Sex in San Diego: Hysteria, orgasms, censorship and the history of the vibrator

by on May 10, 2012 · 10 comments

in Culture, Education, Popular, Sex in San Diego

A couple years ago, I took an Abnormal Psychology course at a San Diego community college. Our first lesson focused on the history of mental illness and its treatment.

The professor opened by describing a now-extinct illness called  “hysteria,” which struck ladies only and featured symptoms from faintness, nervousness, and insomnia to irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and even “a tendency to cause trouble.”

Hysteria-related theses published in France

During the Victorian Era, the professor explained, hysteria was enough of a problem to inspire heaps of medical research. And because the illness largely seemed to be stemming from the patient’s mind, hysteria became one of the first “mental” maladies to be studied rigorously by the modern medical community.

So what does any of this have to do with sex?

Well, hysteria turned out to have a long-known and very sex-related cure. But oddly enough, this cure was never mentioned in my Abnormal Psychology class.

Perhaps in a nod to how far we haven’t come since the Victorian Era, neither the professor nor the textbook could muster up the courage to tell students that women got rid of hysteria by getting themselves off.

According to Wikipedia’s “female hysteria” entry, this knowledge has been around a long time:

Galen, a prominent physician from the 2nd century, wrote that hysteria was a disease caused by sexual deprivation in particularly passionate women: hysteria was noted quite often in virgins, nuns, widows and, occasionally, married women. The prescription in medieval and renaissance medicine was intercourse if married, marriage if single, or vaginal massage (pelvic massage) by a midwife as a last recourse.

And Wikipedia’s “vibrator” entry explains how pelvic massage fell to doctors, who eventually turned to technological support:

The “pelvic massage” was especially common in the treatment of female hysteria during the Victorian Era, as the point of such manipulation was to cause “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasm) in the patient. However, not only did [doctors] regard the “vulvular stimulation” required as having nothing to do with sex, but reportedly found it time-consuming and hard work...

Circa 1880, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the first electromechanical vibrator, then, in 1902, the American company Hamilton Beach patented the first electric vibrator available for retail sale, making the vibrator the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle, and toaster, and about a decade before the vacuum cleaner and electric iron.

In their delightful book Sex at Dawn, anthropologists Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha note that by 1917, more American households owned a vibrator than a toaster. But as Wikipedia notes, a change was coming:

The home versions soon became extremely popular, with advertisements in periodicals such as Needlecraft, Woman’s Home Companion, Modern Priscilla, and the Sears, Roebuck catalog. These disappeared in the 1920s, apparently because their appearance in pornography made it no longer tenable for mainstream society to avoid the sexual connotations of the devices.

With the sexual revolution of the 1960s, vibrators began to re-emerge as mainstream commercial items. Today, a wide variety are available, as an earlier Sex in San Diego column attests.

Still, I can’t get over how that Psychology course discussed hysteria in-depth but stopped short of mentioning vibrators. To me, this seems like a lesson on the Titanic that omits its glug-glug finish.

Don’t students deserve the full story? If there’s a link between orgasms and mental health, isn’t that perfect discussion fodder for a psychology class? If we can’t have matter-of-fact discussions about vibrators and orgasms and sex in college courses, how modern are we, really?

And this was in California, I might add. As usual, when you move from blue states to red states, the censorship gets worse and even involves the law, as Wikipedia reminds us:

In February 2008, a US federal appeals court overturned a Texas statute banning the sales of vibrators and other sexual toys, deeming such a statute as violating the Constitution’s 14th Amendment on the right to privacy…

As of 2009, Alabama is the only state where a law prohibiting the sale of sex toys remains on the books, though Alabama residents are permitted to buy sex toys with a doctor’s note.


Sex in San Diego, a column appearing every Thursday here at The OB Rag, explores topics related to sex in America’s Finest City. To encourage openness while still respecting privacy, most authors will use pseudonyms.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Ernie McCray May 10, 2012 at 11:19 am

All of a sudden I’m feeling, er ruh, well, HYSTERICAL (smile)! Great piece, Shane; interesting history.


avatar Brenda McFarlane May 10, 2012 at 11:36 am

Oh my gosh Shane, I’m grinning from ear to ear. SLAM DUNK! I’ve written plays called, “Good in Bed”, “Penis Play” and “Slut” but have never purchased a vibrator or dildo and would be very embarrassed if someone saw I owned either of these (let alone caught me using either!) You’ve made me take a look at the reason why this is the case. Excellent!


avatar Anna Daniels May 10, 2012 at 11:53 am

Gee- I had no idea about Hamilton Beach’s foray into the medical device field. I’ll never be able to look at my Hamilton Beach blender quite the same way when I decide to whip up a frappé.


avatar judi Curry May 10, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Hey Shane. While looking for a gag (?) gift for a member of my widow’s support group, I went into an adult book store – don’t think I saw many books – magazines, yeah – and a woman salesperson discretely came over to ask me if I needed some help. When I told her what I was looking for she walked me over the the vibrator section that had shelf after shelf of various vibrators for sale. Each one was different. It was almost embarrassing to hear what each one did but being the old “Jr. high school principal” I remained stoic instead of laughing so hard that I would pee in my pants. I only wish I had read your article first – or at least before I gave out the gift – may need to go back and look them over more carefully to help aid my hysteria. Thanks for an enlightening article.


avatar OB Mercy May 10, 2012 at 6:43 pm

I remember that Hamilton Beach vibrator being sold in the late 60’s, early 70’s as a “back massager.” With a wink and a nod, we all knew what it was really for.


avatar Anna Daniels May 10, 2012 at 7:34 pm

OOOOOH Baby, can you “massage my back?”…. No? Never mind… ;)


avatar Frank Gormlie May 11, 2012 at 8:38 am

Great, Shane! And you turned out to be a good student afterall, for recalling stuff two years later. Hey, at least your psych class didn’t start out with rats and pigeons and skinnerwags.

Oh, Judi, you’re so brave! Telling us that you went into an adult bookstore. Most adults wouldn’t dare admit it – now, a lingerie shop is different, and so is a sex toy shop. I wouldln’t dare admit that years ago I went in one and once bought the opposite of a vibrator.


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