The history of vibrators (2): 2500 years of medical orgasm therapy for hysteria

For over 2500 years, the medical profession helped the large percentage of (well off) women suffering from hysteria by regularly inducing "hysterical paroxysm”, aka orgasm.

A lone University Professor wrote the book about vibrators, manual massage by physicians and midwifes, and promptly lost her University job.


Batteries Not Included:  A social history of the vibrator. |NYTSears Vibrator Advertisement (1918)

The electric vibrator was invented right after the electric sewing machine, fan, teakettle and toaster, and before the electric vacuum cleaner, the electric iron and the electric fry pan. Who knew that everyone cared so deeply about women’s pleasure? […]

In 1918 Sears, Roebuck & Company offered a vibrator attachment for a home motor that would also drive a churn, a mixer and a sewing machine. Two models of portable vibrators were described as ”Such Delightful Companions” in 1922. Still another advertisement promised, ”All the pleasures of youth . . . will throb within you.”

Alas, the invention of the vibrator had nothing to do with love in the afternoon or sexual liberation. It was originally a labor-saving device to help doctors give their female patients a ”hysterical paroxysm” — that is, an orgasm.

What in the world were doctors doing vibrating their female patients to orgasm? The simple answer is that their fingers got tired. The complicated answer is delivered in Maines’s short, stimulating, repetitive and occasionally frustrating book, ”The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ the Vibrator, and Women’ s Sexual Satisfaction.”

The vibrator, Maines argues, is the last in a long line of devices and techniques that were used to combat hysteria. Beginning with Hippocrates and running through Galen, Avicenna, Paracelsus, Pare, Burton and Harvey, all the way up to the mid-20th century, doctors fought valiantly against this terrible disease. The trouble was that the disease they were fighting, Maines explains, was ordinary female sexual desire. The classic symptoms of hysteria — ”anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness, erotic fantasy, sensations of heaviness in the abdomen, lower pelvic edema and vaginal lubrication” — are the symptoms of chronic arousal.  NYT

2500 years of medical orgasm induction

As Forestus suggests here, in the Western medical tradition genital  massage to orgasm by a physician or midwife was a standard treatment  for hysteria, an ailment considered common and chronic in women. Descriptions   of this treatment appear in the Hippocratic corpus, the works  of Celsus in the first century A.D., those of Aretaeus, Soranus, and Galen  in the second century, that of Aetius and Moschion in the sixth century,the anonymous eighth- or ninth-century work Liber de Muliebria, the  writings of Rhazes and Avicenna in the following century, of Ferrari da  Gradi in the fifteenth century, of Paracelsus and Pare in the sixteenth, of  Burton, Claudini, Harvey, Highmore, Rodrigues de Castro, Zacuto, and  Horst in the seventeenth, of Mandeville, Boerhaave, and Cullen in the  eighteenth, and in the works of numerous nineteenth-century authors  including Pinel, Gall, Tripier, and Briquet.2 Given the ubiquity of these  descriptions in the medical literature, it is surprising that the character  and purpose of these massage treatments for hysteria and related disorders   have received little attention from historians.

Pelvicdouche_thumb1Millennia of medical orgasm induction, and it all stayed below the radar and remained quite unknown.

The authors listed above, and others in the history of Western medicine,   describe a medical treatment for a complaint that is no longer defined   as a disease but that from at the least the fourth century B.C. until  the American Psychiatric Association dropped the term in 1952, was  known mainly as hysteria.3


Before vibrators, women got hydrotherapy with water pressured by a few meters of gravity.

The famous Father Sebastien Kneipp, another European hydropath, set  great store by the use of pumped water aimed at the pelvis as a treatment  for female complaints.25


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