Myth? Vibrator invented to treat female patients suffering from hysteria


INTRO: Many of us have heard it before: in the 19th Century, doctors first used vibrators to treat women for ‘hysteria’ – a now-defunct medical term that covered everything from headaches to nervous breakdowns. The treatment was to give the women an orgasm. Using a vibrator saved these doctors the arduous task of doing it by hand.

It’s certainly a memorable story. It’s been popularised in a feature film, an award-winning play and several documentaries. We’ve even fallen prey to the anecdote ourselves. But evidence is mounting that this story is no more than fiction.

The idea that doctors used vibrators to masturbate women for hysteria can be traced back to a book called The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Published in 1999, it was written by the historian of technology Rachel Maines, now a visiting researcher at Cornell University in the US.

Despite the book’s resounding popularity and acclaim – including the 1999 Herbert Feis Award from the American Historical Association – the theory has some pretty unstable foundations, according to recent paper published in the Journal of Positive Sexuality. The study is the latest piece of research by historians seeking to undermine the claims of The Technology of Orgasm – and its holds on both the history of sexuality and the popular imagination.

“From what I knew of the history of sexuality, it sounded unlikely that doctors would be doing this,” says Hallie Lieberman, a historian of technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology and one of the paper’s authors. “When I checked the [book’s] sources, that was when I first really thought, okay, there’s something up with this.”

Lieberman proposes an alternative view. Yes, mechanical devices known as ‘vibrators’ – and advertised as back or neck massagers – were being used by women in intimate ways as early as the 1900s and 1910s. But there’s no evidence that that was the case prior to 1900, when vibrators were being marketed to physicians, not directly to consumers.

And it certainly wasn’t the case that doctors, unaware of what the female orgasm really was, were using these devices to cure women of their hysteria....


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