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This Won't Hurt a Bit

by K.C. Mason

Vibrators, orgasms, and medical masturbation

In a 2007 episode of Mad Men, AMC's critically-acclaimed drama about advertising executives in the early 1960s, ambitious secretary Peggy Olson is asked by her boss to evaluate the Electrosizer, a new weight-loss device that the Sterling Cooper agency has been hired to market.

It is a pink plastic belt shaped like panties and attached to a bulky control box by a mass of wires. Later that night, dutiful Peggy tests the contraption and is surprised to find that the panties vibrate — with predictable results.

In her presentation to the team, Peggy delicately reports that promoting weight loss may not be the Electrosizer's most appealing function. Ultimately, she proposes that the product be renamed the Rejuvenator and marketed under the slogan, "You'll Love the Way It Makes You Feel."

Peggy gets a pat on the back for her creativity — and the viewer is treated to a peek at the complicated history of the vibrator.

Sex toys are as ancient as the acts they are intended to supplement. Nicholas Conrad, professor of archaeology at the University of Tübingen, speculates that a seven-inch column of polished siltstone discovered in Germany is, in fact, a 28,000-year-old dildo. Likewise, representations of phallic objects are found in ancient artwork spanning virtually all cultures.

Ironically, the electric vibrator was developed during the Victorian era, a period otherwise known for being prim and proper. So it is little surprise that the earliest models were presented as medical devices intended to treat an assortment of so-called female complaints generally grouped by physicians under a catch-all diagnosis of "hysteria."

The fact that such treatment resulted in orgasm was generally unacknowledged or shrouded in euphemism.

Hysteria was thought to be an affliction peculiar to women and no less an authority than Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, first made the diagnosis in the 4th century B.C.

It was his belief that a lack of sexual activity caused a woman's uterus to dry up and "wander" about her body, ultimately strangling the heart and lungs. Symptoms included nervousness, melancholy, faintness, insomnia, abdominal pain, pelvic edema, and loss of appetite.

Treatments were as haphazard as the ailment itself, and ranged from hydrotherapy to bed rest to pungent smelling salts intended to drive the errant uterus back to its proper position. But the most popular approach originated with Galen, a Roman physician from the 2nd century A.D.

For a married women, Galen recommended sexual intercourse. For a single woman, however, he contended that a doctor or midwife should manually stimulate the patient's vulva and clitoris until she reached what was genteelly termed a "hysterical paroxysm."

The intense combination of pleasure and pain at the culmination of a hysterical paroxysm, and the relief felt in its aftermath, sounds suspiciously like an orgasm. However, the idea that a woman might be capable of treating herself, with no assistance from her doctor's hands or her husband's penis, was generally dismissed.

"Because the authorities for hysteria were Hippocrates, Galen, and Sorans, such a diagnosis was still considered reputable and mainstream until fairly recently," says Rachel P. Maines, Ph.D, author of The Technology of Orgasm (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). "The prevailing androcentric mindset totally desexualized what was happening on the physician's table, so [treatment] was not the lurid scenario it seems today."

However, as many impatient — or unskilled — men through the ages have come to understand, the effort required to bring on a hysterical paroxysm by touch alone can be time-consuming and frustrating. Doctors sought a more efficient method.

They got it in 1883, when British practitioner Joseph Mortimer Granville invented a battery-operated "musculo-skeletal relaxation device" — a vibrator — and it quickly rose to prominence as the premier treatment for hysteria.

The refinement of Alternate Current (AC) technology in the 1890s further boosted the industry. Early batteries and primitive generators necessitated by Direct Current (DC) electricity often proved frustratingly faulty, particularly to one depending upon their reliability for a paroxysm.

AC currents, however, were generated in power plants and distributed over long distances via power lines. This technological revolution eventually allowed rural homes to enjoy the same modern conveniences that electrification had brought to urban areas.

The change didn't happen overnight; by the turn of the twentieth century, only three percent of American homes were wired for electricity.

Nevertheless, American industry offered an ever-widening array of labor-saving appliances — and most were marketed towards women. First came the electric sewing machine in 1889, followed by the fan, the teakettle, the toaster — and, in 1902, the vibrator.

Floor-standing models found in the physicians' offices combined the absurd complexity of B-movie sci-fi gadgetry with the ornate pretention of Victorian parlor-room furniture. One popular model resembled a ray gun from the set of Plan 9 From Outer Space mounted atop an elegant carved and polished mahogany pedestal. By contrast, vibrators for home use were discreet and portable. A typical design featured a slender wooden handle topped by a cylindrical motor with a rubber tip to be directed at the clitoris. Many came packaged in velvet-lined cases that would not look out of place in any lady's boudoir.

In language that was at once subtle and suggestive, advertisements in mainstream magazines from Good Housekeeping to Popular Mechanics touted the value of vibrators beside wholesome illustrations of Gibson Girls. "All the pleasure of youth will throb within you," read a typical ad from the era.

In 1918, Sears & Roebuck, the most iconic retailer of its day, pictured a vibrator amongst more benign household appliances under a banner reading, "Aids That Every Woman Appreciates." And a full-page ad for the White Cross Electric Vibrator from 1910 boldly declared, "Vibration is Life!"

"The advertisements suggest that the manufacturers knew what was really going on," says Maines of such terminology. "But did the average Victorian truly fail to make the connection between therapy and sex? We have no evidence, but that alone is indication that, one way or another, they preferred not to discuss it."

Then, as quickly as vibrators became staples in middle-class households, they vanished. Maines attributes this to jazz-age pornographic films, contending that once the public saw vibrators being used in such a context, it was impossible to ignore the sexual connection to the rosy cheeks and languid smiles of the women who used them.

