I recently watched a great movie called “Hysteria” which, to my surprise, was not a horror movie. It was about the first female vibrator! This movie had everything: history, comedy, sex, Hugh Dancy… seriously, what more could a girl want? However, there is one scary part of the movie. I learned that the origins of the female vibrator are horrifically sexist and oppressive.

For many centuries, “hysteria” was a “disease” that was categorized by a “wandering uterus”. Women who suffered from hysteria had “symptoms” like anxiety, irritability, erotic fantasies, and emotional extremes, among many others that made them “hysterical”. The solution? Bring a woman to orgasm. But no one (doctors, women, or men) knew it was an orgasm because, gasp, women don’t have libidos!  “Hysteria” does not exist, but sexual frustration does, and neither women, nor their man, knew how to please. 

Up until the 20th century, women in the western world were thought to be baby incubators who were incapable of experiencing any sexual desire or pleasure. Women were conditioned to “put up” with sex to fulfill their husband’s needs and bear children. There was essentially zero understanding of female sexuality because it was too taboo to even study. It was an unspoken social norm that women weren’t supposed to like sex. Why? I could not tell you. I presume it dates back to the bible where virginity equates to virtue and self control.

Believe it or not, dildos were an option to satisfy hysteria for a few centuries before the 1600s, but since they don’t provide any clitoral stimulation, they don’t completely relieve a woman’s sexual desires. There’s also the fact that masturbation was seen as self-abuse, so dildos weren’t an option from the 17th century, on.

Okay so if dildos were out of the question and women (presumably) don’t like sex, how did one cure hysteria?!? 

Simply, a doctor or midwife applied vegetable oil to the lady bits and then inserted a finger or two in the vagina and used the heel of the palm to press against the clitoris. Using circular motions, they’d massage the woman’s genitals until the process suddenly relieved her hysterical symptoms (i.e. she’d orgasm). Could take minutes, could take an hour.

Despite medicine being extremely primitive in the 18th and 19th century, this condition was one of the few that doctors could successfully treat. Shocking. It was so successful that tons of women flocked to their doctors and regularly came. 😉

But aside from this whole situation being super weird and sexist, there was a drawback with this treatment.

The main problem was not that a suspiciously large amount of women were experiencing hysteria, no no, it was that doctors were suffering. Indeed, the main concern about this whole process was that doctors’ hands cramped up and they developed Carpel Tunnel Syndrome after fingering women all day.

Behold! The invention of electricity, one of the most important inventions ever. Aside from transforming everyone’s life for the rest of eternity, electricity gave us the vibrator! Well, technically, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville gave us the vibrator when he patented the first electromechanical vibrator in 1880. It was immediately a hit and gave women the option to satisfy their “condition” as often as they desired. This also led to the demise of hysteria treatment.

A strange contingency of history is that, at the same time electricity was invented, advertisements were gaining popularity. The female vibrator was advertised in popular women’s magazines and the Sears & Roebuck Catalogue all the time in the 1890s. 

female vibrator
c. 1919 ad.

Sadly, vibrators disappeared a few decades later. With the invention of the moving picture in the 1920s, pornography found its way into this new medium and showed women using vibrators. Pornographic movies quickly made vibrators socially unacceptable for almost 50 years. The Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s brought the vibrator back and got rid of (some of) the stigma of female masturbation.

Although we have made some great scientific, medical, and social advancements, there is still a great deal of stigma all over the world about female sexuality. Stigmas range from calling a woman a “slut” or “whore” if she enjoys sex and has a lot of it (entirely subjective), to the more serious ignominy that go as far as to completely mangle the clitoris. Female genital mutilation, a terrible and painful process, is rampant in parts of Africa and has no practical or medical reason other than to cause irreparable damage to a woman’s genital organs. There are efforts being made to ban this practice, but it is often done in secret.

I’d like to add my own two cents by saying that sexual desire is nothing to be ashamed of. Enjoying sex and masturbation is 100% normal and natural. So instead of condemning women’s libido by forcing archaic and outdated views about virtue and rectitude, let’s celebrate our basic human instinct!

Most importantly – be safe, be smart, have fun, and love yourself first

Fun Facts:

The clitoris is the only organ in the human body (male or female) that is solely for pleasure. That’s right, it has no other function but to make women feel good.

It has about 8,000 nerve endings, doubling the amount that a penis has (around 4,000), making it the most sensitive part of the body.

Today, about 1 in 3 American women have a vibrator. Women of the world, I highly encourage us to collectively raise this number.