The Contested Space of the Victorian Vagina: The Myth of Vibrators and Hysteria Therapy

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Well, folks, when I’m not indulging my love of movies that involve Flo Rida medleys, I sometimes try to be professionally legit. Obviously, this involves watching more movies or trying to figure out how to not snicker like a thirteen-year old boy while explaining the historical origins and uses of the vibrator.

Frankly, I wasn’t even aware vibrators had a (contested) history. But while preparing a lecture on female hysteria and its treatments for an undergraduate history class, I uncovered a heated debate amongst historians on the limits of writing histories of sexuality and the role of scholarly ethics when using historical evidence.

I hadn’t heard of technology historian Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins Press, 1999). As I outlined my lecture points, I had begun by consulting the old standbys on women and madness – historians and critics like Elaine Showalter, Janet Oppenheim and others – to write my notes. Not once do they mention vibrators. When I went online to search for some newer sources, Maines’ name popped up over and over again, so I dutifully obtained a copy at my university library, and settled in to read.

Maines argues that middle-class women in the nineteenth century visited doctors specifically to gain access to treatment that included massage to orgasm, by either hands or a machine, in order to cure their hysterical symptoms. Analyzing the “androcentric paradigm of sexuality,” she explains that doctors medicalized orgasms, calling them “hysterical paroxysms.” Otherwise, knowing that women could reach orgasm by other means would threaten the idea that sex should involve penetration and male orgasm only. She also contends that women enjoyed this treatment (assuming vibrators always produced the desired orgasm), went for it as often as possible, and in the end, those repressed Victorian ladies were much more sexually liberated than we thought.

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Certainly Maines is not the only one to suggest that the traditional “Victorians were repressed and never had sex except when necessary” hypothesis is wrong. Michel Foucault launched the historiographical frontal-attack on this notion long ago with the publication of his History of Sexuality, noting that the Victorians obsessively created sexualities, and then regulated them in order to maintain specific power structures over certain groups. Scholars like Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Sharon Marcus argue that Victorian women had extensive sexual agency through their rituals of female friendship, openly enjoying homoerotic physical and emotional relationships. Others, including historian Patricia Cline-Cohen, have shown how Victorian men’s conception of sex as an act involving emotion and intimacy often led them to seek that connection with prostitutes, in order to leave their wives’ purity and “True Womanhood” intact.

At first glance, Maines’ book seems overly provocative, but well-written and extensively footnoted. Numerous popular reviews in online magazines like Jezebel  and Mother Jones praised the book’s “excellent” research, one calling it “a stunning book…for its depth of research and command of its subject.”

The book even forms the basis of a recent period film depicting the invention of the vibrator, Hysteria (2011), with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy. Maines apparently served as historical consultant. She also maintains an extensive web presence and continues to be an active scholar.

hysteria maggie gyllenhall and hugh dancy

But I remained curious as to why other historians never mentioned women using vibrators for explicitly sexual purposes to treat hysterical or neurasthenic symptoms. When I looked at academic reception to the book, I found less than gushing reviews – most of which were informal and part of a discussion list at H-Net, (a site for humanities and social science scholars).

Ancient historians took issue with Maines’ translations of Greek and Latin texts that purported to describe specific massage techniques or the idea that women have used douches for thousands of years to achieve orgasm. Sex historians argued that they had never seen vibrators appear in Victorian pornographic material. Others contended that she was calling some machines vibrators when they were clearly not. Still others took issue with the way she read nineteenth-century advertisements for vibrators, saying she was stretching descriptions to fit her hypothesis.

vibration is life - vibrator ad

One scholar summed it up in one of the email exchanges: “I think people have accepted [Maines’ argument] so wholeheartedly because it is a fantastic combination of erotic titillation – verging on rape fantasies – male doctors in white coats giving passive women who don’t know what is going on orgasms – and the affirmation that somehow the Victorians were just like us – sex was vitally important to them. It also confirms to ‘all she needs is a good fuck’ beliefs about women despite the thick veneer of intellectualism over the top.”

