The radical feminist history of the vibrator

The most common myth about the vibrator is that they were first used in doctors’ offices to masturbate women and cure them of ‘hysteria’ by way of orgasm. This myth has continued to be believed by people through the centuries, even though it’s not entirely true. We break down the truth about the origins of the vibrator.

BY THE ROAM TEAM 7 MIN READ

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In the 18th and 19th centuries, hysteria was a medical diagnosis for women which acted as an umbrella term for a range of symptoms, including anxiety, sexual desire, and insomnia … not the most legit sounding disease. Luckily, hysteria is no longer a recognised medical issue, but the myth that the vibrator was invented to first cure hysteria lives on and has become more elaborate. Some people believe that using the vibrator in this way only died out when Freud announced his theory that the cure for hysteria was sexual in nature - the orgasm (which he called ‘paroxysm’).

The truth about the origins of the vibrator is actually more simple.

The first vibrator was similar to a modern-day massage gun. Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the first electromechanical vibrator in the early 1880s as a medical device for men. It was meant to treat muscle aches and pains, among other ailments. Granville was actually very vocal about the fact that the device shouldn’t be used on women with hysteria, and that it best served men. The only time he suggested that it be used in a sexual way was on the male perineum to cure impotence.

Vibrators only became common in use when they were marketed to both men and women. Vibrator ads even featured elderly people and babies, and boasted a variety of uses ranging from the curing of illness to the smoothing of wrinkles. So while vibrators were common for curing many different ailments in the 19th century, popularity for them as sexual devices only grew in the 1960s and 70s. Women who used vibrators as sexual stimulation did so in secret, until pro-sex radical feminist Betty Dodson started implementing them in her masturbation workshops.  

It was historian Rachel Maines who falsely developed the story of the vibrator being used to cure hysteria, and the myth still lives on. If doctors used vibrators on women, they steered clear of their privates. In reality, the vibrator initially excluded women, and was then reclaimed by them as a sex-positive, self-pleasure device. Maines’ rewriting of history perpetuates the idea that women are too naïve and ignorant to recognise their own sexuality, that they don’t know that the nature of an orgasm is sexual and, therefore, that they shouldn’t be granted sexual autonomy.

So, the vibrator is more than just a sex toy, it’s a radically feminist act of rebellion. Bear that in mind during your next solo session…

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