Victorians: Hysteria and the Vibrator, Part One: Hysteria

I recently saw a revival of the play In The Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl. In case you haven’t heard about this play it takes place in upstate New York in the 1880s. A doctor provides treatments for hysteria – to both women and men – using the latest technology, the electric vibrator. In the course of the play there is emotional and sexual discovery amongst all the characters, along with several orgasms.

I originally saw the play in February 2009 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California. The play had been written for the Berkeley Rep and made its debut there before being launched on Broadway. I’m not a theater regular – I do see shows from time to time – but when I heard about this play, I absolutely had to see it.

“Had to” because I had already started my notes for Dr. Christopher’s Device (later The Pleasure Device). Perhaps I should have subtitled that book, Or, The Vibrator Erotic Romance.

What Was Hysteria?

So what exactly was it Victorian doctors (thought they) were treating?

In the 19th century, hysteria was classified as a disease of the nervous system. John Syer Bristowe, M.D., in his A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Medicine (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1876) states:

“It is difficult to describe, still more difficult to define, hysteria. It may, however, in general terms, be said to be a functional disorder of the nervous system, occurring mainly in females from the age of puberty upwards, in which the will, the intellect, the emotions, sensation, motion, and the various functions which are under the influence of the nervous system, are involved or apt to be involved, in a greater or lesser degree.”

The causes of this “difficult to describe” disease were as mysterious as the disease itself:

“The causes of hysteria, like those of so many other functional nervous disorders, are very obscure. There are two or three, however, which seem to have a very important influence, direct or indirect, in its causation ; these are emotional disturbance, sexual conditions, and occupation.”

Bristowe brings up the possibility of a connection between sexual activity and hysteria:

“… Nor is there sufficient ground for believing that the mere default of sexual congress either in the male or female has, as a rule, any important influence in its causation ; excepting perhaps in so far as it may be connected with the yearning for love, the sense of neglect, jealousy, and other feelings. Sexual excesses, and especially masturbation, have been assigned as causes.”

Symptoms listed by Bristowe were seemingly endless and included convulsions, paralysis, loss of voice, vomiting, menstrual disorders, spinal irritation…or none of these. Symptoms were difficult to pin down as they differed from patient to patient.

The most interesting symptom listed in Bristowe’s Treatise was “retention of urine” where the patient “makes no attempt to relieve herself voluntarily”. Even more interesting is Dr. Bristowe’s analysis: “It usually happens, after an hysterical fit, or after other paroxysmal nervous disorders, that the patient passes large quantities of pale limpid urine” – which pretty much sounds like Dr. Bristowe has discovered female ejaculation after orgasm, or, rather, “paroxysm”!

The Treatment for Hysteria

Bristowe’s list of treatments include “the exercise of a judicious firmness” toward the patient by the doctor, dietary supplements such as iron and zinc, alcohol, “the free use of cold water”, and of course, “powerful, regulated, and sustained pressure” in the, um, lower region of the female body.

Victorian treatises can be a little oblique when it comes to discussing sexual topics. But Rachel P. Maines in her book The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) tells it like it was. Water douches aimed at the vulva, manual massage of the clitoris, and finally, around 1879, the electro-mechanical vibrator were used to bring on the hysterical paroxysm, which we know now was an orgasm.

It is really impossible for me to believe that not one Victorian doctor understood what he (yes, he) was actually doing when he performed such treatments to relieve hysteria. That’s the premise of my historical erotic romance, The Pleasure Device. The anti-hero, Dr. Julius Christopher, is very much aware of the sexual aspects of the vibrator and uses it for his own prurient satisfaction.

The sad thing is that women had the power to cure “hysteria” by their own hand. But masturbation amongst the middle classes was barely tolerated in men, and was considered positively wicked for women. One day I will have one of my heroines say something like: “If God had intended our lady bits solely for the benefit of our husbands, He would not have made them so much fun to play with before marriage.”

Victorian vibrators: fiction

Besides The Pleasure Device, I’ve written a flash fiction Victorian vibrator short called The Demonstration. The Demonstration is the opening scene of The Pleasure Device from the patient’s point of view.

If you can’t get a chance to see In the Next Room, there is the movie Hysteria from 2011 which offers another take on the subject. It stars Hugh Dancy {OMG swoon} and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s a pretty silly movie and, unfortunately, does not have the strength of plot to make it outstanding. But it covers the basics.

In part two of this blog miniseries, I’ll post some visuals on what the Victorian vibrator looked like.

One thought on “Victorians: Hysteria and the Vibrator, Part One: Hysteria

  1. Pingback: Victorians: Hysteria and the Vibrator, Part Two: The Vibrator - Regina Kammer

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