You Probably Believe This Myth About The Victorian Origins Of Vibrators

Two guys being guys, with a vibrator. Image credit: Public Domain via Wellcome Collection

There's a fun "fact" that gets shared around the Internet (and in the media, and even movies) that the vibrator was widely used (or even invented) as a treatment for "hysteria" in women centuries ago.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, "hysteria" was a medical diagnosis applied to women for a wide range of conditions, from anxiety and insomnia to hallucinations and infertility. Symptoms – from the mild to ones that needed serious medical attention such as convulsive fits, paralysis, and brain lesions – were often put under this catch-all label, which was largely only applied to women. 

The tale goes that for centuries, doctors would treat women for hysteria by manually stimulating them to orgasm. According to the story, doctors would apply vegetable oil to women's genitals then get to work. They would have a "paroxysm" – the doctors supposedly didn't believe women had orgasms – and be relieved of their "hysteria".

The problem was that hysteria was on the rise, and doctors didn't have the time to masturbate every last patient that came into their office with anxiety or brain lesions. And so, the widely believed myth goes, the vibrator was invented – or at least vibrating "massagers" were widely applied for this new, far sexier task. With this fancy new tool, medical men could bring an appointment to its climax much more quickly, allowing them to move on to the next person in the massive queue.


An early vibrator, used for massaging areas other than the good one.

The theory comes from historian Rachel Maines in her book The Technology of Orgasm, published in 1998. The problem is it was just a theory, and there's no real evidence for it, as a paper on the topic looking at her sources pointed out.

"The vibrator was, according to Maines, a labor-saving technology to replace the well-established medical practice of clitoral massage for hysteria. This argument has been repeated almost verbatim in dozens of scholarly works, popular books and articles, a Broadway play, and a feature-length film," the team wrote in their paper published in the Journal of Positive Sexuality, going on to say that in fact, "Maines fails to cite a single source that openly describes use of the vibrator to massage the clitoral area. Furthermore, none of her English-language sources even mentions production of 'paroxysms' by massage or anything else that could remotely suggest an orgasm."

Maines herself points out that she was merely putting forward a theory.

 "I never claimed to have evidence that this was really the case," she told The Atlantic. “What I said was that this was an interesting hypothesis, and as [Lieberman] points out – correctly, I think – people fell all over it. It was ripe to be turned into mythology somehow. I didn’t intend it that way, but boy, people sure took it, ran with it.”



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