In 19th-century Britain, women suffering from chronic anxiety were prescribed pelvic finger massage. Doctors found this tedious and time-consuming, so they invented something to do the job for them.
The vibrator’s appearance in a late-1990s episode of “Sex And The City”, could have one thinking the device it had just been invented, but all is made clear (and true) by the 2011 new film, “Hysteria”. Its humour comes from the surprise of its subject’s little-known origins.
Yes, the vibrator was, in fact, invented by respectable Victorian doctors, who grew tired of bringing female patients to orgasm using their fingers alone, and so dreamed up the device. Their invention was regarded as a reputable, “proper” medical instrument, but became wildly popular among Victorian and Edwardian gentlewomen, who soon began buying, without any embarrassment, vibrators for themselves.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, who features in “Hysteria”, said, “I’ve done a lot of ‘out-there’ sexual movies, but this one pushed even my boundaries.” Gyllenhaal plays a spirited young Victorian lady, and the love interest of the doctor who invents the vibrator.
The vibrator was invented to treat a 19thcentury British condition, “hysteria”, with symptoms including chronic anxiety and irritability but, in fact, it was straightforward sexual frustration, said to afflict 75% of women. But Victoriana reigned and this was classed as nonsexual, therefore requiring a “medical” cure, albeit getting the doctors’ job done quicker.
The first wind-up vibrator proved to be underpowered, with an unfortunate tendency to run down before finishing the job. Others, also failures, were soon supplanted by the world’s first-ever electromechanical vibrator, patented in the early 1880s by London physician, Dr J Mortimer Granville. Various models followed but following the century’s turn and for the next 20-odd years, the vibrator enjoyed highly-respectable popularity.
It re-emerged in the 1960s as a rather-daring sex toy, but according to Shere Hite’s famous survey of sexual behaviour in the 1970s, only one per cent of women had ever used one.
In the past 15 years it has undergone a renaissance, beginning with the invention of the Rampant Rabbit in the mid-1990s –and popularised by a “Sex And The City” storyline in 1998. Internet shopping helped; Ann Summers’ store went online in 1999, selling sold one million Rabbits in 12 months.
Much of what we know about the vibrator’s history is in a small academic book by an American historian, wonderfully entitled “The Technology Of Orgasm”, (1999). No historical account of the vibrator’s history had existed until then. Historian Rachel P Maines’ book helped inspire the Broadway drama,”The Vibrator Play’ (three Tony nominations), and “Hysteria”. But obstacles encountered by both Maine and Hysteria’s makers suggest enthusiasm for the story is far from universal.
All three of the producers, one of the two writers and the director are women, and joke that this is no coincidence. “I think it makes it more acceptable to have women telling the story,” suggests one.
It is now more than a decade since producer Tracey Becker first came up with the idea. “We kept trying to get funding, but a lot of financiers were afraid of it. The companies are run by men, and every time a woman read the script they were interested, but then they’d bump it up and it got to the men’s desks, and the men would be afraid of it.”
The writer, Jonah Lisa Dyer, points out, “It’s really a film about female empowerment.”
Maines encountered similar unease – if not outright hostility – while writing her book. After her first article on the vibrator, her position as a New York university assistant professor was terminated. “It was feared that alumni would stop giving money to the school if it was discovered that a member of its faculty was doing research on vibrators.”
“In effect,” as Maines puts it, “doctors inherited the job of producing orgasm in women because it was a job nobody else wanted.” The vibrator inherited the job when they got tired of it, too.“
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