October 18, 2011
It was in an SBS documentary about the vibrator where I first came across the story that said device was invented in the Victorian era in order to spare doctors the drudgery of administering a widespread cure for "hysteria" manually. This led to occasional jokey remarks on my part re the Victorian age: when orgasm for a middle-class woman was a medical procedure.
As I should have guessed, this notion, largely taken from Rachel Maines' The Technology of Orgasm, seems to be a tad dubious, although that won't be stopping Hollywood making a film about it. (Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Surprised? No, neither am I.) Mind Hacks reveals the sad news and links to the relevant part of Victorian Sex Factoids that discusses the (probable) myth.
- Ideas about and treatment of hysteria that form the basis for the argument are based on outdated secondary literature, leading to misreadings...Which extraordinary phrase is really the only reason I'm making this post. Well, that and the wonders it will do to my hitcount.
- There was enormously pervasive horror around masturbation in Victorian Britain ... masturbation in women was still seen as either causative of or symptomatic of some kind of pathology, physical, mental, or moral.
- This is borne out by diatribes against contraception as 'Conjugal Onanism', which claimed that sexual stimulation of women without its culmination in (at least potentially) reproductive marital sex led to all sorts of ailments, including 'Malthusian uterus'.
Incidentally - if you've ever wondered where the Victorians got their peculiar idea that "twanging the wire" or - erm... "adjusting the volume", let's say - was bad for one's health, here's Stephen Greenblatt reviewing Thomas Laqueur's book on the subject.