By Marianna Beck
From Libido Winter 1998-1999
In the arsenal of contemporary sex toys, vibrators rank right up there with toasters and microwave ovens as standard home appliances. Still, it's hard to imagine ordering one from Sears unless of course, you happen to have a 1918 Sears, Roebuck and Company Electrical Goods catalog on hand. There, you'll find an ad for an especially versatile vibrator (under "Aids That Every Woman Appreciates") complete with attachments for also churning, mixing, beating, grinding, and operating a fan.
Vibrators for sale as masturbation aids in the early 20th-century? Who would have thought?
Certainly not Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm, who stumbled on these vibrator ads in the pages of magazines like Home Needlecraft Journal, Woman's Home Companion, Modern Woman and others. Originally, Maines had set out studying turn-of-the-century needlework magazines, looking for correlation between sales of these publications and employment trends of women outside the home. Initially, she found it hard to believe the ads tucked off on the sides of pages might actually be for early sex-aids; "...my reaction to their turgid prose was to assume that I simply had a dirty mind," she writes in the preface.
But once Maines established that these devices were indeed intended for masturbation, she set about exploring what seemed like an enormous paradox. How was it possible that vibrators were available at all given the prevailing socio-cultural taboos about masturbation? Furthermore, why was the medical profession, which did not sanction masturbation, so supportive of the use of "rhythmo therapy" on women -- quite literally the clinical production of orgasm.
Maines hypothesizes that the vibrator was invented as a convenient and time-saving device to treat at women for "hysteria," a vague but commonly used medical term to describe a long list of symptoms including lower pelvic edema, vaginal lubrication, nervousness, irritability, shortness of breath and other somatic expressions of arousal. The disorder was largely believed to be brought on by either a lack of sexual intercourse, sexual gratification or both. Galen, a second century physician, described hysteria as a uterine disease to which passionate women were most susceptible, and prescribed genital massage therapy which would result in contractions and release of fluid from the vagina. In fact, in medical texts going back to Hippocrates, the standard treatment for female "hysteria" was manipulation of the genitals to orgasm.
Similarly, in 1653, a physician named Pieter van Foreest described the treatment of "womb disease" as follows: When these symptoms indicate, we think it necessary to ask a midwife to assist, so that she can massage the genitalia with one finger inside, using oil of lilies, musk root, crocus or something similar. And in this way the afflicted woman can be aroused by a paroxysm. This kind of stimulation with the finger is recommended by Galen and Avicenna, among others, most especially for widows, those who live chaste lives ... ; it is less often recommended for very young women, public women, or married women, for whom it is better remedy to engage in intercourse with their spouses.
What made the clinical production of female orgasm both socially and ethically justifiable was what Maines labels "the androcentric model of sexuality" which in her opinion had successfully pathologized female sexuality for over 2,000 years. In this patriarchal paradigm, women were expected to attain orgasm solely through heterosexual coitus. Given what is now known about human sexual response and the fact that over half of all women do not reach orgasm through penile penetration alone, this androcentric model of normal and healthy sexuality left most women, by definition, suffering from "hysteria." Coupled with the severe cultural taboo against masturbation, it seems no wonder that "female sexuality asserted itself through one of the few acceptable outlets: the symptoms of hysteroneurasthenic disorders." To no great surprise, hysteria became the most diagnosed disease in history, "the most common of all diseases except fevers," according to one seventeenth-century physician.
Treating hysteria in the methods described earlier was a time-consuming, labor-intensive business so when the first vibrator appeared in the 1880s --invented, of course by a physician -the medical community buzzed with the expectation that many more patients could be treated on a daily basis than ever before. By 1900, a wide selection of electromechanical vibrating devices was available, ranging from hand or foot-powered models to those powered by air pressure, water turbines, gas engines, batteries and street current through lamp socket plugs. According to Maines, turn-of-the-century textbooks praised the vibrator's versatility as well as time-saving benefits in gynecological massage.
It wasn't long before low-cost models of vibrators began being marketed as a health and relaxation device for home use, particularly in respectable women's magazines and often in language that seemed clearly aimed at sexual gratification: "...all the pleasures of youth will throb within you." The Swedish Vibrator Company of Chicago extolled its device as "a machine that gives "30,000 thrilling, invigorating, penetrating, revitalizing penetrations per minute."
The vibrator's social camouflage in mainstream publications, including the aforementioned Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog, lasted into the late 1920s when use by physicians began to diminish. Maines points to a couple of possible factors in the vibrator's disappearance as a medical device: greater understanding by the medical profession of female sexual functioning as well as the appearance of vibrators in stag films in the 1920s, which of course would have provided a less than positive imprimatur. By the 1930s, vibrators all but disappeared from home magazines -- eventually to resurface in the 1960s as sex-toys. But even if female sexuality began to be viewed in more enlightened terms, Maines reminds that hysteria, history's most frequently diagnosed female disorder, was not officially removed as a disease until 1952 by the American Psychiatric Association.
Maines's pioneering work has not been without its price. Once she began seriously pursuing her research into the early use of vibrators, and subsequently writing an article about her findings, Maines lost her teaching job at New York's Clarkson University in the mid-1980s. (School officials feared that alumni would stop giving money if they learned about the supposedly salacious nature of one of its faculty member's research interests). Fortunately, Maines remained nothing but emboldened, and her vibrator historiography is an enormously entertaining and valuable contribution to the study of this country's sexual heritage.