Oh snap. But the harshness of these reviews is really not unusual – even in formal journals. Every history graduate student quickly learns that our field is not exactly populated by people who tend to hold back their opinion. Historians accuse each other all the time of ignoring evidence, stretching it to fit ideas, or applying theory or conjecture in ways that commit historical untruths. No one has outright accused Maines of fabricating her evidence (as the consensus was in the case of historian Michael Bellesiles after an investigation into his award-winning book on gun ownership in America). But other scholars are uneasy with her methods, asserting that her research simply does not support her claims.

vibrator picture from lauren mcivor thompson

The fact is, Maines could be right, at least partially. Machines with hand-held attachments that vibrated were part of the elaborate system of cures for hysteria, neurasthenia, and more common ailments like back pain or asthma. Doctors thought that applying vibration or massage to affected parts of the body (such as the head, neck or back) might help restore electrical imbalances causing the health problems. Doucheing and other forms of water treatments were extremely popular at spas both in Europe and America. Surely some women figured out how to use these devices for masturbatory purposes. But just because something is aimed at your genitals doesn’t mean that it is enjoyable, and no one understood this better than the Victorians. Treatments for male sexual neurasthenia and impotence included devices that were supposed to enclose the penis and transmit regular shocks. In one treatment for both men and women, one electrode was inserted in the rectum and a second one in the urethra if you were a woman, or placed between the penis and the scrotum if you were a man. Ouch?

Seriously people – does this look fun to you?

crazy vibrator picture

And while Maines does acknowledge that the idea of masturbation was taboo in Victorian society, she fails to contextualize her findings by the larger social discourses on sexuality in the nineteenth century. The “solitary vice” engendered an enormous amount of conversation in the public sphere about how to eradicate it. Reformers and health advocates anxiously recounted the dangers presented by Onanists who threatened the political and social health of the republic with their selfish, filthy habits. Even proponents of radical movements like feminism linked masturbation to the subordinate position of women in society, arguing that its self-indulgent practice by men encouraged a sexual culture that was harmful to women. Given this climate, it seems unlikely that even doctors’ medicalized descriptions of the solitary, machine-produced orgasm could overcome the pervasiveness of the anti-masturbation arguments.

Some doctors did argue that young men and women suffering from sexual neurasthenia was a result of not having a healthy, approved outlet for their sexuality (in other words, marriage). They often encouraged young men to get married to relieve their nervous problems, and acknowledged that the cult surrounding the idea of True Womanhood constrained women in ways that were probably not physically healthy. One doctor wrote, “Girls are more likely to suffer at this period, I think, than youths; and it is not difficult to understand why…the range of activity for women is so limited, and their available paths in life so few, compared with those which men have in the present social arrangements, that they have not, like men, vicarious outlets for feelings in a variety of healthy aims and pursuits…”

This led to arguments in the medical profession over whether women should get exercise or ride bicycles, lest they stimulate their genital regions in some inappropriate way. More often, physicians simply tied women’s sexual problems directly to the idea that they simply desired to be mothers. It’s not that doctors weren’t talking about the linkages between hysteria and sex, but it’s the type of conversations they were having that call into question Maines’ scholarship.

Yet Maines ignores these debates, leading some scholars to accuse her of producing nothing less than “junk history.” So if nothing else then, The Technology of Orgasm invites us to think about how to use and present historical evidence. Sometimes we as historians want our research to fit our crazy idea, and if you are on the side of Maines’ critics, it’s easy to see how one can stretch the truth to match the hypothesis, even without making up evidence outright.

As I read through the debates over the book, it also seemed that scholars were particularly irritated at how Maines casts herself as a martyr. In the book’s introduction and in numerous interviews, she recounts how she was fired from her teaching job after her first article on vibrators was published. She also explains that she encountered skeptical male academics at every conference and lecture who questioned her ideas. Maines attributes this to the fact that this is obviously because she is a woman, studying ways in which female sexuality has the ability to reject the male-dominated heteronormative culture in which we live.

Well, okay. But as other academics have pointed out, their study of controversial subjects – sexual or otherwise – doesn’t necessarily make them scapegoats, particularly if their footnotes and references support their ideas. In the decade-plus since the publication of The Technology of Orgasm, other scholars have moved to expansively update the historical literature on sex toys, masturbation, homosexuality, and all kinds of sexual practices. It’s now commonly known the Victorians were into whipping, chains, dominant-submissive role-playing and pornography (see Sharon Marcus and Ann McClintock for some really excellent studies on this stuff) – things that could fit right into Fifty Shades of Grey.

Vibrators just weren’t part of Victorian sexual practice, even in medicalized settings, as much as Maines wants them to be. Clearly this hasn’t stopped her ideas from permeating pop culture. The idea is just too titillating to be given up that easily.