Such was the media excitement inspired by the appearance of a vibrator in a late 1990s episode of Sex And The City, one might have thought the device had only just been invented. Any misapprehension is about to be corrected by a new film, Hysteria, which tells the true story of the vibrator’s inception. Described by its producers as a Merchant Ivory film with comedy, Hysteria’s humor derives chiefly from the surprise of its subject’s origins, which are as little known as they are improbable.
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 dreamt up a device to do the job for them. Their invention was regarded as a reputable medical instrument — no more improper than a stethoscope — but became wildly popular among Victorian and Edwardian gentlewomen, who soon began buying vibrators for themselves. For its early customers, a vibrator was nothing to be embarrassed about — unlike, it’s probably safe to assume, many members of the film’s contemporary audience, not to mention some of its stars.
“I’ve done a lot of ‘out there’ sexual movies,” Maggie Gyllenhaal readily acknowledges, “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, but admits, “I just think there is something inherently embarrassing about a vibrator. It’s not something most people say they’ve got; nobody talks about that, it’s still a secret kind of thing. So it’s very difficult,” she adds, breaking into a laugh, “to imagine that 100 years ago women didn’t have the vote, yet they were going to a doctor’s office to get masturbated.”
In 19th-century Britain, the condition known as hysteria — which the vibrator was invented to treat — was not a source of embarrassment at all. Hysteria’s symptoms included chronic anxiety, irritability and abdominal heaviness, and early medical explanations were inclined to blame some or other fault in the uterus. But in fact these women were suffering from straightforward sexual frustration — and by the mid-19th century the problem had reached epidemic proportions, said to afflict up to 75 percent of the female population. Yet because the very idea of female sexual arousal was proscribed in Victorian times, the condition was classed as non-sexual. It followed, therefore, that its cure would likewise be regarded as medical rather than sexual.
The only consistently effective remedy was a treatment that had been practiced by physicians for centuries, consisting of a “pelvic massage” — performed manually, until the patient reached a “hysterical paroxysm,” after which she appeared miraculously restored. The pelvic massage was a highly lucrative staple of many medical practices in 19th-century London, with repeat business all but guaranteed. There is no evidence of any doctor taking pleasure from its provision; on the contrary, according to medical journals, most complained that it was tedious, time-consuming and physically tiring. This being the Victorian age of invention, the solution was obvious: devise a labor-saving device that would get the job done quicker.
There were experiments in the mid-19th century with a wind-up vibrator, but it proved to be underpowered, with an unfortunate tendency to run down before finishing the job. A French pelvic douche appeared in the 1860s, which fired a jet of water at the clitoris and was claimed to induce paroxysm within four minutes; and by the mid-1870s, a steam-powered “Manipulator” had been invented, consisting of a table with a cut-out area for the patient’s pelvis, to which a vibrating sphere was then applied. But both machines were complicated and cumbersome, and they were soon supplanted by the world’s first ever electromechanical vibrator, complete with detachable vibratodes. Patented in the early 1880s by a London physician, Dr J Mortimer Granville, it predated the invention of the electric iron and the vacuum cleaner by a good decade.