When this was passed along to me, I was
suspicious. I've verified
it authenticity, however. It ran in the 'Science Desk' of the
NY Times on Tuesday February 23, 1999. Natalie Angier is
a respected science journalist.
History of Gynecology, a Surprising Chapter
New York Times, February 23, 1999
by NATALIE ANGIER
Electricity has given so much comfort to
womankind, such surcease to her
life of drudgery. It gave her the vacuum cleaner, the pop-up toaster and
the automatic ice dispenser. And perhaps above all, it gave her the
vibrator. In the annals of Victorian medicine, a time of "Merrell's
strengthening cordial liver invigorator and purifier of the blood," the
debut of the electromechanical vibrator in the early 1880s was one medical
event that truly worked wonders--safely, reliably, repeatedly.
As historian Rachel Maines describes in
her exhaustively researched work,
"The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual
Satisfaction" (Johns Hopkins Press, 1999), the vibrator was developed to
automate a function that doctors had long performed for their female
patients: the relief of physical, emotional and sexual tension through
external pelvic massage, culminating in orgasm. For doctors, the routine
had usually been tedious. "Most of them did it because they felt it was
their duty," Dr. Maines said in an interview. "It wasn't sexual at all."
The vibrator, she argues, made that job
easy, quick and clean. With a
vibrator in the office, a doctor could complete in seconds or minutes what
had taken up to an hour through manual means. With a vibrator, a female
patient suffering from any number of symptoms labeled "hysterical" or
"neurasthenic" could be given relief--or at least be pleased enough to
guarantee her habitual patronage. Hysteria, as it was traditionally defined,
was an incurable, chronic disease. "The patient had to go to the doctor
regularly," Dr. Maines said. "She didn't die. She was a cash cow."
Nowadays, it is hard to fathom doctors giving
their patients what Dr.
Maines calls regular "vulvular" massage, either manually or
electromechanically. But in a 1903 commentary on treatments for hysterical
patients, Dr. Samuel Monell wrote that "pelvic massage has its brilliant
advocates and they report wonderful results." He noted that many doctors
had difficulty treating patients "with their own fingers," and hailed the
vibrator as a godsend: "Special applicators (motor driven) give practical
value and office convenience to what otherwise is impractical."
Small wonder that by the turn of the 20th
century, about 20 years after Dr.
Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator,
there were at least two dozen models available to the medical profession.
There were vibratory forks, undulating wire coils called vibratiles,
vibrators that hung from the ceiling, vibrators attached to tables, floor
models on rollers and portable devices that fit in the palm of the hand.
They were powered by electric current, battery, foot pedal, water turbine,
gas engine or air pressure, and they shimmied at speeds ranging from 1,000
to 7,000 pulses per minute. They were priced to move, ranging from a low of
$15 to what Dr. Maines calls the "Cadillac of vibrators," the Chattanooga,
which cost $200 in 1904.
Doctors used vibrators for many non-orgasmic
purposes, including to treat
constipation, arthritis and tumors. But that a big selling point for the
devices was their particular usefulness in treating "female ailments" can
be gleaned from medical textbooks at the time. A text from 1883 called
"Health For Women" recommended the new vibrators for treating "pelvic
hyperemia," or congestion of the genitalia. Vibrators were also marketed
directly to women, as home appliances. In fact, the vibrator was the fifth
household device to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea
kettle and toaster, and preceding the vacuum cleaner and electric iron--
perhaps, Dr. Maines suggests, "reflecting consumer priorities."
Advertised in such respectable periodicals
as Needlecraft, Woman's Home
Companion and the Sears, Roebuck catalog, vibrators were pitched as "aids
that every woman appreciates," with the delicious promise that "all the
pleasures of youth ... will throb within you. "Significantly, the vibrators
and their accoutrements almost never took the form of the dildo, for the
simple reason that vibrators were meant to be used externally. As a result,
medically indicated massage therapy could be pitched as upstanding and
Dr. Maines, head of a firm that offers research
services to museums and
archives, first stumbled on her piquant subject while researching a paper
on the history of needlework. Thumbing through a 1906 needlepoint magazine,
she found, to her astonishment, an advertisement for a vibrator. When she
realized there was no scholarly history of the vibrator, she decided to
research the topic, consulting libraries around this country and abroad.
Her investigations led her to conclude that
doctors became the keepers of
the female orgasm for several related reasons. To begin with, women have
been presumed since Hippocrates' day, if not earlier, to suffer from some
sort of "womb furie" -- the word "hysteria" derives from uterus. The result
was thought to be an assortment of symptoms, including irritability,
depression, confusion, headaches, insomnia, muscle spasms, stomach upsets,
ticklishness and weepiness. Who better to treat the wayward female than a
physician, and where better to address his ministrations than toward the
general area of her rebellious female parts?
Dr. Maines also proposes that women historically
have suffered from a lack
of sexual satisfaction -- that they needed somebody's help to have the
orgasms they were not having in the bedroom. Women were supposed to be
satisfied by the motions of the missionary position and its close proxies.
Yet as many studies have shown, at least two-thirds of women fail to reach
orgasm through coitus alone, Dr. Maines said. As a result, she said, many
women historically may have spent their lives in an orgasm deficit. At the
same time, religious edicts against masturbation discouraged women from
self-exploration. "Doctors inherited the task of producing orgasm in women
because it was a job nobody else wanted."
The vibrator was not the first therapeutic
approach to treating feminine
"pelvic hyperemia." Dr. Maines and other historians have described the
practice of hydrotherapy, the taking to the baths or spas, as an ancient
means to a climactic end. A century ago, spas like Saratoga Springs were a
favorite destination of the well-to-do, who enjoyed the diversity of
aqua-regimens, especially the "douche" baths, in which a current of water
was directed through a high-pressure hose or nozzle against the surface of
the body -- or into a cavity of the body, if the bather so desired.
The vibrator remained a staple of the doctor's
armamentarium and the proper
wife's boudoir until the 1920s, Dr. Maines said, when it began showing up
in stag films and quickly lost its patina of gentility.
Vibrators are still widely available--unless
you happen to live in
Alabama, Georgia and Texas, where state legislatures have banned the sale
of vibrators and other "sex toys." The American Civil Liberties Union is
now vigorously challenging the Alabama statute. If Alabama permits the
prescribing of the anti-impotence drug Viagra, the ACLU argues, how dare it
tell women that they can't have their own electromechanical prescription