Sexually speaking, we live in primitive times. It’s useful to remember that; spares one being dazzled into mistaking the market’s sexualization of just about everything as a symbol of liberation, or even common knowledge. With that in mind, Hysteria, a pretty awful romantic comedy that recently opened in movie theaters, does have one small grace, or one and a half. It presumes that not all female orgasms are alike, and, for machine enthusiasts, it showcases some gorgeous antique vibrators through the closing credits.
The movie claims to be “based on true events—really,” a cheeky pause that sets viewers up for a story about the invention of the vibrator while also absolving this generic confection of any serious pretensions to historical truth.
The hero, Mortimer Granville, appears to be Joseph Mortimer Granville, who invented the hand-held electric vibrator in London in 1883. There was nothing particularly dashing about the real Dr. Granville, though. Unlike actor Hugh Dancy, he was not young and sheepish when he devised what he called a percuteur or percussor, “Granville’s hammer,” for the Weiss medical instruments company. He was not in the practice of manually massaging bourgeois women to a “hysterical paroxysm,” or climax; did not suffer chronic pain in his hand as a result; was not torn, in his personal affections, between two stereotypes of Victorian womanhood in the form of his boss’s daughters.
The real Dr. Granville was 50 and married and known primarily for his work on sleeplessness when he invented the vibrator. He did not use his hammer on women, but declared, “with a view to eliminate possible sources of error,” that “I have avoided, and shall continue to avoid, the treatment of women by percussion, simply because I do not want to be hoodwinked, and help to mislead others, by the vagaries of the hysterical state or the characteristic phenomena of mimetic disease.”
Going by the old journalistic maxim “Never trust anything until it’s officially denied,” it sounds as if somebody was using Granville’s invention on women, or considering it, which brings us to those “true events.” Hysteria, like Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), drew inspiration from The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines, which is taken for gospel in some quarters and contested in others. Maines records Granville’s objection, but she points out that common characteristics of the paroxysm—face flushed, breathing irregular, limbs “tossed in every direction” accompanied by “the most disagreeable and unnatural noises” and a “form of extasy,” according to an 1858 Dictionary of practical medicine—sound a lot like orgasm, and hypothesizes that various therapies and devices put forth as treatment for hysteria in Europe and the United States were essentially medicalized masturbation, de-eroticized and “socially camouflaged.” She sets the vibrator’s emergence in this context but insists that this, too, is a hypothesis.
There may be some camouflage in Maines’s explanation, but we needn’t puzzle over the nineteenth century here to know that therapeutic language has a knack for blurring pleasure and disease, that mechanisms of surveillance and restraint are masked by the talk-talk-talk of sex. Those are not relics of a benighted past; that past is in us, embedded in our euphemisms, trailing our embarrassments, disposing us to stories that make neat sense of things that might still seem sleazy or mysterious—masturbation, sex aids, the power of female sexuality.
The second-century physician Galen, for instance, is said to have ascribed hysteria to an unhealthy buildup of female seed “related to having a sexual history but no sexual present.” In Galen’s time, a widow so afflicted made use of “the customary remedies” (whether administered by herself, a midwife or Galen, historians and translations disagree), experienced sensations of pleasure and pain associated with lovemaking, expelled fluid and felt better. In one form or another, hysteria survived as a diagnosis for centuries; then the vibrator got into the hands of consumers, and within a few decades hysteria was tossed into history’s ashcan. Voilà!
“We know doctors and therapists used massage,” Maines says. “We know they used vibrators because we know whom the companies marketed to. We don’t know exactly what they did. There isn’t any evidence that women were standing in line at doctors’ offices,” as in the film, “so we don’t know how widespread it was, and we don’t know what women thought about it.” Medics had every reason to be cagey; in the late 1800s practitioners of manual uterine massage, who claimed to have a brisk business outside Britain for nonhysteric ailments, were denounced in medical tracts for dabbling in “the domain of onanism” and thus “practiced it in silence, without calling or writing about it under this name.” So explained Gustaf Norström, a chief exponent of uterine massage, in 1903.
Some sexologists and historians have challenged Maines’s use of ancient medical sources, along with her footnotes, understanding of nineteenth-century medical attitudes toward female sexuality and interpretation of evidence. Iwan Rhys Morus, author of Shocking Bodies: Life, Death and Electricity in Victorian England, says, “I can safely say that I have come across nothing in my researches on late nineteenth-century electricity and the body that lends any support at all to Maines’s argument.” Maines says she is less surprised by the criticisms than by the popular tendency to embrace her ideas as absolutes.
That popularity has been called a form of voyeurism, but I think not. A few weeks back, Maines’s work came up while I was talking with Lynn Raridon, owner, with her sister, of Forbidden Fruit, a sex shop in Austin with a most inviting, breezy staff. Close to hand were some of the shop’s bestselling toys—the Hitachi Wand, the Rabbit and Rosebud, the vibrating eggs and buzzing cock rings, the Fleshlight Vibro for men, the pulsing Duke for anal play—descendants of the first consumer vibrator. Forbidden Fruit has been in business for thirty-one years. Lynn got her start in 1982 doing “fuckerware parties,” selling $500 to $1,000 worth of merchandise to young women. Her account of early days was lighthearted, but “every day you opened your door you [had] to ask yourself, Is today the day they’re going to bust me?” Texans could use vibrators and dildos; they just couldn’t buy devices designed primarily for sexual pleasure in the state. Lynn would ask her customers, “Are you looking for a more penetrating deep-tissue massage or a spot massage?” Everyone knew the code, but she and her sister lived in “a culture of fear.”
When it comes to the distant past, there’s a lot we don’t know about what occurred sexually. Maybe we invest theories that offer explanations with such certainty because so much of what we know about sex now is so relentlessly denied or destabilized. We know that masturbation is the oldest, cheapest form of entertainment and a good way to teach your man what’s going on, but not so long ago a surgeon general was fired for saying it’s normal. We know that the sexiest body is not the world’s top model every time we’re in bed with someone. We know that straight parents just can’t recruit their gay kids. We know that maybe women sound like Donna Summer when they come and maybe they sound like Yoko Ono. Maybe their orgasms are subtle and deep, like kicking over a can of red paint, as a men’s magazine a few years back told its readers they always are, but maybe not. Maybe they’re more like the soundtrack to a crime. We know that reality differs from porno; that Casanova was right, sometimes “the best moment of love is when one is climbing the stairs”; that sex can be hopeless and fraught, but it can also be play, and what are toys for?
Lately vibrators have sprouted on drugstore racks next to the condoms. LifeStyles’s a:muse is a sleek little device with its own purple acetate pouch, made in China for Ansell Healthcare Products of Dothan, Alabama. Since 1998 Alabama has criminalized the sale and distribution of “any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs for anything of pecuniary value.” The law does not bar anyone from using a “personal pleasure massager,” as a:muse is billed, but selling one corrupts morals. Ansell did not respond to queries about this contradiction. Last year, Julie McKenna argued in the Western New England Law Review that the best way to frame a constitutional challenge to anti-vibrator codes is to embrace case law guaranteeing the sale and purchase of contraceptives; to emphasize the vibrator’s therapeutic value for anorgasmic women, depressed widows, people with AIDS. Breaking new ground on a fundamental freedom is tricky, she warned, and the times are not auspicious when judges dispute whether Americans have any right to sex.