Vibrators Were Invented to Cure Hysteria

Hollywood has made a major motion picture that’s all about vibrators and women’s orgasm. Who da thunk? In a series of new movies, women’s sexuality is making its film debut.

“Hysteria,” tells how vibrators were created. Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville fabricated the device around 1880 to cure “hysterical paroxysm,” a condition that had been concerning the medical community since Hippocrates.

Symptoms included anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, fluid retention, insomnia and erotic fantasy, and was thought to result from a blocked reproductive system. The cure involved clitoral stimulation to orgasm. But women should not necessarily administer the cure themselves. As The Guardian explained:

Avicenna, the Muslim founder of early modern medicine, advised women not to treat themselves for the condition. It was, he wrote, “a man’s job, suitable only for husbands and doctors.”

So strangely, vibrators were created as a medical device having nothing to do with women’s pleasure – or so the good doctors thought. Sex, in fact, was believed to have little to do with women’s satisfaction at that time.

Vibrator as medicine and not sex aid? That’s probably why it managed to be the fifth electrical device to be mass marketed at the turn of the last century, right after the sewing machine, the fan, the kettle and the toaster. And that’s certainly why Sears was selling it in their 1918 catalog.

In bringing women’s sexuality to the screen, Hollywood has changed direction. There, sexuality had always been about men’s, with women’s body parts the focus of male desire.

The notion that sex is for men, while women look good for them, seems to have real-world impacts. In casual college hookups women often give men blow jobs while they go without, reasoning that men need sex but they don’t so much. Or, Caroline Heldman, Assistant Professor at Occidental College, found that women are often focused on how their bodies create men’s pleasure while ignoring how they feel sexually, themselves.

Meanwhile, women’s sexuality is thought more dirty and unspeakable, with lots of choice words to describe the sexual woman (slut, ho, skank…). Or, Viagra ads appear on TV but aids for the female libido are off limits. Including vibrators, which have even been banned in some states. Not surprisingly, “Hysteria” took seven years to make because producers balked. As producer Tracey Becker, explained,

When it came right down to it, we had this script which dealt with these very blush-inducing themes and most of the time it was in the hands of a male executive, who had the veto power.

With a slate of female directors making films like “Hysteria,” “Take This Waltz,” “Elles,” “2 Days in New York,” and on the small screen, “Sex and the City” and “Girls,” women’s sexuality is beginning to come out of the Hollywood closet.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 21, 2012, in feminism, gender, sex, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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