Demeanour website.

Given Ann Summers is said to have a turnover of £150 million, it seems that pleasure toys are big business, but how did it all begin? Well, it’s not something I’d ever really thought about until I saw the film Hysteria, a romantic comedy loosely based on the invention of the vibrator, which inspired me to take a brief – but closer – look at how women were treated  for so-called medical disorders in the nineteenth century; and how we have since moved on.

A respected medical doctor invented this instrument of some repute for use in a doctor’s surgery, patented way back in the 1880s. Beloved by many women today, the original vibrator was the brainchild of Joseph Mortimer Granville (1833-1900) originally created to relieve muscle aches/strain. The machine, known – rather unfortunately – originally as ‘Granville’s hammer’ was sold to doctors for medical practice, but soon became a popular device for use at home – for self-gratification by ‘hysterical women’ – causing its inventor to distance himself from the product.

Nineteenth-century female sexuality was viewed very differently from today (or some might say not so differently). Masturbation, for example, was viewed as ‘deviant’, for all, really, but especially for women, who were by nature supposed to be free of any sexual desire. So, the fact that they exhibited signs of sexuality was problematised and medicalised (as medicine was in the control of men). Indeed, all manner of symptoms, such as irritability, anxiety, uterine problems and insomnia, were considered ‘female hysteria’ which prompted a need for a (male) doctor.

Some physicians treated the condition rather kindly by inserting a finger and massaging a woman’s genitalia (known medically as pelvic finger massage) which one can imagine was a popular treatment among well-to-do, frustrated ladies of the time, and probably well worth the money they paid, for what was basically some hand relief. Had similar been performed by women on men, for money, it would, of course, have to be called ‘prostitution’ such were the gender mores of the time.  Yet,  the doctors were (apparently sincerely) convinced that what they were doing was performing a dreary, routine procedure which seemed to bring women back to some degree of ‘normality’ and functionality. It also brought in a good income through repeat visits. An ongoing condition, this ‘hysteria’ was not easily cured but displayed symptoms which could, in the right hands, be readily alleviated.

By the mid-nineteenth century, hysteria (effectively, sexual frustration) was thought to affect around 75% of women; it was indeed an epidemic. According to the principles of the time,  the vast majority of women were abnormal (which in itself, of course, cannot be).

The rather sinister side of all this pertains to the issue of male control over women. Male doctors alleviated the very symptoms that, arguably, male views of sexuality and female social mores, had helped to create in the first place.

For the truth is that female self-pleasure was a total ‘no no’ in Victorian England. Many Victorian doctors were, in fact, determined that women should experience no sexual pleasure at all, for clitoridectomies were also widely practised, physically removing what doctors thought to be the source of many female ills. Additionally, hysterectomy was used as a form of ‘sexual lobotomy’ for all sorts of ‘sexual activity’ from reading romantic novels to utter lasciviousness. Indeed, the Maggie Gyllenhaal character in the film, Hysteria, is threatened in court (after assaulting a policeman) with forced hysterectomy for her ‘excitable tendencies’.

Medic, Isaac Baker-Brown, was performing clitoridectomies well before the vibrator was invented, and viewed pelvic massage as merely pandering to the female desire for gratification (which makes us wonder if men did, in fact, know full well about female desire). The way to deal with sexual frustration was to remove the source of the ‘problem’, the clitoris (a practice still used today, of course, in many countries, and illegitimately in Britain) which would make ‘difficult women’ become ‘happy wives’, and bring ‘rebellious girls’ back under fatherly control, so we are talking power struggles. Clitoridectomy was practised and recommended by medical textbooks as late as 1937 to stop hysteria, masturbation and nymphomania. Within a month, with a wound nicely dressed, and opium administered rectally, the injury had usually healed.

Conversely, pelvic massage, a much pleasanter option, generally led to ‘paroxysm’ (not orgasm because women were considered unable to function in that way, and men of the time refused to believe that anything sexual could occur without male penetration). But, a ‘hand job’ was quite hard work and used valuable consulting time. The vibrator thus allowed much relief for doctors (and indeed their patients) whose time-consuming treatments effectively led to repetitive strain injuries for the poor medics, and sometimes unsatisfactory outcomes for the patients. The beneficial results of a vibrator, however, took mere minutes and success rates were invariably higher, at times overwhelmingly so.

As Maggie Gyllenhaal, who starred in the film, said in a Guardian interview: “It’s very difficult to imagine that 100 years ago, women didn’t have the vote, yet they were going to a doctor’s office to get masturbated”. Of course, these days, any doctor trying it would be struck off. But then, it became a highly lucrative practice, with a good deal of repeat business among those who could pay.

The sale of vibrators remains illegal in many nations, and indeed some southern American states. Yet despite today’s shyness on the subject, vibrators were openly advertised to women in respectable tomes such as“Good Housekeeping” in the early 1900s. In the 1990s, the invention of the Rampant Rabbit (Ann Summers) along with later internet shopping, revolutionised the whole vibrator concept, which even made an appearance in Sex and the City.

So, all hail Granville the hero. Or was he? Not entirely. Through no fault of his own, he was a product of his time; he believed that female masturbation was dangerous, and indeed that ‘hysteria’ (of which masturbation was a symptom) was a medical condition, though his method of alleviation was different to that of Baker-Brown. They were pretty much starting from the same premise, simply treating the symptoms differently. The use of the early vibrator was still primarily to make life easier for male doctors, and of course, to give men complete control over women’s sexuality. These days the thought of going to a doctor to alleviate sexual frustration would be a bizarre one.

From a feminist perspective, it would seem that ‘hysteria’ was part of a male denial of female sexuality (or laziness) and part of a paradigm which pathologised female sexuality. A Guardian article by Decca Aitkenhead (Sept, 2012) explained that: “Western society has steadfastly preferred to pathologise around 75% of the female population as frigid, hysterical or, as the Victorians liked to say ‘out of sorts’, than acknowledge the inconvenient truth that coitus might not be entirely satisfying to women”.

The subject is further investigated by academic, Dr Rachel Maines, in her 2001 (reprint) publication: The Technology of Orgasm, a study for which at the time she apparently lost her academic post. Really? So, have we actually fundamentally moved on in the twenty-first century?

There is also an insightful article, ‘Making the Cut’ in Ms Magazine which tells of old methods used to curb female masturbation, such as applying caustic substances and also tells the story of Martha, a then 12-year-old in Michigan who suffered a clitoridectomy in 1944. It then moves on to explain how perfectly normal girls with perfectly normal genitalia are still subjected to clitoral surgery on medical grounds, which is terribly disturbing and, frankly, unacceptable.

And of course, adult women undergo ‘enhancing’ genital cosmetic surgery, seemingly of their own accord, because of our questionable views of what is ‘normal’. It seems that Victorian attitudes to female sexuality have moved on (50% of adult women now ‘admit’ to owning a vibrator) but maybe not quite so much as we’d like to think …

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