Now that the jig was up, vibrators became difficult to sell or buy. The Comstock Act, a federal law enacted in 1873, made it illegal to send any "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials through the mail. Originally to curb the distribution of pamphlets on birth control, the law was later used to prohibit pornography.

As long as vibrators were considered to be medical devices used for the cure of a disease — or home appliances intended for non-sexual muscle massage — they could be freely advertised in mailed publications.

But by the late 1920s, magazines would no longer accept advertisements for vibrators for fear of violating anti-obscenity laws and, in any case, women became reluctant to purchase them because of this newly-realized sexual stigma.

Still, there were still a few manufacturers who soldiered on. Household names such as General Electric, Oster, and Hamilton-Beach all continued to produce "massage devices." But they did so carefully and demurely.

The Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum, located in San Francisco, displays models from these lost years. The Magnetic Massage, for example, was touted as a means to achieve a healthy complexion, lustrous hair, and a taut neck and chin. The package features several drawings of a young woman using device in various fashions — all safely north of her collarbone.

For the most part, vibrator design remained unvaried, although some models added an assortment of removable tips to provide varied sensations, or eschewed the handle for a more compact shape that would fit securely in a woman's palm.

By the 1950s, however, vibrators were often housed in hard plastic or vinyl carrying cases like portable record players of the era, with scientific-looking dials and controls inside.

As in the case of the fictional Rejuvenator, these Eisenhower-era vibrators were advertised as "reduction aids," although it is unlikely that many women objected when they failed to lose weight.

As the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and '70s reshaped the public's perception of private matters, the vibrator came out of the proverbial closet. In 1973, a book of feminist essays called Our Bodies, Ourselves opened a dialogue about women's sexuality.

That same year, at a National Organization for Women (NOW) conference, activist Betty Dodson reintroduced the vibrator as a masturbatory aid. Ninety years after its invention, the vibrator's true purpose was finally acknowledged and accepted.

The spread of AIDS in the 1980s put an end to liberated free love. But so mainstream had the vibrator become that C. Everett Koop, U.S. Surgeon General under Ronald Reagan, included their use in a list of safe-sex practices distributed to the American public.

Today, the vibrator can be discussed with giggles, not whispers or reproach. In 1998, an episode of Sex and the City centered around one particular model called the Rabbit, manufactured by Vibratex.

The device resembles a handsomely proportioned penis but with a pair of clitoris-tickling rabbit ears attached to the shaft. With the hearty endorsement of the four fictional fashionistas, the Rabbit's popularity skyrocketed.

More than ten years later, it remains among the best-selling adult toys at online merchants from Sextoy.com to that modern-day Sears & Roebuck, Amazon.com.

Even more recently, vibrators have made high-profile debuts in both Los Angeles and New England.

At this year's Academy Awards ceremony, the We-Vibe — the first vibrator designed for couples to use during intercourse — was tucked inside gift bags provided to celebrity presenters.

Inventor Bruce Murison, a former Norellco engineer from Canada who invented the tiny silicone device, was invited to generate some buzz, so to speak, via gifting suite displays for two days leading up to the televised event.

While it's unlikely that Hollywood stars were particularly shocked by the purple silicone toy, the same could not necessarily be said for tradition-loving customers of the Vermont Country Store. The popular mail-order catalogue, which is known for offering wholesome and often unwittingly kitschy items ranging from horehound candy to aluminum ice cube trays, began offering a selection of "Intimate Solutions" last summer.

Although the company initially received many critical letters from distressed catalogue recipients, owner Lyman Orton stood by his belief that aging aficionados of old-fashioned plaid flannel nightgowns would appreciate enhanced orgasms as much as anyone else.

Thus far, Orton's judgment has proven correct. The orders, say company officials, are pouring in.

Hysteria was declassified as a medical diagnosis in 1952 by the American Psychiatric Association. But, unlike so many unwittingly harmful medical treatments administered by physicians throughout history, genital massage undoubtedly helped many patients.

In The Science of Orgasm (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), authors Barry R. Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer-Flores, and Beverly Whipple present a convincing case that the health benefits of orgasm are long-lasting and quantifiable. They cite studies indicating that hormones released during orgasm — specifically oxytocin and DHEA — may offer protection against cancer and heart disease.

Likewise, endorphins resulting from sexual arousal have a sedative effect and can even relieve pain from arthritis and headaches.

"The disassociation between pleasure and health allowed women to seek help in a way that they could otherwise not if the connection had been more widely acknowledged," notes Maines.

But what of the other symptoms once attributed to hysteria? Some of the most severe cases would now be diagnosed as schizophrenia, anorexia, or conversion disorder. Generally, however, the symptoms of hysteria are attributed to depression and anxiety, and are treated with prescription medication.

Clearly, the very concept of physician-aided masturbation is absurd to modern sensibilities.

But before we dismiss the well-meaning practitioners who employed hands, vibrators, or both, we should remember that they were, in their way, scrupulously following the edict of Hippocrates when he advised, "first, do no harm."

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Articles in this Issue

Red Shirt, by Ellen Collett
The Anatomy Lesson, by Bill Hayes
The Fallen Sky, by Christopher Cokinos
This Won't Hurt a Bit, by K.C. Mason
Zombieology, by Michael Atkinson
Photography, by Maureen Ann Connolly
Communications, by Kyle Boelte
August 2009


K.C. Mason lives in St. Louis, Missouri. She works for a local weekly newspaper and is a journalism student at Washington University. You may find her blog at www.the-girl-friday.com.

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