Why the Movie “Hysteria” Gets Its Vibrator History Wrong

Hysteria Movie

A still from the movie Hysteria, about the invention of the vibrator in the 19th century.

Given my profession as a dildographer, I should be elated that Hysteria a movie about the history of the vibrator, is premiering in the U.S. in two weeks. Although I’m thrilled that a legitimate studio produced a movie on the subject, I’m also frustrated that an inaccurate and unfortunate myth about the vibrator is being perpetuated. The movie details the invention of the electromechanical vibrator in the 19th century, and its use as a medical device to treat hysteria. And it maintains the myth that 120 years ago using vibrators on your clitoris was not considered to be sexual because women were thought to only get pleasure from penile penetration. Although it makes for a great story, it doesn’t give the full picture. I don’t expect historical movies to tell the truth, but in this case, media coverage is acting as if this movie is presenting an accurate story about the history of the vibrator. This blog post is my attempt to set the story straight.

To understand this lingering myth about the vibrator, it’s important to understand its origins. The story is gleaned from Rachel Maines’ 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” Vibrators and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Maines should be given credit for opening up the field of sex-toy history to scholarly research. That being said, her book shouldn’t be uncritically accepted just because it’s the only one written on the subject. And it has been criticized by historians of technology and sexuality. The problem is that popular culture has wholeheartedly embraced her story, leading to artistic works that are perpetuating this myth. In the past five years, three  pop culture products have been based on her books: a play (In the Next Room, (or the Vibrator Play)), documentary (Passion and Power) and fiction film (Hysteria.

Here’s Maines’ vibrator story that’s been circulated throughout pop culture for over a decade:

Victorian women were sexually frustrated. Sure, some of them were having sex with their husbands, but they were left unsatisfied because most women can’t have orgasms from penetration only. And since masturbation was considered dangerous and unhealthy, they didn’t have that outlet either.  So, what did women do? Well, they went to their doctors, complaining of vague symptoms like nervousness, and their doctors promptly diagnosed them with hysteria, whose other symptoms included insomnia, shortness of breath and muscle spasms.

Doctors decided that the best treatment for the hysteric was female genital massage, which in practice involved rubbing their patients’ clitorises until they had orgasms (which doctors called “paroxysms”). Few people raised their eyebrows. Doctors didn’t think of their medicalized hand jobs as sexual because they didn’t understand the function of the clitoris, instead believing that women only got pleasure from sexual intercourse. And even though getting paid to rub women’s genitals should seem like the best job in the world, it was the opposite. According to Maines, being a professional hand-job giver was “the job nobody wanted,” because it was so tedious and time-consuming.

So when the vibrator was invented, doctors eagerly embraced it as a replacement for their tired hands because it gave women orgasms in ten minutes, instead of the 30-60 minutes that it usually took.  Since it allowed doctors to see more patients in a shorter period of time, they were able to treat more patients and make more money. Therefore,  the vibrator was a “capital-labor substitution device, ” she says. With its legitimate medical uses, the vibrator became known throughout culture as a medical device, and its sexual powers remained hidden. Companies like Hamilton Beach began producing consumer vibrators that they marketed to housewives as essential home appliances that women could use to treat their insomnia and other ailments. But when vibrators began appearing in porn in the late 1920s, they lost their “social camouflage as a home and professional medical instrument,” says Maines. Once the vibrator had been revealed as a sexual device,  doctors stopped using them in their practice and companies stopped marketing them. The end.

My issues with this story:

  1. Some women have vaginal orgasms, so these orgasmically blessed Victorian women must have enjoyed sex with their husbands.
  2. Cunnilingus wasn’t invented in the late 20th century. Although all husbands didn’t perform oral sex on their wives, some of them did. And those lucky wives had clitoral orgasms, at least some of the time.
  3. Just because an advice book tells a woman not to masturbate, it doesn’t mean she’ll listen. Victorian women masturbated. The Mosher survey shows this.
  4. Doctors knew about the function of the clitoris, that’s why in the late 1800s some physicians bothered to remove them  to cure nymphomania.  (Sarah Rodriguez wrote a great article on this).
  5. Women alerted vice societies to the immorality of their physicians’ vibratory treatments, so women must have thought these treatments were sexual.
  6. Doctors who massaged genitals were usually considered to be quacks. At least that’s what the American Medical Association thought about them.
  7. Vibrators were also considered to be quack devices by the AMA, according to their Historical Health Fraud Collection.
  8. Consumer vibrator ads weren’t openly sexual because of draconian anti-obscenity laws, not because of a lack of knowledge about women’s sexuality. If companies described orgasms in their advertisements, they faced arrest. That’s why they had to rely on coded language.
  9. Companies didn’t stop advertising their vibrators in the 1920s. Ads have appeared in every decade since. And most people didn’t watch porn films in the 1920s anyway because they were difficult to get a hold of. So, knowledge about the vibrator’s sexual uses couldn’t have been spread through them.

So why does this myth persist? It’s partly because it makes for a good self-congratulatory story. It demonstrates our progress from a sexually repressed culture to a sexually free one.  We get to say to ourselves: Look at how silly and backwards are ancestors were! Look at how smart and enlightened we are! Maines’ story is comforting because it tells a traditionally feminist tale where the men are the oppressors and the women are the oppressed. But it’s just not accurate. The reality is messier. It doesn’t have clear heroes and villains, and it goes something like this:

Horny, sexually frustrated married women went to their doctors for treatment for their “hysteria.” Some sketchy male doctors treated them by masturbating them to orgasm. Women liked it, especially if the doctor was handsome. Husbands paid for these treatments. They subsidized their wives’ “medically sanctioned” hand jobs.  If the genders were reversed, we’d call it prostitution.  

 —Hallie Lieberman

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4 thoughts on “Why the Movie “Hysteria” Gets Its Vibrator History Wrong

  1. Geoffrey Cubbage says:

    Any relation to “In the Next Room,” or is this an independent project cashing in on that play’s success? It’s been interesting to see “In the Next Room” do well for the last few years…seems to have just the right amount of poppy feel-good “feminism” and tittering naughtiness for a white, upper-middle class audience; theater that feels socially relevant and daring without any actual hard intellectual work.

    Not that that’s inherently a bad thing. Every medium needs its pulp trash. But I’ll be interested to see how the subject does jumping from stage play (which has a much more limited, self-selecting audience) to movie.

  2. dildographer says:

    The only connection with “In the Next Room” is that they’re both based on Maines’ book. I agree that the play is safely daring. Even though it touches on orgasms, it actually has more in common with a 16th century morality play than something more controversial like The Book of Mormon. It’s overarching theme is the enduring love between a husband and wife. It doesn’t get any more conventional than that.

  3. […] though Hysteria is filled with historic inaccuracies (which I detailed in an earlier post), I was thrilled to see this movie tie-in. No mainstream Hollywood studio has ever been brave […]

  4. […] Hallie Lieberman is a PhD tyro in a UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where she’s study a story of sex toys in America. She blogs at Dildographer, where she reviews sex toys, proposes ways to make womanlike sexuality some-more accepted, and takes a vicious demeanour during cocktail enlightenment products such as the new film Hysteria. […]

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