The vibrator: from medical tool to revolutionary sex toy

By Martha Henriques 8 November 2018

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.

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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.

Origin myth

Stretching back into the 1800s, electric vibrators were heavily marketed in magazines, periodicals, medical literature and newspapers.

In one advert from around 1904, a woman sits relaxed, her head slightly to one side. A business-like doctor in a long white coat stands behind her, touching her neck. Strapped to one of his hands is a metal device with a thick black cable: an electrical vibrator, designed to ease the strain of massaging patients. But there is no sign in the image that the device is to be used anywhere other than the patient’s neck.

“By this method 50 per cent of the fatigue to masseuses, inseparable from the usual manual massage, is avoided,” says the flyer. “Infinitely better results in treatment are obtained.”

In another leaflet, the treatment is administered not by a doctor but by the patient herself. Shaped like a hairdryer, the Sanofix vibrator from around 1913 came in a small wooden box, complete with several different attachments. In a series of photographs, a serious-faced woman in a ruffled white dress holds this vibrator to her forehead, her jaw, her throat and her chest.

When Maines came across these adverts herself, they intrigued her. “I spent the next 19 years researching in libraries in the US and Europe, trying to find more about the history of vibrators,” says Maines. “There wasn’t much material even in the primary sources. That’s why it took me 19 years and eventually I wrote a book.”

Maines wrote that doctors had been using masturbation to treat hysteria in women even as far back as Roman times

The Technology of Orgasm outlined her theory of how vibrators came to be used as labour-saving devices for orgasmic hysteria treatment, carried out by hard-working physicians aiming to treat as many patients as possible. Maines wrote that doctors had been using masturbation to treat hysteria in women even as far back as the Romans. Doctors would provide relief from this condition by inducing ‘paroxysms’ in the women through masturbation. But because of a poor understanding of female sexuality, the doctors were not aware that the paroxysms their patients were experiencing were in fact a sexual response.

Sex ed

Female sexuality may not have got as much attention as male sexuality historically, but the idea that Victorian-era doctors would have done this out of a complete lack of knowledge seems a little far-fetched to Lieberman.

“She presents it as though no one is aware that it’s an orgasm,” Lieberman says. “But there was an awareness of the clitoris and women’s sexuality at the time.”

In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, there was general awareness of the female orgasm

There is evidence that in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, for example, doctors in the US and the UK theorised about what kinds of sexual behaviours in women were healthy and which were not, and there was general awareness of the female orgasm.

Then there are problems with the historical examples cited in Maines’s book. Maines cites five sources towards the start of the book to back up her claim that doctors commonly used vibrators “especially in gynaecological massage”. But several of these sources don’t back up this claim.

One doesn’t mention vibrators, hysteria or gynaecological massage at all – in fact, the passage referred to is about treating period pains with electrical currents. The author stresses that for patients with period pains “complete absence from sexual excitement is of the highest importance”.

Another of the sources makes no mention of hysteria, massage or vibrators. A third also makes no mention of gynaecological massage, only general massage, and the term ‘vibrator’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the book.

Throughout the book, Lieberman found this pattern repeated over and over.

Maines says that she welcomes Lieberman’s critiques, although they haven’t changed her historical view. “It’s of course perfectly appropriate for a young scholar to challenge the work of older scholars,” Maines says.

“In The Technology of Orgasm, what I’m proposing is a hypothesis. They [Lieberman and her co-author] don’t find my hypothesis very convincing – OK. We’re not going to agree on these things.”

Good vibrations

What we know is that vibrators were used on the body as a panacea for almost every possible ailment. Pamphlets proclaimed their effectiveness against insomnia, paralysis, neuralgia, epilepsy, consumption, sciatica, lumbago, gout, deafness, vomiting, constipation, haemorrhoids and sore throats. It was good for the liver, and even for health problems in children, the literature claimed.

Hysteria, too, was among the list of conditions vibrators were used to treat. But for these patients, the vibrator was more likely used for a relaxing massage of the back or neck than for any kind of erotic use, says Lieberman.

For massaging women to orgasm, there is no evidence that ever happened in the doctor’s office – Hallie Lieberman

“For massaging women to orgasm, there is no evidence that ever happened in the doctor’s office,” says Lieberman.

