Good Vibrations: How the popular sex toy came to be

By Ellen Crosby

ANTIGONISH, N.S. (CUP) — Let’s face it: if anything warrants a retelling and celebration of its invention, it’s the vibrator. Rachel P. Maines’s 1999 novel, The Technology of Orgasming, retells the story of its origin. In Victorian England, women who complained of headaches, stoma aches, fatigue, or any other unexplainable symptom were diagnosed with hysteria.

Hysteria — in its literal sense — means disease of the womb. Doctors believed that women with emotional excesses had disturbed uteruses. This alleged disease was said to be affecting about half of the female population.

Luckily, men were able to solve the problem. Doctors found that performing “pelvic massages” on women until they reached orgasm seemed to help.

No kidding.

Before the vibrator was invented, and as early as the beginning of the 16th century, married women who suffered from hysteria were urged to have sex with their husbands. Single women who could not relieve their hysteria via sex were encouraged to take “vigorous” horseback rides.

Maines’s novel was a source of inspiration for Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), and for the 2011 movie Hysteria starring Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Ruhl’s play was nominated for three Tony Awards in 2010, including best play. It centres on two women who are unhappy with their monotonous sex lives, which have always been focused on their husbands’s pleasure. They are both excited to try out the newly-invented vibrator, and to experience their first orgasms. The final curtain closes on one of the actresses having sex with her husband, but not in their usual missionary position. The couple has discovered woman-on-top sex, and the play ends with Catherine having her first satisfying sexual experience with her husband.

The film Hysteria focuses heavily on the doctors who invented the vibrator and why they did it.

Hugh Dancy plays the young doctor, Mortimer Granville. He takes his career very seriously and insists that the invention, at first called the “feather duster”, has nothing to do with pleasure. Instead, Granville’s objective is to help hysterical women become sane again. Little does he know that his method of curing women’s hysteria is through sexually satisfying them.

The vibrator was originally created to cure a fabricated disease. However, the dismissal of hysteria as a disease does not mean that the vibrator cannot be used for medicinal purposes. In fact, the medical research coming out about the health benefits of experiencing orgasm is increasing in amount each year. Some of the latest research shows that having frequent orgasms can curb your appetite, get rid of headaches and cramps, lower your cholesterol, decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke, protect you against cancer, and boost your immune system.

Of course, there are other benefits that come from using your mechanical friend that are harder to measure, such as enhancing your mood and lifestyle, recharging your romantic relationships, and making you feel more comfortable with and about your body.

Granville may have had a misogynistic and unfounded reason for inventing the vibrator, but we now know that it actually does have some legitimate health benefits.