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(Almost) Everything You Know About the Invention of the Vibrator Is Wrong

A Victorian doctor created the “vibratode,” but it was our great-great- grandmothers who saw its real potential.

By Hallie Lieberman

Ms. Lieberman is a sex historian and a journalist.

Credit…Illustration by The New York Times

There’s a longstanding myth that still seems to hold about where vibrators first came from. It goes something like this:

Cut to Victorian England. A mutton-chopped, bow-tie-clad doctor stands in an operating theater, where the silhouette of a woman, legs in stirrups sits before him. He — serious, medical, scholarly — applies the vibrator to her genitals, bringing her to “hysterical paroxysm,” thereby curing her of her “hysteria.” (Perhaps he throws in some disparaging remarks about women’s suffrage, for good measure.)

The above scene, complete with suffrage references, actually appeared recently, in the animated series “Big Mouth.” But that’s only one recent instance. The 2011 film“Hysteria,”starring Maggie Gyllenhaal,centered its entire story around this myth about vibrators. “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”and “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” repeated it. Sarah Ruhl’s 2009 Tony-nominated play “In The Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” focused on it, as did the 2007 documentary “Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm. Popular books from Wednesday Martin’s “Untrue” to Laura and Jennifer Berman’s “For Women Only: A Revolutionary Guide to Reclaiming Your Sex Life” have retold the story.It’s been cited in the academic literature dozens of times.

Every time I see this myth retold as truth, I sigh. I’m doubly frustrated because if anyone’s to blame, it’s me, not the writers of “Big Mouth”or “Hysteria.” I wrote a 384-page book on the history of sex toys, and I spent only a few pages debunking this story. I thought — naïvely it turns out — that I could focus on my own story and the myth would die. But it didn’t. So I co-wrote a scholarly article with Eric Schatzberg that debunked it again, step by step. When the Journal of Positive Sexuality published the article in August 2018, I declared victory. I shouldn’t have. The myth soldiers on. This is my attempt to kill it once and for all.

Why bother debunking this myth? Isn’t it harmless? Women getting orgasms at the doctor’s office: what’s not to like?

I like the story too. It’s sexy; it’s salacious; it’s doctor-patient porn in the form of serious scholarship that you can bring up at dinner parties. I myself believed it at first.

But the myth isn’t harmless. It’s a fantasy that contributes to the ways we still misunderstand female sexuality and that perpetuates harmful stereotypes that continue to resonate in our laws and attitudes.

Attempts to control women’s sexuality are based in part on the same beliefs that undergird the vibrator myth: that because women don’t understand their own sexuality they should not be the ones in control of it. It makes women seem ignorant, passive and easily duped by manipulative men. In other words, it perpetuates the myth that women lack sexual agency.

The myth can be traced to Rachel Maines’s 1999 book “Technology of Orgasm”(she wrote some earlier articles, but the book is what put this version of the vibrator’s history on the map). Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, “Technology”seemed like a well-researched scholarly book, with 465 citations and a plethora of primary sources, some in Greek and Latin; the problem is that none of them actually supported this story. (Ms. Maines has said she put forth her version as an “interesting hypothesis” and never intended it to be seen as established fact.) Nonetheless, the idea caught on and spread.

If you swap the genders you can recognize how much the widespread acceptance of this story is based on gender bias. Imagine arguing that at the turn of the 20th century, female nurses were giving hand jobs to male patients to treat them for psychological problems; that men didn’t realize anything sexual was going on; that because female nurses’ wrists got tired from all the hand jobs, they invented a device called a penis pump to help speed up the process. Then imagine claiming nobody thought any of this was sexual, because it was a century ago.

The idea that nurses were masturbating clueless men to orgasm as a mainstream medical therapy is obviously ridiculous. But why don’t we think the same story is absurd when it’s about women? In part it’s because women have historically been seen as ignorant about their own bodies, and female sexuality has been controlled and constrained by men throughout history. In contrast, men are viewed as knowledgeable about their bodies — at least knowledgeable enough to know when they’ve had an orgasm.

Yet Ms. Maines’s story was embraced not by sexist men but by feminist women. Why? The story has the benefit of being both sexy and reassuring. It portrays sexual knowledge as marching on a steady line of progress, from clueless Victorians to today’s sexual sophisticates. It also serves as a feminist fairy tale of sorts, in which women subvert patriarchal society by procuring orgasms from their doctors, paid for by their husbands.

Ms. Maines is right about one thing: the electric vibrator was invented by a physician, the British doctor Joseph Mortimer Granville. But when Dr. Granville invented the vibrator in the early 1880s, it was not meant to be used on women or to cure hysteria. In fact, he argued specifically that it shouldn’t be used on hysterical women; rather, Dr. Granville invented the vibrator as a medical device for men, to be used on a variety of body parts, mainly to treat pain, spinal disease and deafness. The only sexual uses he suggested were vibrating men’s perineums to treat impotence. Illustrations in Dr. Granville’s book on the invention of the electric vibrator show him using it only on men.

The true story is that the use of vibrators became widespread only when they were marketed to the general public, both men and women, as domestic and medical appliances in the early 1900s. Ads featuring men and women, babies and older people, promised vibrators could do everything from eliminating wrinkles to curing tuberculosis. When doctors did use vibrators on women, they assiduously avoided touching their clitorises. “The greatest objection to vibration thus applied is that in overly sensitive patients it is liable to cause sexual excitement,” the gynecologist James Craven Wood wrote in 1917. If, however, he continued, “the vibratode is kept well back from the clitoris, there is but little danger of causing such excitement.”

It was female consumers who embraced their erotic potential — covertly at first, until the early 1970s, when the radical feminist Betty Dodson began openly using vibrators as sexual devices in her masturbation workshops.

The myth of the vibrator has real consequences. The harmful idea that women are naturally sexually ignorant and that women who do have sexual knowledge and drives are outliers, has been the basis for repressive laws throughout history: from adultery laws that punished only women to honor killings to recent restrictions on birth control and abortion. All these laws and violence are about punishing women who have sex for pleasure, not procreation.

The myth also reinforces the false idea that the history of sex moves on a straight line from repression to enlightenment. This belief can make people complacent, believing that we have advanced beyond Victorian attitudes. Yet we still live in a sexually repressive era where double standards abound: Sex toy advertising is restricted by the M.T.A., Facebook, Instagram, and other venues, while ads for erectile dysfunction products are allowed. The Trump administration has decreased sex education fundingpromoted abstinence-only education, and redirected funds for preventing teen pregnancy to anti-abortion groups.

It’s time to be honest about our past: doctors didn’t invent vibrators because their wrists hurt from rubbing hysterical women’s clitorises. They invented vibrators as cure-all devices; those devices ended up curing very little, until our great-great-grandmothers put them toward their highest purpose. The real story isn’t as salacious as the myth, but it does have one important thing going for it: it happens to be true.

Hallie Lieberman is a sex historian and the author, most recently, of “Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy.” She is at work on a book about the history of gigolos.

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