There may well have been “sketchy doctors,” she adds, who essentially assaulted patients. But there’s no evidence that the use of vibrators for masturbation was ever a medically condoned treatment.

Lieberman’s paper is not the first to challenge Maines’ theory. Scholars including Helen King, a Classical historian at the Open University, London, have challenged Maines’ claims that this practice stretched back to the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.

“Maines wants a line of history going all the way back to the time of Hippocrates, so she was determined to find doctors massaging their female patients to orgasm in the earliest written sources,” says King.

But it was not common practice in the ancient world to let doctors anywhere near the women of the household, she says. Another problem was that Maines didn’t distinguish between satirical writing from this period and genuine medical literature.

“A Roman satire, describing ‘anointers’ at the baths who masturbate a woman to orgasm, is very different from saying doctors really did this,” says King. “It’s a satire – it’s supposed to be outrageous.”

In contrast, ancient medical texts that described doctors massaging the lower back, knees or head were misread by Maines as a rather different kind of massage, according to King. Maines got around the contrary evidence by cherry-picking phrases and sources deliberately, King says: “for example, by reading a description about what happens when the womb is rubbed during intercourse and making that into a passage about masturbation by a doctor.”

Real deal

But if not doctors, then who actually invented the vibrator as a sex toy?

The answer goes back to some of the adverts that Maines found – even if some academics today find her interpretations of them to be specious.

When doctors began to realise around the early 20th Century that vibrators were in fact not the cure-alls they were taken to be, the manufacturers of these devices were left with a problem. There was a whole industry devoted to making these devices: there had been the hand-cranked version, which evolved into steam-powered models, which in turn evolved into electrically powered devices. But now, there were fewer doctors keen to buy them.  

One company made a bold move in 1903, releasing an advert for the Hygeia sexual appliance for men and women.

“It kind of looked like this belt with electricity and vibration,” says Lieberman.

Obscenity laws prevented companies from advertising devices for sexual pleasure for many years

This was the earliest source of a vibrator associated with sex that Lieberman discovered in her research. But openly selling a vibrator as a sexual appliance was rare, not least because it was considered obscene. In the US, the UK and elsewhere, obscenity laws prevented companies from advertising devices for sexual pleasure for many years.

This shift towards selling vibrators straight to consumers was strengthened in 1915 when the American Medical Association made a public statement that marked vibrators for medical use out to be “a delusion and a snare”. Any effect they had on patients was psychological and not medical.

“The association classified vibrators as a health fraud and a quack device,” says Lieberman. “They started collecting these ads that people would send in to them, and they’d write back and say no, it’s a fraud.”

Rather than killing the vibrator industry, the manufacturers simply continued their shift in focus from doctors to consumers.

“You would see ads in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and all over the UK, too,” says Lieberman. “They were seen as a home appliance for leisurely women, showing them having a massage during the day.”

As time went on, these adverts became more or less subtly sexualised. Shirtless men and women in low-cut blouses would be shown happily displaying the vibrators. Because of the coyness around advertising vibrators explicitly as sex toys, it’s hard to pin down when they were first widely known to be used as such.

The kind of vibrator that we think of today started showing up in the 1950s and became more common and openly sold in the 1960s – Lieberman

“The kind of vibrator that we think of today started showing up in the 1950s and became more common and openly sold in the 1960s,” says Lieberman. “But it was still controversial.”

The controversy took a long time to subside. In some places, it still hasn’t. In Alabama, obscenity laws still prohibit advertising and selling vibrators.

Despite the story being strongly disputed, Maines sticks to her theory. “I believe my hypothesis is correct. I have a lot of company in thinking that,” says Maines.

Lieberman admits that the evidence she uncovered makes for a slightly less catchy story than the original hypothesis of countless generations of doctors using masturbation to appease hysterical women, alighting on the mechanised vibrator to ease their aching wrists.

“[That story] just appeals to people now,” adds King. “It’s like some porn movie scenario with the doctor that – nudge, nudge – knows what the problem really is.”

It is this appeal that has led the influence of this theory of medical masturbation grow quite so far. For nearly 20 years, it has been taught in universities, taken as given in academic literature, presented as fact in the media and popularised on stage and screen. And, as Lieberman notes, when people want a story to be true, even academics rarely bother to check the facts.

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