Dita Parker

Saturday, October 1, 2011


This ought to be good, I thought when I first heard about this a year ago. A romantic comedy set in Victorian England, based on fact, about the invention of the vibrator. The movie Hysteria generated quite a buzz (pun int.) when it debuted at this year's Toronto Film Festival, and frankly, the history of motorized sex aids is pretty hysterical.

In the bad old days a lady didn't enjoy sex. Let me rephrase that. A lady was not supposed to enjoy sex. Sex was for procreational not recreational purposes, the act of intercourse leading to male climax. Female pleasure was beside the point since according to general wisdom women didn't suffer from sex drive. Except they did. Women exhibiting symptoms such as nervousness, insomnia, heaviness in the abdomen and lower pelvic edema, erotic fantasies and vaginal lubrication were diagnosed with "hysteria," after the Greek word for the womb, hysteros, a condition resulting from congestion of the reproductive system.

Sounds like acute if not chronic arousal to me. The cure provided to free women from this awful blockage: orgasms, or "hysterical paroxysm" as they were called as not to imply sexual desire and release. It was just what the doctor ordered and, incidentally, administered, too. Being treated for hysteria meant getting yourself to the doctor and letting him get you off.

It was hard manual labor. So hard that physicians used everything from wind-up vibrators and midwives as masseuses to ascending douches and pneumatic equipment for assistance. You bet those poor medicine men welcomed the age of electricity with open albeit tired arms. So. Before there were electrically powered irons or vacuum cleaners, there were vibrators, or "manipulators." Before long, women didn't need to bother with doctors appointments, they could treat themselves at home. The massager was a labor-saving household appliance like any other, widely advertised in magazines such as Good Housekeeping and sold at Sears. It was a health aid not to be confused or associated with masturbation. At least not publicly.

Along came the moving pictures with pornographic movies in tow. The minute vibrators showed up in the flesh flicks of the 1930's they were given a bad name, and women wanting or using one suddenly became infamous. Vibrators practically disappeared. Until 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association declared hysteria was not a clinical condition and knocked it off the list of mental illnesses.

It would take another decade for vibrators to re-emerge. Despite the sexual revolution, reservations, guilt and the stigma of sin and mental disease lingered, and most women wouldn't set foot in a sex shop. Vibrators were something men gave as naughty gifts to their partners and the designs of the decade reflect what men thought women wanted: the bigger the better.

It would take a few decades more for the "delightful companion" to establish itself as the fun and safe way to satisfy yourself and your partner, and another invention, the Internet, for the female market for vibrators to explode. The monster phalluses are still out there, but so is a wide array of other pleasurable paraphernalia women can browse at will and shop discreetly, if they so wish, online.

So whoever did invent the Internet, thank you. Thank you, Betty Dodson. And thank you, weak-wristed doctors of the 1880's. We sure are glad to be rid of the disease, and elated the treatment survived the cure. 

For a glimpse at some forty vintage vibrators, visit the Science Museum in London. For some personal or mutual pleasure, visit your local sex shop or one of the many adult toy stores to be found on the Internet. Some suggestions from around the world and the www:

Adam & Eve
Canadian Sex Toys
Love Shack Canada
Sex Toys 
Wild Secrets

I'm not affiliated with any of these companies, I'm only here to help. Until next week, dearest denizens! Keep buzzing, and keep thinking sexy thoughts.


Debra Glass said...

Evidently, some folks still attach a stigma to sex toys. In the state of Alabama, customers have to sign a waiver saying the toy is a medical necessity before it can be purchased. Lawmakers and prudes continually harass "toy" shops.

Loved your article, Dita, and I'm looking forward to seeing the movie.

Dita Parker said...

Debra, say it ain't so?! A "medical necessity"? So basically they're still stuck in the pre-1952 era. That's what lawmakers should be focusing on! *shakes head*

Thanks for stopping by. I'm really looking forward to this movie, too.

Margaret Carter said...

Interestingly, not all Victorian medical authorities believed nice women didn't have sexual desire. Some believed that female orgasm was necessary for impregnation.

Good -- gave women "permission" to enjoy the marital act. But bad -- if she was nonorgasmic and didn't get pregnant, I suppose she might feel guilty because of her nonresponsiveness; worse, anyone getting pregnant from rape might be accused of having enjoyed it.

Naomi Bellina said...

We have a wonderful store in our area, Fairvilla. It has two stories of clothes, movies, sex toys and many other wonderful items. My honey and I shop there together, and sometimes seperately, and are always treated like regular people at a regular store. We've come a long way, baby!

Olivia said...

Great post, Dita! Vibrator history is a particular interest of mine -- my first EC Quickie was an alternate history-type romance about the invention of the steam-powered massager. :)

Nina Pierce said...

I've seen the trailer for the movie and it looks hysterical. Knowing what we now know, it's really funny these women reached orgasm with their doctors and not their partners.

I'm sure I'll have to see this one with my girlfriends and not Mr. Nina. ;)

Dita Parker said...

Margaret, that's just it. Queen Victoria herself enjoyed the marital bed very much, didn't she? It's the dichotomy between theory and practice that is so astounding. The "disorder" and all its symptoms hint at sexual dissatisfaction, women went to the doctor to have their sex organs stimulated, and everybody's going around as if there is nothing sexual about either the treatment or the device.

Naomi, we certainly have. I checked out your store. That place has got everything! Have fun, you two.

Olivia, alternate history, you say? Hmm, gotta check that one out.

Nina, it is funny, isn't it, thinking about those doctors stretching their fingers on the way to work and having to stick them in ice at the end of the day, and women making appointments as if going to the dentist. As for seeing the movie, I'm a little bit worried. Haven't seen that many release dates yet. The movie got made, now we want to see it, so dish it out, distributors!

Anonymous said...

Great blog post Dita :) And a good selection of sites at the end too ;) Also that was interesting about having to sign a waiver in Alabama lol. I've recently bought a Glass Dildo , and have to say, it's amazing!

Dita Parker said...

Hey there! Thanks, and thanks again, always glad to be of service!!

Ooh glass, (and it's not *glass* glass, peeps, it's perfectly safe, promise!), fit for all occasions.

And yeah, that business with the waiver...the mind boggles. Bog-gles!